Personal trainers and strength coaches are educators. With that being said it is of paramount importance that all trainers really understand how people learn in order to coach effectively.
The learning styles theory states that everyone learns differently and it’s up to the teacher to determine which style the students will learn best from. Depending upon the skill, the client, and the current situation there are many different types of cues and ways to teach. I like to think of three main learning styles.
Verbal -Learns best by listening & through lectures
Visual -Learns best through imagery, charts, and graphs
Tactile/Kinesthetic – Learns best through the sense of touch & by actually feeling the motion of the skill
Clients resonate with a different approach to learning and will respond differently to the cues you give them. A few more things that will determine how a client learns are their training age, athletic background, and how they have learned in the past. Their experiences training and acquiring new skills as well as their prior knowledge to training (whether it be good or bad) all plays a role in how they learn.
I’ve also put together a free e-book for you to download at the end of this article called 3 Simple Tricks for a Bigger & Better Squat, Press, Dead & Bench
Verbal Cues and Explanations
A verbal explanation of a movement is a great way to introduce a new skill. It the client is an athlete when learning a new skill it may be useful to make an analogy that relates to their sport. Any time you can relate back to an athlete’s sport they can immediate make the connection. An example here would be explaining to a mixed martial artist how a Zercher Sandbag Slide Board Reverse Lunge will have a direct impact on their strength when shooting in for a takedown and finishing their opponent.
When training a general population client any time you can make a real world connection with why they are doing a certain exercise the client will have a better chance to learn the new skills with precision and it will help ingrain the motor pattern in their brain. An example might be explaining how the kettlebell deadlifts and farmers carries are going to make bringing in the groceries from the store much easier than ever before!
Analogies can also be helpful when learning a new skill so the client can also visualize what you are saying in their brain. One of my favorite ways to explain how to sit back and set up for the deadlift is to imagine you are on a tweeter totter and you want to fall backwards to start the lift. That way the lifter will get all of his or her weight behind the bar instead of in front of it. For explaining how to tuck the elbows and engage the lats for the bench press. Imagine pulling the bar apart and bending the bar in half as if you are about to break a stick over your leg.
Verbal cues are excellent once the client understands how to perform the lift properly. Verbal cues during the actual execution of the skill are critical especially when performing heavy strength exercises such as a max barbell squat. Once the lifter understands they need to sit back and force their knees out the coach should use short and sharp verbal cues to remind the lifter of good position. This will solidify what they already know so eventually this movement pattern will become instinctive, but the more the client have the cue the more it will be ingrained in their brain.
For example instead of saying force your knees out during a squat simply say “out” or “knees”. For sitting back on a squat simply say “back”. One mistake coaches make is to not explain the cue before using it. For example let’s say a client is performing a hip hinge with two dumbbells and there are executing the lift with a round back. The coach may instruct the lift to “arch” and the client continue to flex their spine even further since that is what they thought it meant. Never assume the client understands the cue.
Another tip with trying to ingrain the proper form is to give positive reinforcement when the client does something properly. If they are making progress and doing something right giving them praises or a high five goes a long way to reinforcing solid technique.
When dealing with beginners sometimes a verbal explanation isn’t going to cut it and you need to aid in a visual demonstration as well. Once the athlete understands the skill the verbal cues are a great way to remind the client to stay in good position.
Visual Cues and Explanations
The visual demonstration is an extremely powerful way to teach many people. This is why is it critical as fitness professional that we practice what we preach so we can provide our clients with excellent exercise demonstrations. It is important that you make sure you are saying what you are doing and you do what you say. In other words if you aren’t forcing your knees out when demonstrating a squat, but you say that you should it won’t make sense to the client.
One tip I found very useful when doing visual demonstrations is using the WHOLE PART WHOLE approach to teaching. Show them the entire skill first so they understand what it is. Then break it down into parts. I usually recommend trying to break down a movement into three parts so it isn’t too overwhelming. With that being said don’t try to teach you beginner client the 7 part Russian Turkish Get up in one day! It is just too many steps all at once. Break it down piece by piece and master each step before putting the whole thing together.
Here is an example of how to break down the deadlift.
Show them what a good deadlift looks like and then break it down into three parts.
Step 1 is grab the bar and fill your belly full of air.
Step 2 pull the slack out of the bar and fall backwards.
Step 3 Drive your heels through the floor and once the bar breaks past your knees shoot your hips through.
Show them the full deadlift again.
All of course while visually sowing the movement! Another tip is once you show them everything good is to explain to your client what bad form looks like and how to avoid it. Show them what a round back looks like and explain to them that is NOT where you want to be!
This is why it is crucial to have progressions in your program for teaching complex movements such as the powerlifts, the Olympic lifts and even some kettebell exercises. Break down the skill into parts and when in doubt master an earlier progression before moving on. An example of this would be to teach the hip hinge with the kettlebell belly swing, then perform kettlebell RDL, then barbell RDL’s and then deadlifts from the floor. By the time they get to the conventional deadlift they should have already mastered the hip hinge so teaching the deadlift should be much easier!
Visual learning isn’t just from performing demonstrations. Body language and gestures can help clients learn especially when combined with verbal cues. When instructing a client to force their knees out it is helpful to make a violent hand gesture with your hands point where the knees should be. Many people forget that your body language says a lot.
Another method that can help a visual learner is for the coach to demonstrate a movement with a dowel rod or other object to illustrate a point. The client may not be able to see what you see since they don’t have the same understanding of anatomy of biomechanics. When teaching the plank position with neutral spine it could help to demonstrate the movement with a dowel rod on your back. Show your client what happens when you lose your tension and drop your hips. Ask them if they see a difference in the space between the dowel rod and your spine. Then proceed to round your back and the dowel rod should fall of. The dowel rod can also demonstrate things like shoulder, wrist and elbow alignment in push ups, or for teaching a proper shin angle for single leg movements. Props can help illustrate a certain skill you are trying to ingrain with your client and greatly aid in the learning process.
Of course props can also be used for tactile purposes as well so the client actually feels the position so they understand what proper form feels like.
Tactile Cues and Explanations
Tactile cues and explanations may be the most powerful way to learn exercise. Combine these will verbal cues and visual demonstrations and your clients are going to master their new skills in no time at all! Tactile cues seem to work extremely well with athletes since they are used to learning by doing. This is why hands on workshops and seminar are very popular among fitness professionals. Some people learn best by actually performing and feeling the motion. One really basic way to help clients learn is just by palpating a part of the body either you want the client to move or the muscle you want them to use.
A good example of this is teaching the athlete how to brace their abdominals for a heavy lift or a challenging core stability exercise. The coach can feel the core and see if it is “active” and give the client a smack to their mid section to see if they tighten up reactively. This can really work for any muscle not just the core. Another example would be hitting the client’s lats during a bench press or deadlift. Two exercise where the lats play a huge role in stabilizing the shoulder and thoracic spine.
If a client isn’t keeping their chest up on a squat or a deadlift the coach can put his or her finger on their chest and instruct the lifter to raise it. If a lifter is having trouble sitting back the coach can guide the athlete hips back with his or her hands. You can also force the lifter into the bad pattern so they can reactively force their way out of it. An example of this would be to apply pressure to an athlete’s knees forcing them inward to teach the client to spread the coaches’ hand apart to teach keeping the knees out.
As stated before props may be the most powerful way to get a client to learn. A dowel rod can be place on an athlete to teach neutral spine. If the stick remains in contact with the athlete they are successful in the execution of the lift. If the stick come out of contact with the body the executed the movement incorrectly and what is great about this method is that is provided immediate feedback to the client so they understand and can feel if they did it right or wrong.
The wall can also be used in place of the stick for certain exercises too. An example would be using the wall to teach proper shin angle and upper back position for squat. Have the client set up against the wall a few inches away and have them squat. If their knees come forward or they round their back they will smash their body into the wall providing immediate feedback on their execution of the movement. None of the drills are fool proof, but they can eliminate a host of potential compensation, which speeds up the learning process. The best athletes will try to compensate to get through the movement. With that being said even though many of these drills are self correcting you should still explain how you want the drill to be performed to aid in the learning process for your client.
One of the most powerful ways to teach someone a skill is with the use of bands and reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) as popularize by Gray Cook. Basically using this technique you can use bands or manual resistance and force an athlete into their compensation so they learn to reactively get out of it and execute the skill with proper form. The classic example is squatting with a band just above the knees. The bands pull the knees inward so the athlete must force the knees apart thus activating the glutes and preventing a valgus collapse. This really trains the nervous systems to stay in proper position better than any other technique I have tried!
Another example would be to attach bands around the athlete wrist hen learning the bench press to teach proper elbow position and upper back tightness. This will force the lifter to actively pull the bar apart and fire the muscles in the upper back and posterior shoulder.
These are my top tips to make you a better educator and a coach. Remember you must first learn how your clients learn in you want to coach effectively. Find out how your clients learn and experiment with different cues and teaching techniques and learning styles in order to get the most out of every exercise you do with your clients so they get the best results possible. Good luck!
As a gift I’ve put together a free .pdf called 3 Simple Tricks for a Bigger & Better Squat, Press, Dead & Bench for you. Enjoy!
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Coach Gaglione is a strength coach out of Long Island, New York and owner of Gaglione Strength. If you want to learn more about his methods check out www.gaglionestrength.com or if you want to contact him you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to sign up for his newsletter to get updates on new articles and seminars from Gaglione Strength.