Raise your hand if you’ve heard one of the following before:
- “Keep your chest up.”
- “Don’t let your knees go past your toes.”
- “Squeeze your shoulder blades together.”
If you’ve been around a gym a time or two, odds are you are no stranger to some of these phrases. The cues we use in the gym are often passed down from one generation to the next, and while their intentions are good, at times they may be less effective than we think. Which brings us to the subtle art of cueing.
Coaches, trainers, and rehabilitation specialists must master the art of exercise cueing in order to guide those they are working with in executing movements more efficiently and effectively. Not all cues are created equal, though. Cues can be categorized into internal cues, where the focus is on bodily sensations and movements, and external cues, which direct attention to external stimuli. Which one should you use? Let’s find out.
Think about the last time you went to the gym and did some rows. What did you think about? Where was your focus during the exercise? Often times you will hear someone say, “Squeeze your shoulder blades together” when doing some type of horizontal pulling motion, and this phrase would be a perfect example of an internal cue. This style of cueing requires a high kinesthetic awareness and allows the individual to feel and focus on the muscles being contracted during an exercise. While this may be beneficial for some individuals, this increased internal focus may not be the most optimal approach for all gym-goers.
That’s where external cues come into play. For instance, think about how you would instruct someone on performing a standing long jump. You could tell them to squeeze their quads as they jump, but is this hyper fixation on their body going to improve overall performance? If you look at the research, the answer is no. A study by Wu et al. showed that athletes who were told to focus on jumping towards an object (rather than an internal cue of extending their knees as fast as possible) jumped nearly 6 inches further! Now think about other ways you can incorporate this style of cueing into your workouts:
- “Press into the floor.”
- “Jump as high as possible.”
- “Reach for the sky.”
- “Press the bar into the ceiling.”
What do all of these have in common? The attention is shifted towards something other than themselves, which allows for an increased efficiency of movement and allows the body to more naturally move.
There are several other things to take into consideration when cueing a person:
- Kinesthetic Learners: For those individuals who move better with more of an internal cueing focus, they may also benefit from you “tapping” the region or muscle group that they should feel activated during the motion.
- Fewer Words = Better: Ever try to follow along in a conversation when the other person is rambling? Don’t be “that guy” when cueing. Try to be precise with your word choice in order to avoid any extra confusion regarding the movement pattern
- Go in Reverse: Ever watch someone struggle with a lunge pattern? Sometimes even the best cueing cannot fix the “newborn giraffe leg wobble” that occurs during this movement, which is why it may be best to start from the bottom and work your way up. Another way to use this concept would be to activate the “opposing” muscle group, which at times may allow an individual to improve their focus on the target muscles.
- Speak Their Language: This isn’t rocket science… so do not explain it like it is. We all may want to show off our technical knowledge, but often times using big, scientific words may be beyond the scope of the person we are working with. Simplify your language choice to ensure everyone is on the same page.
What’s the big takeaway? Each person is unique, and we cannot expect the same few cues to work on everyone. Challenge yourself to explore different cueing styles, phrases, and techniques, especially if you are not seeing the movement strategies that you want from those you are working with.
Wu, W., Porter, J., Brown, L. (2012). Effect of attentional focus strategies on peak force and performance in the standing long jump. J. Str. & Cond. Res., 26(5), 1226-1231.