A cue is just like any other tool—we have to use the right one for the right job. A hatchet probably won’t get the job done if you’re trying to assemble a finely crafted chair from IKEA. (Although, it’ll be a godsend when you decide to disassemble that same fucking chair because fuck IKEA.) The same is true for cueing. A great cue used in the wrong situation won’t produce the outcome you’re looking for. So, we have to consider all of the dimensions of cueing as we build cues.
Let’s do that.
During this lesson we’ll consider the “periodic table” of cueing elements (I just made that up)—everything it takes to build a cue and use it in the right situation. We’ll talk environment, type of cueing input, problem, and outcome.
You know the old saying about giving a man a fish vs. teaching a man to fish? Well, the man that learns to fish lives and the man that gets the fish, well, when people stop giving him fish, he’s toast. So, while I could list out a bunch of great cues that would work for you and your clients, I’d just be giving you a fish. It’s better for everyone if you learn how to put the fish into your hand.
Before We Go Any Further!
We are laying down the first rule of cueing. Here’s the rule:
If you try three times to cue someone into a better position, and it doesn’t work, you must change the exercise or change the position.
Want to frustrate the hell out of your client and yourself? Keep trying to cue them, no matter what type of cue you use, into better exercise performance over and over again with no change. They start to think that they aren’t competent, which is a bad thing. Or they start to think you aren’t competent, also a bad thing. They might think both things simultaneously—that culminates into a worse thing.
What Do You Want to Happen?
Next comes the answer to that question. What is it that you want out of the situation? Do you want the person to understand the difference between moving their hips and moving their spine? Do you want them get tighter as they bench press? Would you fancy a better squat pattern? Maybe you’d like to have them douse that goddamn IKEA desk that won’t go together in gasoline and dance around the flames in the alleyway. Goddamn Swedish. (I really don’t have anything against IKEA, I just started the joke so I kept going with it.)
Here’s the point: you must have a clear destination in mind before you start cueing someone. What exactly do you want out of the situation? What NEEDS (notice the all caps) to happen in the given instance to help the person move forward?
You want your client to do a perfect push-up. What needs to happen at the current moment in time to move the person closer to doing that perfect pushup? Notice that I said current moment in time and move the person closer.
We take stock of the current situation—what’s the problem? What’s the environment? Simultaneously, or soon after, we consider what we can do with the time we have now to move the person forward to the next rung on the ladder, not to perfection immediately (unless that truly is viable in the situation). What can we do with the next few reps/sets to handle the problem at hand?
Cueing Requires Context
You know Macho Man, Sad Dog, and Tall and Tight? Those are context-building words that remind people about position. That’s all that cueing is—it’s building context so people can connect their body with the desired positions and actions. The more context we can build up front to get people to understand what something should look and feel like, the more effective our cueing will be when people are acting.
If people understand what tall and tight means within minutes of walking into your gym, it will be a much more effective tool when you remind them of it when they are deadlifting.
As you peruse the elements below, think in terms of how you can use them to build context up front and maintain that context as people continue to train with you.
Types of Cues: The Periodic Table of Cueing Elements
Cueing comes with categories. Let’s roll through them.
This is actually talking to the person and giving them directions. Verbal cues break down into two big categories: internal cues and external cues—each has its place.
Internal cues draw attention to some part of the body that you want the person to focus on. (For example: Do you feel your spine moving? Or Squeeze your buttocks!)
External cues pull attention away from the body and toward an object—the floor, the implement being lifted, etc. (For example: Drive the floor away…or…Break the bar.)
This type of cueing uses proprioceptive input to tell the person what their body is doing, and what it should be doing in the given circumstance. There are a few types of kinesthetic cueing.
Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) tries to push the body further into a dysfunctional pattern so that it can naturally correct itself. An example would be putting a band around someone’s knees and having them spread it as they squat because their knees keep caving in. (P.S. I’m not saying that this is always the solution for caving knees, I’m just illustrating an example.)
Implement assisted. Think putting a pole on someone’s back to help them figure out how to keep their spine in a good position while doing a bird dog. Another example would be the kettlebell behind the butt during the handcuff hip hinge. It tells the person where to push their hips.
Hands on. Any technique in which you actually put your hands on someone and help them get into a position. It could simply be guiding someone’s body or it could be pushing on a body segment to create an RNT effect.
Loading. That’s right, weight is a cue. Many times people learn right-quick and in a hurry simply by putting the correct amount of weight in their hands.
The final kinesthetic cue is position. This is actually having someone change positions to learn, or perform, a variation of an exercise. An example would be regressing someone to a tall-kneeling handcuff hip hinge because a standing handcuff hip hinge just ain’t workin’ for them right now.
All of the kinesthetic cues follow the 4×4 matrix of movement. If you need to figure out a kinesthetic cue, this is your holy grail. It allows you to think in terms of position, loading, input, etc. This framework allows you to think through all of the possible kinesthetic cues you could use to improve someone’s movement—do they need more or less load? Is pattern assistance (input, RNT, hands on) necessary? Do they just need to be in a position closer to the ground?
When you lay the 4×4 matrix over the kinesthetic cues to think and act, it gives you a great system for improving movement.
Visual cueing is nothing more than demonstrating the way you want an exercise done or demonstrating to the client how they are currently moving so they can see both and close the gap.
Types of Cueing Wrap-up
Different cues work better in different environments, and we’ll talk about that shortly. That being said, our first line of action is best taken with kinesthetic and visual cues. These two categories of cues create a sensory rich environment that help people understand and learn faster than verbal directions.
Most cueing is a combination of two categories—at some point you’re going to have to speak—but if we can start with the environment using kinesthetic and visual cues, we’re heading in the right direction.
Ok, let’s talk environment.
The Two Environments
We create two environments for our clients with our coaching: a learning environment and a performance environment. Each requires different means to accomplish different ends. While there is some crossover between the two, it works best if we separate our thoughts and actions for each within separate categories.
Let’s chat about them.
The Learning Environment
It’s self-descriptive—in the learning environment we are teaching the clients either how to do an entirely new exercise (think new client) or helping them improve performance, or find a better position, for an exercise they’re already using in a performance environment.
Let’s do a couple of illustrations.
First, you have a new client that’s never trained before and this person is totally unacquainted with their body. You’re trying to teach them to squat. This is a learning environment.
Second, you have a somewhat experienced client doing a deadlift variation and they keep missing on their bottom position, so you pull them aside between sets and do some drills to help them to better understand their bottom position. This is a learning environment.
The learning environment is slowed down and there’s a lot of information transfer—the form of that information is dependent on the need of the client. Sometimes it’s verbal, sometimes it’s kinesthetic, and sometimes it’s visual—usually it’s all of those in some way. In this case, it’s ok to get people thinking so that they can connect all of the pieces of what they are doing together. It’s not always necessary to be super cognitive, but if it’s going to happen, this is the place where it will be useful.
If you’re going to use an internal cue, this is the place to do it. Internal cues offer a person a reference point in their body—this is especially helpful to people that just aren’t well-settled into their bodies and those that are re-learning some patterns after being injured or experiencing pain. Internal cues, in this case, help folks “map out” their bodies so they can cognitively connect with what they are trying to get their body to do. We want to get them away from thinking too much as quickly as possible, but internal cues are a useful gateway to understanding for folks that need a reference point in their body.
Here’s the thing about internal cues—we don’t want to use them if we don’t have to, but sometimes we have to. If we can get learning done with kinesthetic, visual, and external cues, let’s do that. But internal cues are our Alamo if nothing else seems to be working, or if it’s obvious that the person needs a better understanding of their body first.
To create a great learning environment, start with the environmental cues—kinesthetic and visual. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Am I starting the person in a great position to learn?
Does the person have the input the need to understand how to move and where their body is in space?
How can I demonstrate so they understand what to do?
A final note on learning environments: we want people to fail. Failing is part of the process. We don’t want them to fail to the point that the get irreconcilably frustrated with themselves and with us, but we want them to fail enough to learn. That happens by putting someone in the right environment and letting them feel it out. Let them botch a rep or two and see if they can self-correct. If they can’t, intervene.
The Performance Environment
A client has 200 pounds on the bar and they are conventional deadlifting—this is a performance environment.
We don’t want people thinking in a performance environment—that will slow them down, decrease performance, and potentially get them hurt. We just want them moving and acting. So, in a performance environment, we limit cueing that will draw folks up into their higher, problem-solving brain centers.
External cues, and setting the stage with imagery analogies, are the best practice for performance environments. They keep people from thinking too much and are simple and actionable. “Drive through the floor” is a lot less complicated than “squeeze your glutes and extend your legs”, but the desired outcome is the same—simultaneous hip and knee extension. Here’s the biggest rule about cueing, mostly verbal, in a performance environment—as much information as possible into the smallest package possible.
There are two times to cue in a performance environment—during the rep to improve performance and between reps to improve positioning for the next rep, and, subsequently, improve performance.
If you’re cueing during a rep, try to boil your cue down to one word if you can that produces the best-desired outcome. What is the biggest problem that needs solved to improve their performance on the exercise right now? That seems like a big question to ask and answer for yourself in a split second, but if you’re paying attention, and you’ve built enough context around the individual leading up to that moment, you can do it.
For example, if someone’s locking their knees out way before their hips while squatting and deadlifting, the word “drive” can help them to sync their joint movement up. (But you have to create the context of what “drive” means before hand.)
Cueing between reps can get a little wordier, but not much. We keep it external, and we focus on one thing, but we still only use a few words. Let’s say someone is losing upper-body tension during a rack pull and the bar is drifting away from them, we could say “break the bar” as they set the bar back down into the rack to remind them to stay tight.
Creating imagery analogies is a lot of fun and can be incredibly impactful. It gets people to connect action with a common visual—an airplane taking off, a rocket taking off, a spaghetti noodle.
One of my favorites is getting folks to “imagine that they are a statue from head to hip.” This is a great way to lock in tension in the upper-body during squatting and deadlifting—and it reinforces tall and tight posture in a different way. Use imagery like this between sets and your clients will have another means to connect themselves to their performance.
The Act of Building the Cue
Ok, we have all of these cue-building elements; let’s talk about putting them together to actually build a cue. I’m just going to give you some things to consider and let you roll:
What’s the environment?
What’s the problem?
What NEEDS to happen right now to move them one step further?
How can I give them the most information possible in the smallest package possible?
Answer those four questions using the elements above and you’ll build yourself a useful cue.
Now, here’s the next step, write out some scenarios for yourself in which you’d have to apply your cueing. How will you approach a learning environment with a new client? How can you help another better perform their deadlifts? These little thought projects will help you immensely when you get into the real situation.
Final Cueing Considerations
Cueing is about having a toolbox that allows you to be wrong. You’re not going to be correct on the first try. Sure, there will be the rare occasion, but the good fitness coach carries a mental toolbox with them on the gym floor and uses it nimbly. It’s not about being perfect and nailing it with the first words that come out of your mouth. It’s about having a next step in mind when what you tried didn’t work—especially in a learning environment.
And here’s something that I want you to let sink into every synapse in your brain and marinate its way through your cortex: in a learning environment, a change of position or of input are most often the best cues. Let. It. Marinate.