Written by CarolAnn, M.S., CPT, CN
(Originally published in Personal Fitness Professional, Fall 2021 Edition)
Cueing is an essential skill that all personal trainers and group exercise instructors should develop to assist a client in achieving a movement successfully. A cue is either a verbal, visual, or kinesthetic communicator that ignites proper muscle activation to attain the necessary movement pattern for performing an exercise safely and effectively. The result is more refined functional movement, athletic performance, weight loss, or whatever the established goal. When a trainer cues properly, the client has more confidence and trust in the trainer; the training session seems to go faster and more effective. Here are some trainer cueing mistakes that could potentially impede a client’s success.
Using Outdated Cues
There are specific cues that trainers and instructors use that may seem outdated and may be confusing to the client. These cues are just a few examples that may need more clarification or fine-tuning to elicit the correct muscle activation.
Flat Back: Maintaining a flat back is confusing to a client. Clients may attempt to create a flat back but mistakingly exaggerate an arched back or tucked pelvis. The truth is, there is a natural curve in the lumbar part of the spine. This curve is designed to give the back more stability. Another cue could be, “Imagine that your abdominals and your back muscles are in a panini press stabilizing your spine. Therefore, activate your abs and your back muscles.”
Engage Core: Most clients have no idea their core location and mistake their abs for the core. The “core” is all muscles from the collar bone to the mid-thighs. Instead of cueing “engage your core,” a trainer should cue the client to activate their abdominal muscles by knitting the rib cage together. Another cue could be to “pretend to be wearing a snug corset, drawing the abdominals in and down.”
Pinch your shoulder blades together: This phrase is only part of the cue. A trainer really means to “open the chest” and “pull the shoulder blades back and slide them down into the back pockets away from the ears.” The ultimate goal when performing some exercises is to open the chest and pull the shoulders away from the ears.
No pain, no gain: This motivational cue is designed to push the client harder than their body can perform to elicit a positive response. However, performing harder will take away from the client’s ability to “listening to his/her own body.” In addition, the client may dangerously push too hard and create an injury. Pain is a sign that an individual is overworked, malnourished, dehydrated, or exhausted. It is okay to listen to the body and exercise each day with quality movements that meet the body where it is “today.”
Explain, Demo, Perform
When cueing an exercise, especially at the beginning stages of training, a client needs verbal, visual, and/or kinesthetic coaching to be successful--a client cannot simply be told to perform an exercise without further instruction. To help a client achieve proper movement pattern, the trainer should explain the exercise clearly and state the purpose. Then the trainer should provide a quick demonstration of the exercise. Lastly, the client performs the exercise as the trainer coaches the client through the exercise.
Short and Precise
To keep cueing simple, the trainer must choose her words wisely to communicate proper form. To evoke a proper exercise movement pattern, a trainer needs to communicate with as few words as possible. A trainer should not talk too much or over-explain a movement making the exercise more confusing. In addition, the trainer should speak slowly and loud enough for the client to hear. Being concise and precise in the cueing will enhance the client’s experience.
Demo Poor Technique to Understand Proper Technique
Sometimes it’s difficult for the client to understand or physically see what he/she is doing wrong unless the trainer shows the client how they are moving incorrectly. First, the trainer should demonstrate to the client the proper form, then show the client the over-exaggerated improper form that the client may be performing. Now it’s the client’s turn. The client first performs the exercise with over-exaggerated incorrect movement (e.g. shrugging the shoulders up to the ears) followed by over-exaggerated correct movement to achieve the desired movement pattern (e.g. pulling shoulders down away from the ears).
Sometimes the trainer will provide tactile cues (touching an area of the body) to elicit a positive response toward the proper movement pattern. However, the trainer may mistakenly “tap” or “palpitate” the wrong muscle area resulting in the opposite reaction. Instead, the trainer should tap the muscle that the client needs to activate, not the one causing the problem.
Progression vs. Regression
An exercise progression increases the demand incrementally through minor changes to elicit improvement in one’s cardiovascular capacity or strength. Conversely, an exercise regression is simply an approach to decrease the demand of an exercise or movement. A significant mistake a trainer may make will be to cue a client to progress way too fast before he/she is ready. In other cases, a trainer may incorrectly regress a client to an incorrect position or modification, possibly creating an injury. Finding a balance between progression and regression and the two's timing is key to continuing fitness improvement.
Feedback from Clients
Taking guidance from another fitness professional in proper cueing may seem “been there done that” advice. Instead, it is worth the insight to hear straight from the horse's mouth—your client!
Avoid technical or anatomical language. Sometimes the client has no idea what the trainer is saying. A trainer can teach the client technical terminology as long as there is a hybrid of layman’s terms to understand. For example, the trainer can use the term iliopsoas while referring to the muscle as the hip flexor.
Clients like the trainer to repeat the instruction a couple of times to ensure they understand the cue. The trainer may need to repeat the same cue differently because different cues resonate differently with different people.
Clients like to know what’s coming. They need to know how many reps or how long to perform an exercise to prepare and recruit the necessary muscle fibers. Moreover, trainers need to know how to count the correct number of reps and tell time precisely so the client/student can be prepared to “give it all they got” in an exercise. If clients know what’s coming, they can pace themselves appropriately.
The training session is more effective when the trainer cues the same number of reps on both sides of the body. For example, some trainers may spend excessive time explaining side-lying leg kicks on the right side of the body (maybe 25 reps), and when it is time for the left side, the trainer only cues 15 reps.
Group exercise instructors cueing to music need to cue on beat and use the music to evoke energy. If the instructor cues correctly, students connect with the instructor and the workout more effectively. The instructor should transition smoothly and direct the students with precise directional cues, e.g. “face the back wall.” Students will leave the class feeling either “WOW” or “mey” as a result.
The trainer must avoid talking too much about personal life. The client may be making form mistakes or missing the exercise altogether.
Unlike personal trainers and group exercise instructors, clients do not intuitively know how to perform specific exercises like planks, squats, or shoulder presses. Most have no clue as to where their body is in space. It’s the fitness professional’s role to guide or cue the client through new and unfamiliar exercises and present them in a manner that champions success.
Known as the trainer's trainer, CarolAnn, has become of the of country's leading fitness educators, authors and national presenters. Combining a Master's Degree in Exercise Science/Health Promotion with serveral fitness certifications/memberships, she has been actively involved in the fitness industry for over 3 decades presenting with FiTOUR®, Club Industry, MedFit Network Tour and SCW Manias. As one of the leading experts, she has served on several health advisory boards, performed as a wellness fitness coordinator, owned her own private studio and operated several gyms. She moved her programming online as the creator and star of "The Steel Physique Fitness on Demand" series.