9 of our favorite coaching cues to improve movement quality

Coaching tips are not one-size-fits-all. Hats, sure. Gloves, sometimes. But what helps one person may cause another to strikeout. You need a variety of training tips and coaching cues to be an effective coach for a variety of clients. You need options.

Imagine you’re teaching a group exercise class and everyone is doing squats. You may see someone nodding their head as though they know what you’re telling them, yet it’s clear they don’t feel it. You might try demonstrating the movement or using tactile coaching cues or constraints to help them make an adjustment. Or you might use a verbal coaching cue to help your clients experience the movement from another perspective. That verbal cue could reference their body’s position (an internal coaching cue) or their environment (and external coaching cue).

What you choose depends on the client. If you use the same cues with every client without giving your words and actions a second thought, well, that could be holding you back. Not only do you need to be able to identify movement dysfunction and use coaching cues to correct it, but it’s also important to be aware of how a client is responding. What type of cue is going to resonate with them? What’s not working?

Your words matter. It's important that you don't lose sight of that.

“You're a communicator,” says Anthony Hobgood, a performance manager at EXOS. “Your words matter. It's important that you don't lose sight of that.” And it’s not just words that you have at your disposal. Coaching is just as much about nonverbal communication as it is verbal communication.

Ultimately, you want your clients to feel the difference, and having an arsenal of options helps you personalize your coaching based on a client’s strengths and weaknesses versus falling into a cookie-cutter approach. With that in mind, here are a handful of coaching cues you may want to have on deck.

1. “Pretend like I’m slipping a credit card under your heel.” (External verbal cue for running posture)

Here’s the situation: You’re working with a client and you want them to improve their running posture. “If I say, ‘get your chest up or lift your head,’ they could poke their chest out and still have poor posture,” explains Hobgood. Someone’s center of mass will also dictate their posture. So here’s what you do.

Ask your client to stand flat-footed with their legs narrow and lift their heels just enough for you to slide a credit card under each heel. “They have to shift their weight to the ball of the foot just a bit. When that happens, they feel their center of mass shift forward slightly,” he says. “They feel their hips come forward.” That’s the feeling you want them to strive for next time they’re in a running position.

2. “Close the door with your butt.” (External verbal cue for hip hinges)

If you’re teaching someone a Romanian deadlift and they start bending at their shoulders instead of initiating the movement from their hips, it causes them to load their spine. Not ideal. People also use the hip hinge when they lean over to pick up a box — whether they know it or not. “If I go pick something up, I need to be able to hinge at my hips versus flexing my spine,” says Hobgood. “This is probably the most important movement to master, not only for exercise but for life.”

Tell your clients to pretend they’re walking in the house carrying groceries and they have to turn around and close the door using their butt. They’ll likely draw their hips back and hinge at their hips to make this happen. They can now associate that feeling with every exercise that requires a hip hinge.

3. “Grip it and rip it.” (External verbal cue for upper-body pushing movements)

Upper-body movements don’t just involve bicep strength. It’s important to engage the whole body. The more active and stable the shoulders, torso, and hips, the more strength and power a person can generate in that movement. For example, when coaching the barbell bench press, tell clients to grip and rip the bar in half.

“When they squeeze the bar it causes the rotator cuff to stabilize,” says EXOS performance director Jenny Noiles, explaining that it creates a more stable platform for the arms to move from. Of course, they won’t actually be able to snap the barbell in half. However, the action of trying helps engage the shoulders and reminds them to use their back, which is important for lengthening movements such as the bench press.

4. “Hold the dowel along your spine.” (Constraint-based cue for posture during a Romanian deadlift)

Some clients may have a tendency to flex or round their spine during a deadlift. You can use a constraint, adding a dowel to alter the environment and therefore their posture as well. In this case, try having them hold a dowel behind their back along their spine.

There should be three points of contact with the dowel throughout the movement: the back of their head, between their shoulder blades, and their tailbone. “If someone's timing is off or their trunk flexes too quickly, the dowel comes off the small of their back. It gives them immediate feedback on their posture,” says Noiles.

5. “Create a tripod with your foot.” (Internal verbal cue for squats and single-leg exercises)

Properly engaging your foot with the ground during a squat is quality movement, and it’s arguably more important than whether your knees are over your toes or not. According to Hobgood, you want your clients to engage their big toe and shift their weight over the middle of their foot. “If weight is evenly distributed through the foot, that can fix a lot of other problems that can arise in a squat position,” he says.

You can simply say “engage your big toe” to cue your client. But another way to say this and make sure they don’t forget about engaging their pinky toe or their heel as well is to have them imagine their foot is a tripod and those are the three points. This is also important for exercises like walking lunges or step-ups.

6. “Pretend like you’re pushing the crown of your head up into my palm.” (Tactile cue for posture)

Posture is important for just about every exercise, whether the client is kneeling or standing. But let’s say they’re in a half-kneeling position, like a quad hip flexor stretch. You may often find yourself telling clients to stand tall or get tall through their spine.

That’s important, but some clients may need more help before they feel a difference between what they’re doing and what they should be doing. “Pair that verbal cue of ‘be tall through your spine’ with a tactile cue where they’re physically pushing the crown of their head into your hand,” says Noiles. She uses this cue for a variety of exercises, any movement that requires the client to be in a vertical or horizontal position — an alternating overhead press, a bent-over dumbbell row, a stability chop or lift to name a few.

Some clients may need more help before they feel a difference between what they’re doing and what they should be doing.

7. “Hold the dowel vertically and drive it into the ground.” (Tactile cue for squats)

Adding dowels to the equation during squats is another beneficial tactile coaching cue. Instruct your client to hold the dowel vertically in front of them, gripping it with both hands. They should then drive it into the ground as they squat for the entire duration of the movement. “It cues their shoulders, cues their core, but it also gives them leverage to help pull themselves down into a squat,” explains Noiles.

As they’re internalizing how this feels, you can layer in verbal cues as needed, such as “bend your hips and knees at the same time” and “keep your weight even on your feet.” However, be wary of throwing too much information at a novice. “If you give them too much to think about, they may actually get worse,” says Hobgood. This is where it pays off to know your clients so you can personalize your cues.

8. “Move your shoulders away from your ears.” (Internal verbal cue for pullups)

Some of the best coaching cues tell it like it is. Both Hobgood and Noiles called this one out as a cue they use often. And a lot of the time, telling a client to move their shoulders away from their ears is all it takes to correct pullup posture. However, if you need to go a step further so the action becomes more second nature, Noiles has a trick.

Have your clients stand and extend their arms straight out in front of them, palms face down. “Then have them push against your hands with their palms so that ultimately those shoulders depress,” she says. This is a tactile cue you can use to help them internalize that feeling of lengthening the neck and putting space between the shoulders and ears — subtle as it may be. Next time they do a pullup, they’ll have a deeper connection to the movement. They’ll know what it should feel like when you say, “move your shoulders away from your ears.”

9. “Pull your kneecaps up.” (Internal verbal cue for activating quadriceps)

Activating your own quadriceps is easier said than done. To some, hearing you say that might make as much sense as being told to activate their adductor longus. “A lot of our clients struggle with figuring out how to generate tension or how to activate,” says Noiles. They need to feel it before they totally understand it, and that’s where coaching cues come in.

"In this case, get them to actively think about pulling their kneecaps up,” she says. "That can help your clients reinforce how to engage their quadriceps in standing positions and at the top of any hip extension. It actually helps them to stand taller when they do that, too.” You might use this during the starting and finishing positions of a squat or the end position of a kettlebell swing — anything that involves hip extension.

Above all, the secret to good cueing is to not overwhelm the client. “I give a cue based on what I see them doing wrong,” says Hobgood. You don’t need to overwhelm them with a slew of advice until you see what they need. “Everyone learns differently,” says Hobgood. “Therefore you have to approach each person differently.”

Want to keep learning about how to cue? We cover more in the EXOS Performance Specialist Certification and as part of the phase two performance mentorship.

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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