Communication is one of the more challenging aspects that people struggle with. The best thing about fitness is the unique language that develops through it. Over time, as someone gets more involved in fitness, the more they learn not just about themselves but a new language. In fitness, there is a lot of terms, cues, coaching styles and even exercises. One exercise might be called one name by some people and by a completely different name by others. Each person may also use different cues to facilitate the movement while others interpret that same cue in another way.

Regardless of the words or the language being used, the most important factor in developing an effective communication style with others is that both people understand the language they’re attempting to use. We don’t mean speaking English, or Mandarin or other spoken languages. What we mean is that it is a shared language that we both recognize what we are trying to say.

Coaching and cueing is where the art of communication can be lost due to the expectation of what the cues mean, what the coach wants the client to do and what the client thinks the coach wants them to do. Most frequently used coaching cues often have more nuance and reasons for what they are trying to accomplish and how they get there.

It is helpful to not only explain what the cue is and also what the cue is attempting to achieve. This can be a helpful approach when working with clients that may have language difficulties or those who speak and understand a different language than ours. Establishing baseline language as well as using other creative ways to cue beyond words also assists with this shared language. So let’s dive into some of the most common cues, what they mean, and other strategies to improve communication.

3 Common Cues Lost in Translation

“Pull your shoulders down and back”
“Break the bar”
“Knees out”

When we look at some of the above examples, we can consider there are some cues that are not as accurate as they could be and in others, it implies to the client what they should do but without the explanation, the execution can be poor.

1. “Pull your shoulders down and back”

There are many variations of this cue where the intention is to teach someone how to set their latissimus dorsi (lats) so it can assist with maintaining spinal stiffness (core engagement). The problem with this kind of cueing is the pull your shoulders back part of the cue. This teaches people to retract their shoulders (like pinching something between the shoulder blades) while trying to pull the shoulders down. If we are executing the deadlift, attempting to retract the shoulders can lead to unnecessary loading into the smaller stabilizing muscles around the shoulder.

The amount of load one can lift in a deadlift can far exceed the capacity of the muscles used to retract the shoulder. Moreover, the shoulder blades should have the ability to move freely as opposed to being pinned from moving. In most movements, while doing things like creating tension, setting the core, we still want to allow for controlled movement through the full range of the joint.

A more helpful cue to use in this case is to set the shoulders down, that is, to depress the shoulder blades. By depressing the shoulder blades, we are engaging the lats. We neither need to push the shoulders forward or backwards but rather, creating stability in the joint by creating tension and stiffness.

It can also be helpful to teach the movement to our clients before attempting it in the deadlift. Here is a video below on how we can assist our clients on creating better body self-awareness and what the cues can mean. By using the cueing method outside of the exercise, we can place the client in a position that minimizes how much they need to be aware of with their body position and posture. Once they learn it in isolation, we can generalize the behavior to exercises.

2. “Break the bar

Another cue that is often used is to break the bar during movements such as the chest press whether that is dumbbell, barbell or machines. The goal of this cue is to create tension through the lats and to align the elbows to have a more optimal arm path as it goes into extension (as the shoulder/elbow goes past the midline of the body).

The challenge with this cue is if we don’t explain to the client that is the intension and just use the cue, they may incorrectly try to use the cue and they end up trying to pull the elbow closer to the body without the engagement of the lats. This can lead to the bar falling backwards towards the person’s head instead of maintaining the vertical arm path of the press.

The method in the above video can be used again to help clients to understand their lat engagement can also be helpful in better understanding the break the bar cue. Instead of having the client hold their arm straight in front of them, we can set them up as if they’re going to bench press and use the same cue.

3. “Knees out

– When performing various lower body exercises, we often look for symmetry of the body and its relative alignment. Typically, we want the knees to track over the second toe of the foot so if the knees cave inwards (knee valgus) so the common cue is knees out. While we want the knees to track over the toes, it isn’t so much the tracking of the knees that is the only consideration.

Pushing the knees out can lead to the incorrect pattern such as pushing knees out to the extent the foot begins to lift off the ground (supinate). Without the foot maintaining the tripod and keeping our weight in the middle of our feet, this can shift our center of mass and affect how “balanced” we feel going down and up in the lift.

A more helpful cue might be to “Screw the feet” where we teach the concept of rooting the foot into the ground that assists with engaging the glutes to create external rotation of the hip. This rooting motion creates tension in the hips and the surrounding musculature. Foot pressure should be in the middle, knees will track over the toes, and we feel the muscles around the hip engage themselves which also helps with maintaining stability in the joints thereby allowing for greater force production.

Moreover, knees out doesn’t address why the person may have knee valgus. In some instances, the person’s alignment may not be symmetrical especially if there are imbalances. Pushing the knees out only addresses the symptom of the issue as opposed to the cause.

Regardless of what cues you may want to use, ensure that your client understands what you mean instead of just saying the cue. If the nuance of the cues is explained and understood, using the cue becomes much easier. Using the cue before there is an understanding can lead to misunderstandings.

Give some of these tips a try and let us know how it goes. If you want to learn more about personal training, reach out below to find out more about our NASM Certified Personal Training program.