As a former club manager one of the things that was always really obvious to me when interviewing a trainer was that a more experienced trainer had a good cueing vocabulary and often repeated useful cues across different exercises (i.e.. core, posture, breathing and motivation,) but a new trainer tended to have a hard time finding the right words, they would stutter or get stuck, they would cue all over the place (i.e.. from feet, to breathe, to the piece of equipment, to why it was a good exercise, to where the client should feel it, etc.) or they would repeat themselves a couple of times (and typically take so long explaining that the flow of the workout and the desired heart rate would fall off.)
Can you relate? (Or is this your worst fear?!). Now, I totally understand that an interview is a stressful experience, but I’ve also seen, time and again, that this same comfort (or lack thereof) translates into client sessions until practice and experience level out. What I’m offering here is a quicker route to competence and a way to shrink the gap on creating a successful client experience vs months or years in a fitness career. It’s an industry trend that many new trainers actually quit before achieving 6 months in the role. That’s crazy, but at the same time, we can’t really expect someone to achieve mastery in that same small amount of time. I’m a big fan of lifelong learning so there will always be tons of things to explore, but one of the most important things for a new trainer to practice is cueing. (I’m basing this on the assumption that a new trainer is someone who has much more personal experience in their own fitness journey than the amount of time they have been working on a fitness career. Being able to move properly is crucial as a fitness professional, so cueing needs to be built on a foundation of movement mastery.)
So here’s a perfect formula to make learning this skill easier.
- PRE-FRAME: what, why, how
- ANCHOR: set up neutral and establish understanding of load or tension
- MOVE: get them started and allow a couple reps for them to find it
- TEMPO & BREATH: manage time under tension and active breathing
- FEEL: fine tune and help client learn what right feels like
- MOTIVATE: finish strong
One of the things I hate to hear is that someone has worked with a trainer and at the end of the sessions they still don’t know the names of exercises, they aren’t comfortable in the gym and they don’t feel like they learned about their body in a way that elevated their confidence and allowed them to continue training successfully on their own.
Let’s talk about movement as a language. As trainers then, we are trying to help a client learn proper grammar (form,) increase vocabulary (learn new exercises,) or get immersed in the richness of culture vs just read out of a textbook (getting motivated/getting a kick in the butt/getting better results that working out alone.)
As I was reading up on language acquisition there were a couple things that stood out:
- The more you know, the more you’ll learn
(Language acquisition is a fascinating subject in its own right; feel free to check out the links at the bottom of the blog for a look at some of the things I browsed prior to writing this.)
What it came down to as I put this cueing formula together was that linking some really important and simple words/concepts with teaching our client an exercise was going to increase their understanding, execution, confidence and retention of the information so they would be more likely to remember over multiple sessions and/or try the exercise on their own.
Pre-framing an exercise is telling them just a little bit about it so they know the name of it, why they should be performing it and how to do it. In other words, WHAT, WHY and HOW.
|Dead Bug||It’s a great exercise for core activation, ensures the client is familiar with core neutral and can help increase core stability and endurance.||Start supine with feet flat on the floor. Brace core by drawing ribs towards hips. Then bring knees to 90 degrees with shins parallel to the floor and reach hands towards the ceiling. Hold this position and maintain the core brace while breathing at a comfortable pace.|
|Ladder Drills||This movement trains coordination, balance, change of direction and agility in all planes of motion. It’s a fun way to incorporate cardio into the session and it translates to lots of sports and real-life activities.||For the first exercise, start with both feet together at the head of the ladder. Stay light on your feet, knees bent and in an athletic stance. Starting with your right foot, step each foot into each square, moving all the way to the end of the ladder.|
|Deadlift||This is a full-body movement that targets your posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings.) It will strengthen your core and lower body. Proper technique is really important and once you have a successful hinge this will translate into keeping you safe at work when you have to lift heavy things.||Start with your feet hip width apart and the middle of your foot lined up under that barbell. When you bend your knees bring your shins to the bar. With your arms outside your knees grasp the bar with your palms facing your shins. Make sure you back is flat including your chin tucking into neutral. Straight arms, as if you’re almost lifting the bar off the ground. Engage the lats by trying to break that bar. Keep your back straight as you pull the bar past your knees and then drive your hips forward to complete the lift, making sure that at the top you have your posture stacked and glutes and core tight.|
If you read the “How” column above you’ll realize that this is pretty much anchoring. So the pre-framing and anchoring happen pretty seamlessly. But I gave anchoring a separate category because, depending on the exercise, there can be a lot to cover. Also, when the exercise is really new we should always demo it. So we’ll be talking through the how while we are the ones executing the movement. We want to ensure we offer a few really key set up cues when it’s our client’s turn.
The most effective way to make this step work is to think about which parts of their body are touching the floor or equipment. We can quickly activate stabilizers or help the client create postural tension by getting them to anchor. This is also your time to ensure they have achieved core neutral and demonstrate good posture before they start moving.
|Plank||Push the floor away
Grow longer heels to top of head
Pull your kneecaps up towards your hips
|Bench Bent Over DB Row||Push floor and bench away
Push butt back to wall and head forward to mirror
|Strong grip right on center of dumbbell handle
Feel dumbbell hang directly below your shoulder
|Barbell Squat||Spread the floor with your feet
Stack the weight of the bar directly over your feet
|Bring your elbows forward and pull the bar down onto your traps/upper back|
If you’ve done a good job of anchoring your client is already set and so move can be a simple cue that gets them going. As long as they look safe it’s ok the give them a couple of reps to “find” the movement. A simple directional cue can do the trick and/or a light touch to identify ROM or the working muscle is helpful.
I.e.. Verbal cue – Squat “ok you’re ready to go. Push your hips back like your reaching for a chair.”
I.e.. Tactile cue – touch between shoulder blades for a row exercise.
I.e.. Tactile cue – show them how high is enough for their back leg on a bird dog by holding your hand above their calf.
TEMPO & BREATH
Once your client is moving successfully you can cue tempo because lots of people move too fast. First of all, if you demonstrated the exercise with the tempo you want them to use they are likely to mimic you. Failing that, you can count tempo for them.
I.e.. for a 4010 tempo Squat
“Down – 3 – 2 – 1 – up. Down – 3 – 2 – 1 – up. Don’t beat me to the bottom. Down – 3 – 2 – 1 – up. Good job, keep that tempo.”
Once they’ve got it move on. Worse than being a rep counter is being a metronome! But keep an eye out – at the end of the set, they might speed up again!
We also want to ensure they are breathing properly. In general, we cue “exhale to exert” so they should be breathing out during the concentric movement of the exercise. For isometric exercises it’s really common for people to hold their breath, so in this case we would cue “steady breathing” depending on the overall cardiorespiratory load of the workout. Reminding them that,
“The exhale helps increase core stability” or “the exhale gives you more strength” is an example of adding WHY back into the mix. Always a powerful tool for increase compliance.
Before we dive into feel I just want to say this. There is such a thing as talking too much. Especially when your client is new to exercise. If the pre-frame, anchor, move and tempo/breath have already been a lot, we could just let them finish the set and then add additional layers in future sets. It can be stressful when the trainer is saying so much that the client doesn’t feel like they are getting anything down before the next cue comes flying at them! (I’m sometimes guilty of this, especially on caffeinated days!)
However, feel is where we can really create confidence for the client. Make sure they feel the right muscles working, feel the strength of proper posture, feel the smoothness and power of getting the timing right (i.e.. Kettlebell swings.) This is where your cueing can really evolve and add loads of value to the training session.
|Exercise||Basic Feel||Advanced Feel|
|Side Plank||Can you feel this in your obliques?||Drive your hips forward to feel more in your glutes
Extend from heels to crown and lift your hips a little higher to activate MORE core
Abduct your bottom arm (like doing a bent elbow lateral raise) to increase shoulder stability
|Bench Press||Keep you elbows soft at the top – can you feel your chest squeezing now?||Break the bar to keep your lats engaged – can you feel how this makes you stronger?
Push your feet and upper back down as your drive the barbell up – can you feel the extra strength and drive in your whole body?
They’ve had a great set, now you want to make sure they finish strong! We’ve all heard the basics like “push!” “2 more!” and “feel the burn” but the real key to motivation is remembering your client’s WHY! The words they used when they explained why their goal was important to them and why they wanted to get started or why they needed your help. In the PTA Global CPT we learn to identify a clients’ buzzwords and we even recommend writing them down on the clients’ workout template so we get it right. If we don’t write it down, we are more likely to use our own words or generic ones. Imagine the power of:
- “You can do this – let’s get that wedding dress fitting perfectly!”
- “Come on Paul, your glutes burning means your back is going to be safe and strong at work!”
- “Dig deep and finish Sandee – I see you crossing that finish line with a huge empowered grin on your face!”
- “1 more set Alex, you’re an athlete – Ultimate try-outs are next month!”
In these examples the buzzwords are:
- (and wedding!)
Whether you are in an orientation session or working with a client on a long-term goal, hearing their own words spoken back to them shows your client that you were listening, that you understand what’s important to them and those words will help motivate them to their best effort and that paints you as a connected, empathetic and focused trainer!
The Perfect Cueing Formula:
- TEMPO & BREATH
Let’s put this all together and take a look at an example.
Client scenario: 45-year-old female, Sharon, who is very new to exercise, works sitting at a computer all day and has some mild back pain (but has been cleared for exercise.) Her goal is to learn a simple routine she can do at the gym a couple days a week so that she can lose some weight and have better posture so her back pain doesn’t get worse.
|Floor Bridge||2||–||Slow||12x||30 seconds|
|Side Plank||2||Knees||Slow||20 sec||30 seconds|
|Cable Row||2||30lbs||Slow||12x||60 seconds|
|Floor Bridge||Side Plank||Cable Row|
|Pre-frame: ok Sharon the first exercise is a Floor Bridge. This will strengthen your core and glutes and will be really helpful to reduce your back pain.||Pre-frame: next up is the Side Plank. This is a great core exercise and we’ll do it with great posture to balance out how much time you spend hunched over at the computer.||Pre-frame: last exercise in the set is a Cable Row. I picked this exercise because it’s great for posture and strengthening your back and arms.|
|Anchor: start on your back, knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet hip width apart. Brace your core, press into your feet and lift your hips.||Anchor: start on your side elbow under shoulder and bend your knees behind you so your hips are in a straight line with the front of your body. Now squeeze the knees together, squeeze your glutes to push the hips forward and push the floor away with your elbow so your shoulder is stable.||Anchor: Sit here with your feet on these pedals. Keep your knees slightly bend. Spine tall and core braced. Before you start the movement, I want you to draw your shoulder blades down and back so now your posture is set and your chest is up and proud.|
|Move: Ok here we go, push your feet down and squeeze your glutes to lift the hips.||Move: now lift your hips. Good. Tuck your chin just a bit. Perfect.||Move: pull your elbows back beside your ribs and imagine you are squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades.|
|Tempo & Breath: slow and steady, take your time so you can check in with how your back feels. Remember to exhale on the way up.||Tempo & breath: we’re going to hold here for 30 seconds. Remember to keep breathing. Just pick a steady pace that feels comfortable for you.||Tempo & breath: pause here, take a breath in, on your next pull, exhale and hold for a second here. That little pause will increase strength without us having to add extra weight or reps!|
|Feel: you’re doing great. Glutes, hamstrings or back – which muscle do you feel the most? A bit in your back? Ok don’t go as high, keep that pelvic tilt and visualize your glutes squeezing. Better? Great!||Feel: can you feel your obliques on that bottom side? And do you have any shoulder or back pain? No? Perfect!||Feel: Is your low back ok? Good! Do you feel the muscles in your upper back working? You feel your forearms too? Ok, that’s common when you’re new to exercise. Try this – relax your grip just a bit and think of the movement happening with the muscles in your upper back. Visualize your shoulder blades sliding together and feel those muscles doing the work – does that help? Awesome!|
|Motivate: let’s do the whole set of 12; your back is going to feel so much better!||Motivate: you’ve got 10 seconds left on this side. Training your core is going to help with achieving great posture!||Motivate: you’re doing great – you’re almost at the end of the set. I can totally see you performing this circuit on your own in the future!|
When I was a new trainer, knowing that I remembered things best by writing them down, I would actually create a chart like this on the back of my workout programs. This helped me script the most important things to say and if I ever got nervous in a session and forgot my cues, I could just flip the page over for a quick reminder. At first, I worried that my clients might think this was lame, but one of my first clients, a nurse, told me that she thought this was a great idea. And she was impressed that I took the time to be so well prepared for our sessions.
There’s no magic pill that replaces practice. Repetition is an undeniable key to success. We know this when it comes to learning a new exercise or a sport, a musical instrument or studying for a test. Cueing and upgrading your trainer vocabulary are no different. But hopefully this formula gives you a structure to start with and a framework to apply to your sessions. The only other advice I can share is take one step at a time. If all 6 steps feel like too much to do at once, start with the Pre-Frame. Try adding that to your sessions for a couple of weeks and see how it goes. See how your client responds. And notice how you feel as well. As you build confidence, keep adding in the layers. Once you’ve done enough “reps” you won’t have look write it out ahead of time, you won’t have to look at the back of your paper, and you’ll cue more naturally. In addition to a ton of passion and aspiration movement mastery, you’ll have the vocabulary and ease of cueing that will give your clients a really successful experience in their sessions with you. Communication is a super valuable skill and can’t ever be replaced by YouTube, a fitness app or a program on a piece of paper. #beirreplaceable
Blog By: Logan Dube, Director of Education