A trainer's cues are their language. Their love language, if you will. A great trainer becomes a coach when they begin using specific phrases that get a client to understand the what, where, why, and most notably, the HOW of their workouts.
Any trainer can point and shoot, metaphorically. Any trainer can yell "push" when the client starts to struggle on squats. Far too many trainers get lost saying a hundred words when three would do the job.
Lord knows I spent my early years fumbling over words worse than one of my failed prom proposals.
"Contract your tyrannosaurus rex"
"Rotate your thing and squeeze the other thing"
Ok, maybe not quite that bad, but I certainly said more than was needed. And with years of experience I learned to tighten up my cues, coach before an exercise, and to focus on the external environment instead of the internal one. As time elapsed I realized that the true value of a trainer is in their ability to coach, and not in their ability to do, demonstrate, or even motivate.
A coach is the final evolution of a trainer. The final form, if you will. Coaching is about taking what we know and love and packing it in a way that our client's can hear, comprehend, understand, and eventually make their own.
"Real change is made when the person making the change takes OWNERSHIP of the evolution."
A client's ability to learn an exercise is dependent on a variety of factors (much of which deal with their own fitness, skill, and dedication levels). The one variable that is always controllable, though, is the language the coach communicates in. This language must be at the intersection of their knowledge and what the client can understand.
Success is found on the corner of "Coach's Way" and "Client's Path".
As time has elapsed (fifteen years to be exact), I've found that there are a few cues that always hit home. The classics such as:
"Belly Button to spine" (when doing abdominal exercises)
"Big air and Brace your Gut" (when preparing for a heavier lift)
"Bend/Break the Bar" (when coaching barbell lifts)
"Stay Tall" (when coaching neutral spine position)
"Drive through your feet" (when seeking leg drive"
Any of these five coaching cues should be found in every coach's vocabulary, and probably in a museum too. That's just how important and timeless they are.
They give intention, direction, and magnitude. They are perfect foundations for bigger and better cues that only further enhance exercise performance (and most likely - results)!
Over the last few years these next five cues are my home run hitters. They help me communicate what is needed and set my clients up for success. They've helped alleviate discomfort, enhance balance and stability, and even help set a few new personal records.
Check these out:
1. "Choke the Cobra" - Grip
Far too many clients grab external resistances with just-enough tension in their grip. They'll hold a dumbbell and let it roll down to their last knuckles or grab the cable attachment with loose wrists and fingers. Worse, they might even grab a loaded barbell with a wide open hand (GASP).
Coaching "choking a cobra" helps my clients understand that I want them to squeeze the resistance and enact positive muscular irradiation from their hands. I want all the muscular and fascial tissue engaged in the task to better stabilize the mobile joints and enhance the stimulation of the prime movers.
This cue is especially beneficial in pressing movements (where being "under" the load can make for lazy hands) as well as lower body movements (where grip gets lazy as the legs fatigue).
2. Pull your Belt Buckle towards your Chin
Posterior pelvic tilt is an important skill for a client to master. For one, it is one of the four primary functions of the glutes as a muscle group. Secondly, it is a critical piece of the puzzle for maximally activating your core musculature by stabilizing your pelvis.
The problem is that most clients won't understand what a posterior pelvic tilt is, let alone how to do it. Enter this cue.
At times I'll say, "imagine having a big belt buckle like a Cowboy; now use your hips to flip that buckle upwards towards your chin".
While it may take a few tries - it sure works better than trying to explain pelvic function and muscle activation to a client who just wants to work out and get in better shape.
This cue works great on exercises like hip thrusts, split squats, plank variations, and even pull-ups.
3. "REACH" your Elbows in your Rows
The lats are a muscle designed to stretch. Just look at how the human arm looks in a swimming stroke, a tennis serve, or a pitch in baseball!
Once a client has demonstrated that they know how to properly retract the scapula while controlling the spine (neutral spine with minimum extension or flexion) - then I'll introduce a variation known as "reach rowing".
Common in the bodybuilding world as a technique to stretch and tear muscle for exceptional growth - it can easily be modified to enhance the stretch with less intensity for the common client.
The key is to coach the elbow - the more proximal part of the arm in relation to the latissimus dorsi muscle. This way, they won't overextend through their hands (thus losing grip) and won't over flex their cervical and thoracic spines to compensate for the lack of flexibility.
Give a try on your next row. Imagine your elbows reaching far in front of you; not your hands!
4. "Pull" your Pushes and "Push" your Pulls
This might be the BEST cue of them all.
Far too many people don't take the eccentric portion of their upper body lifts serious. Whether it is the old football player bouncing the barbell off their chest max repping 225 or the crossfit enthusiast dropping from the top of the pull-up bar after each effort...
People don't build tension throughout the eccentric enough.
This destabilizes the shoulder joint, puts the body at risk of injury, and disallows them from being the BEST version of themselves in these efforts.
Instead, coaching the "pulling" of pushes during the eccentric lowering phase loads the muscles of the back and builds tension for the concentric effort. "Pushing" your pulls away from you uses antagonist muscles to load tension from the back muscles into the pushing muscles and stabilizes the shoulder to avoid "bottoming out" at the end range of motion.
5. "Squeeze your knees together"
Your single leg patterns (lunges, split squats and even Romanian deadlifts) are likely suffering between your back leg wants to swing open to provide hip stability to the front (working) leg. Even if it is just a few degrees - this lack of kinesthetic awareness can lead to hip discomfort at worst and missed progress at best.
Thus, regardless of which single leg effort is being executed - I coach my clients to squeeze their knees towards each other. This activates the adductor muscles and properly stabilizes BOTH hips to keep the body in alignment and optimize the effect of the training pattern.
Definitely give this "squeeze" a try during your next rear foot elevated split squat session and marvel at just how much more intense the muscle burn feels.
BONUS: "Just Play"
Six is an odd number for a list, so we'll just call this one a bonus. Fair?
Listen, not every training pattern in the gym is meant to be executed to failure or with intensity that is meant to cause you to sweat and suffer. In fact, one could argue MOST work in the gym should be good enough to achieve some result without creating too much stress or fatigue.
(Somewhere a 24 year old wannabe bodybuilder is screaming - "you dont know what you are talking about Boomer"!)
But seriously, no one cares how much you cable chop. No one measures your lateral lunge output. So on and So on.
Sometimes, you want to just lower the weight (intensity) and allow your clients to literally play with the movement. Be more like water and less like a biomechanical robot.
In this way we better emulate the randomness of movement from our youth and MAYBE rediscover some of the coordination, mobility, and excitedness we once had!
But hey, maybe everything should be done rigidly to failure...right?
Your cues, like mine, are your language of success. Developing your best cues takes time and a deeper understanding of yourself, the exercises, and the client you are with.
Put simply, ask yourself...
What is the simplest thing I could say right now to get them to do this exercise better right now?
Do that enough and you'll be a true coach.