TRAINERS! Your Cues are The Client's Results
How you say anything can matter more than what you say...
Think of the statement, "You are awesome". The way you interpret these words, when spoken, will depend heavily upon the emotional state you currently find yourself in.
Having a good day?
You'll clearly interpret it as a compliment.
Everything going against you today?
It's possible you'll see it as placation at best and sarcasm at worst.
As you can see, what is said didn't change...but how it was received has variability.
Which is exactly why personal trainers, coaches, and even physical therapists/doctors need to invest more time and education into developing their communication skills. For far too long fitness professionals have devalued the quality of the words they come out of their mouth when speaking to a client. This is especially true when the coach is cueing an exercise...
I've joked a few times in my career that I can tell when a trainer is new to the floor. You'll hear them count every repetition out loud and give congratulatory remarks after each and every number.
One, awesome job. Two, you got this. Third, you are doing excellent....
To be clear, this is BAD training.
I know, I know. It's not nice to pick on the new folks, but seriously, a client isn't being paid to have empty congratulations heaped upon them while their trainer demonstrates their ability to count like a first grader.
New trainers do this because they don't know what else to say mid-set to provide value. They don't want to be silent and seem non participatory. No, they want to be in the moment providing support and showing their attention. Yet, this approach is a classic example of speaking a lot, but saying nothing at all.
Instead, we want to keep our use of the human language intentional and specific. We want to cue specific actions, magnitudes of force, or directions of effort. We want to create visuals in our clients mind prior to the sets beginning, and remind them, quickly, once the weight starts moving.
See, the difference between a trainer and a coach is more than just semantics. You aren't a coach if you simply count repetitions and make people feel good about themselves. This is the activity of a TRAINER.
Instead, a coach gets into the experience with their client, learns about their lives, begins building personalized cues, and ensures that the client truly understands the tasks of the program. COACHING is about being capable of making improvements in a client's performance step-by-step. Coaching is done with intentional speaking.
To be clear, every coach begins as a trainer...
At some point though, that trainer must learn how to speak with influence and create change set by set and repetition by repetition. They must understand the power of preloading cues before an exercise, initiating coaching mid set, and reviewing efforts after. Any exploration of cueing must involve an exploration of WHEN they are appropriate. There is a time for more detail and there is time for short, direct cues.
Coaching at a higher level involves cueing at 3 specific times:
Before exercise initiation -
It is the responsibility of a coach to make sure a client or athlete understands what the task ahead of them requires. There are physical, mental, and even emotional components that must be considered when introducing an exercise to a client (even if they are well trained, or they've done this exercise before).
Ultimately, there are a few questions that every pre-set coaching opportunity should answer:
Where should the client feel this? Where should the resistance track (or move)?
How heavy is the weight? How will that feel to the client? How should they be ready to start the first rep? How should they execute the set?
When should they start? When should they stop? When should they do the "specific" thing that is unique to this exercise?
Why are they doing this exercise? Why is this the best option?
What are they doing?
You can answer these questions by doing great demonstrations of the exercise for your client. While doing these demo reps it is important to stop along different "sticking" points and provide cues and context.
For example, a deadlift off the floor or block requires pre-tension and actively driving down into the floor for leverage. Whereas a top-down RDL builds the tension in the eccentric lowering of the bar. These deadlifts are often taught similar by trainers, but coaches know that specific cues exist for specific movements.
From there, a quality explanation of how, why, where and what will help the client contextualize the effort. We want our paying client to understand that this is an exercise selected for them and their goals, where they should feel the effort, how they should feel while working, and what specific things need to be considered while they work (body position, grip, floor drive, etc.).
For example, that deadlift from the floor would have an explanation as follows:
So, we are going to be lifting this loaded bar from the floor to improve your strength output, enforce your hinge pattern, and build up the muscles on the back of your body. Don't be surprised if your heart rate is pretty high at the end of the set either, deadlifts are hard. Now, I want you to focus on 3 things: PUSH THE FLOOR AWAY, PULL THE BAR THROUGH YOUR BODY, and STAY TALL.
Right before your lift, I want you to take a big breath into your stomach, push your hips back and down as though you are about to butt bump a car door closed, and stop your feet into the ground as you stand 10 feet tall.
This sort of visual cueing answers every question outlined above. To credit of pioneer and legend Nick Winkelman, these sorts of descriptions are necessary to ensure optimal performance. Many of my coaching lessons are derived from the myriad of things this gentleman has shared with me and the world at large. Surely one of the best coaches to walk the floor.
(Check out his book Language of Coaching for a Master's Degree in Coaching)
During the Set -
To quote the certification that I travel and teach on behalf of Dr. John Rusin...
There is a time for thinking, and feeling, and learning...and it's not under a meaningful load or during a working set.
During PPSC weekends we are heavily invested in making sure our attendees become capable coaches who use warmups and pre-set coaching time to ensure that a client understands the tasks ahead of them. The last thing we want is to be yelling a bunch of cues and words at our client as they are trying to perform a maximum (or near maximum) effort movement.
This is why the entire section above (BEFORE THE SET) exists...
During a set, cues should fall into one of the following categories:
Client Breakdown/Body Position Cue
The most "reactive" of the bunch. These cues exist to be there when a client's form breakdown. This breakdown could be known (such as, Jimmy folds his spine as he gets tired in the back squat). Or it could be unexpected, such as a rapid flexion of the spine in a deadlift that doesn't normally happen. Our job is to keep clients in the best body position as best we can.
These cues are necessary because they ensure SAFETY. The unspoken and understood rule number 1 of the job.
Phrases such as, "Chest up, Hips Back, Sit Down, Knees Out, Stay Tall, or Punch your knuckles to the Ground" are all cues that might pop out of coach's mouth while a client is performing a repetition.
The key with these cues to use the ONE that is happening, and not just say a bunch of things that are "correct" but not relevant to the client or exercise.
Magnitude of Force Cue
A critical cue that is often overlooked. Clients must understand how much force they should be committing. There are times to be violent and times to be smooth...
Words like "push, pull, drive, kick, rip, tear, stomp, explode, and launch" are all great cues that demonstrate HIGH FORCE.
Words like "slide, glide, smooth, butter, and slow" initiate LOWER FORCE output in exchange for greater control and fluidity.
Direction of Force Cue
Directions guide us to a destination. In exercise, the destination is the path of resistance that must be overcome. It is the two end points of any given effort.
In a deadlift, the effort is down...not up.
In a squat, the effort is down...not up
In a overhead press, the downward phase builds tension for a better push
In a row, the effort is back and DOWN...and not into the traps
These examples demonstrate the importance of ensuring your client understands what they are doing from a directional stand point. Taking it a step further, these cues stack perfectly with force cues to form high value coaching.
PUSH THE FLOOR DOWN - squats/deads/lunges
RIP THE BAR APART - bench press, overhead press, pull-ups/pulldowns
SLIDE TO THE RIGHT AND PULL TO THE LEFT - lateral glide lunges
*Some exercises might even have specific cues that relate only to them. Tools such as kettlebells or maces as well as the entire sport of Olympic lifting are hosts to a litany of specific cues that only pertain to their specific instances.
After Completion (and before the next set) -
A simple review of the performance. What went well. What needs work. What can the client do better...
Ask questions about how the weight you chose felt. Ask about if they'd like to go heavier or lighter. Inquire about how they felt they did.
Use this opportunity to cement the learning experience for your client or athlete. The review allows for them to build mental repetitions simultaneously with the physical repetitions.
This process is outlined to help you deliver better sessions, better results, and build a more sustainable and enjoyable business. Personal training is always fun when results are being achieved and the trainer/coach is engaged completely in the client's efforts.
The last tip is to listen to the stories your client's tell you. Listen to the things that interest them. Have a client that loves the Avengers?
Ask them how a superhero stands...and they'll show you a tall spine with some thoracic extension and core engagement.
Client doesn't understand how to overhead press directly above their ears? Ask them to show you how they carried the waiter trey back in their restaurant days... You'll get great arm position, etc.
The best cues are always SPECIFIC and PERSONAL. The cue is for the client, not the coach.
And that is how you win. You build better cues by using better, more specific language. You get better results by coaching instead of training. Better results, then, are a product of better language.
I'm excited for you to add this lesson to your arsenal and serve the world at a higher level. Remember, we are in this to change the world, one body at a time.