Improve Your Coaching Cues

Model: Robin Kennedy | Photographer: Darcie Kennedy

Today we’ve got an awesome guest post from Jon Goodman that I know the coaches and trainers out there will enjoy!

If you want to make your job easier, while helping your clients and athletes get more out of their training, you’ll really enjoy it!

And don’t worry if you’re not a coach or trainer – if you just want to get more out of your time in the gym, there’s something in here for you as well.

Here’s Jon!


Are You Over-Cued?

“Head neutral, chest up, back straight, abs tight, glutes on, knees in line with second toe, Knees don’t pass your feet, drop to parallel, 3s down and 1st up, explosive breath……………..”

The above list’s all used for cueing the squat. It goes on (I got tired just thinking of them). In fact yesterday I overheard a trainer teaching a new client the bodyweight squat to a box. It was their second session ever. Here’s the conversation paraphrased:

“Great work on the mobility drills. I’m going to teach you how to squat. The squat is a fantastic full body exercise that works the hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes, abs, low back and upper back.

What you want to think about is lowering yourself slowly down to the bench while keeping your abs tight. You should have your chest up and pinch your shoulder blades. On the way down you’ll know if you’re doing it right if your knee stays over your second toe and doesn’t pass your feet. Breath out on the way up and squeeze your butt at the top.

Ok – Let’s see you do it.”

Slow down Sparky – your client isn’t impressed you can rattle off more cues than a pool hall.

I’ve been squatting for 10 years and can’t remember all that nonsense. If I didn’t designate a separate pocket for my wallet, keys and phone and habitually do a pocket check when I walk out the door I’d forget them too.

Nobody learning a skill can concentrate on the 10 cues I outlined above FOR ONE EXERCISE? Add to it that most workouts have 6-8 different movements and separate days. We’re talking 60-80 cues to remember for one workout and 160-320 cues to remember each workout!

Not only are clients and exercises alike being overloaded with cues — the worst part is that these cues are meaningless.

Do you care about having your knee in line with your second toe?

Do you care that your head is neutral?

I don’t.

None of this matters by itself. Meaning and emotion must be associated with it.

What the trainer should have done

(If you’re not a trainer I have info for exercisers below)

The trainer had completed an assessment of the client and determined they were ready to attempt a bodyweight squat. I agree with the description of the squat above except I would have added a personal touch.

Likely somewhere in the conversation the client would have mentioned their interests. Say, for example, they’re a skier. My speech would have gone something like this:

“Great work on the mobility drills. I’m going to teach you how to squat. Squats are a fantastic full body exercise that will make you stronger on your ski’s by strengthening your legs. They’re also a great fat burning exercise because of the large muscles involved. I’m going to demonstrate one and you copy me.”

[I demonstrate 2 reps and have my client do a set of 3-5]

Here’s the thing. I’m willing to bet that my client will emulate me reasonably well and naturally completes most of the cues. My job’s to watch them perform 3-5 reps and see which parts they don’t do well.

After they finish I prioritize the 1-2 MOST IMPORTANT aspects of form I want them to fix and cue them on those. I then take some time to make the cue memorably. For example if their knee was caving in I’d say:

“Your squat looks pretty good but I want you to keep your knee over your toe. Picture yourself on the ski hill, your body moves with your ski’s. The same thing happens with the squat. It can do a lot of damage to your knee if it doesn’t stay in line with your toe. Every time I say “knees” remember to keep them in line”

3 points here: The first is making the cue short. During a set 1-2 words is all you should be saying (more on this later) so connect your explanation to those 1-2 words.

I also helped relate the cue to something the client knows well — in this case skiing.

Lastly the cue was made emotional by telling the client they could injure themselves if their knee is out of line.

One of the best coaches of all time, John Wooden, would famously give 1000’s of cues over the course of one practice. These cues were direct, specific, and meaningful. Most of all they were short – usually 1-3 words.

If you want your clients to pick up skills quickly I suggest you follow the same model. Pick 1-2 cues per session and repeat them over and over and over again.

Using the example above let’s say that I prioritized and decided I wanted to cue my clients to ensure that their knees alig over their second toe and they engage their glutes. I’d discuss both via the script above and use two words during the whole set. “Glutes” and “knees”. My client knows exactly what I want, they can relate it to something they know, and they know why it’s important. I’d say knees every time they squat down and glutes every time they come back up.

I’m selfish and lazy

My job becomes easier than the guy who designed the Angry Birds app when I cue this way. (Seriously, that guy must be chilling on his island right now.)

Second, my client knows what the short cue means and why they should follow it my job is done. If you train 8-12 clients in a day like me then you know the importance of conserving your energy.

What If I’m an exerciser and not a trainer?

With a little dedicated practice you can pick up skills faster than I can say ‘hand grip dynamometer’. A proper visual image is paramount to learning so I suggest having videos loaded on your phone or ripping out pages from a magazine and bring them with you to the gym. Close your eyes and try to visualize the movement before trying it.

Watch the video or look at the picture in between every set. The first day you do the exercise concentrate on one joint each set. Make sure you look the same as your example. If you find that your shoulders are rounded compared to the picture keep repeating the word shoulders throughout the set. Close your eyes and visualize the picture while repeating the word. Cue yourself.

Soon the new exercise will become a habit and you can start piling on weight and muscle.

By the way – this works for all skills not just exercise. If you want to improve your memory or become a better soccer player follow the same steps. The next time you teach or try to learn an exercise remember the following:

Emotion drives action. Nobody takes a step, loads a bar, or lifts heavy-ass weight off of the floor unless driven by a motive meaningful to them. Success in coaching stems from understanding that motive.

About Jon Goodman

Jon Goodman’s a little obsessed with personal training ever since he started working out as a 105lb 16 year old. To do his part he started a free collaborative free resource for trainers everywhere called the Personal Trainer Development Center. He’d also love it if you added him on Facebook and/or followed him on Twitter. Make sure to say hi if you do.


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  1. Great advice!!! I agree – it’s a lot to ask the clients to think about when we give them 10+ things to think about. It’s sort of comparable when someone is trying to give advice for hitting a golf ball….I can’t overthink – I just have to swing 🙂 Great post!

    • Thanks. This advice actually works for any type of skill. It’s kind of like the 80/20 principle on steroids. Try it with a memory task. You’ll be blown away with how well it works

  2. John,

    Loved how you made the emotional connection to the cue so it would make more sense, and have more meaning, to the client rather than using generic terms/orders.

    Great stuff!

  3. Superb!
    A good coach can find the 1 or 2 cues (individual specific) that creates a vastly better movement pattern.
    Great article outlining the framework to find and apply correct cues. Emotion is a great touch that I’ll consciously incorporate having read this. Thank you!

  4. What a fantastic article! I always felt I used too many cues but I just assumed this was the way it was done. I will be taking everything you have said on board and learning from it. Thank you.

  5. Awesome. I am a new coach and have been trying to do some research on coaching and cuing techniques. This was a very helpful approach and start. Thank you for posting this.

    I love making it connect emotionally

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