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Cuing Beyond Counting

Communicate your routine clearly and safely.

One of the many challenges of teaching a fabulous class is getting your message across effectively to participants. For some instructors, simply finding the beat or staying on phrase is difficult enough without having to become proficient at cuing. And yet, cuing is extremely important to the success of your students’ workouts.

The ultimate goal of good cuing is to ensure that students don’t get hurt or feel lost during the class. Inadequate instruction increases the chance that someone will get injured. And if participants must continually stop or pause in order to follow the routine, their overall workout is compromised. Students also feel less likely to do well in a poorly guided class.

Verbal and visual signals let participants know what is coming up next. Participants learn both visually and verbally, so it’s necessary to incorporate both cuing types in your repertoire. Whether you have been teaching for 1 month or many years, becoming proficient at cuing goes beyond counting and requires practice and experience. Try incorporating some of the following techniques in your next class and watch comprehension improve.

Visual Cues

Effective visual cuing shouldn’t rely exclusively on the Watch me teaching technique. Whenever you ask participants to watch you, that’s exactly what they do—they stop and watch. The true aptitude test is when you can cue a pattern breakdown without stopping to show a move.

You communicate the most powerful visual cues through facial and body expressions; your movements must be precise and controlled. Use distinctive postures and exaggerated motions to convey direction changes and proper exercise technique. When cuing a move that travels left or right, use big, animated movements to guide students in the direction you want them to go. Because students are mirroring your every move, it’s important to demonstrate exercises accurately. Sloppy motions will increase the chances that students will follow suit with poor and/or unsafe performance.

Facial expressions also visually impact cuing. People tend to be drawn to one another’s expressions, so it’s important to use your best assets—big, sparkling eyes and dynamic smiles. Eye contact strengthens verbal cues and creates a stronger connection with your students.

Your eyes also need to be on your students, just as their eyes are on you. Notice whether they’re catching on to your choreography or exercise sequences. Are they responding appropriately? If they look aggravated or show little or no response, it most likely means they aren’t getting the message. If that’s the case, adjust accordingly. Use different cues or modify the combination.

Verbal Cues

Always use clear, concise verbal cues. For example, “Knee up”—being short and to the point—is a better cue than “Now bring the knee up toward your waist.” Counting every beat of the music is not effective. As you become more expert, counting gets internalized and verbally cuing with the music becomes automatic. Count out loud as little as possible. The more precise and well-timed a cue is, the easier it is for students to translate the information into action. Counting to every beat of the music creates confusion and competes with the end goal, which is to introduce the next move.

How much verbal cuing you use should depend on the participants’ skill levels. Beginners often need more explanation and lead-in time. Therefore, when working with less experienced students, you may have to use 4-beat cuing. This means you explain the next move in 4 beats prior to implementing the move. The more lead-in time you give, the more prepared students will be.

Two-beat cuing is a more advanced technique because you say less. It is quick and works well with challenging choreography, up-tempo classes and advanced students.

Four-beat cuing does not mean you count 4, 3, 2 and 1 out loud. The counting is silent, and the cue itself signals the upcoming move. The same goes for 2- and 3-beat cuing. Here are some examples of 2-, 3- and 4-beat cuing:

2-beat cuing: silent count 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3; then say “knee up” on counts 2, 1

2-beat cuing: silent count 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3; then say “over” (count 2) “the top” (count 1)

3-beat cuing: silent count 8, 7, 6, 5, 4; then say “ham-string-curl” on counts 3, 2, 1

4-beat cuing: silent count 8, 7, 6, 5; then say “left-lead-turn-step” on counts 4, 3, 2, 1

Create an even stronger learning opportunity by combining visual and verbal cues. If you verbally cue “4 more,” visually use your fingers to count down from 4. The placement of your counting hand is important. Instead of holding it out to the side of your body, keep it close to your face. Because participants watch your facial expressions (specifically your mouth), they will cognitively make a stronger connection between the spoken words and the visual example when the two are close to each other.

Varying Cues

Although cuing communicates an upcoming transition or move, it also relays information and motivates participants. Different parts of the workout require different cues. For example, advanced choreography requires more directional cues. Use kinesthetic and body awareness cues with balance exercises. When you reach a physically challenging part of a workout, apply inspirational cues.

Verbal cuing also involves description. Descriptive cues provide the what, how and why of an upcoming move. Sometimes it’s necessary to explain the move, describe it and name it—all while cuing. An “around-the-world move” on the step may require that you explain each specific move as well as the name of the move itself. For example: “Left knee up straddle down, right knee up straddle down, left knee up straddle down and right knee up straddle down—traveling around the step and finishing where you started. You have just completed an around-the-world move. Let’s repeat.”

When it comes to instructing, sometimes less is more. We often make the mistake of thinking we need to talk and cue throughout the entire workout. Not so. Too much chatter can be irritating and take away from the truly important cues. It isn’t necessary to cue to every beat. Allow your students to concentrate on what they’re doing and give them the opportunity to get into the flow of the workout.

Interactive cuing is another effective technique. This is a fun way to get your message across while letting students participate in the process. Ask them specific questions about how many moves are included in a specific exercise. For example, if a combination has six lunges off the step, say, “How many lunges?” The question itself acts as the cue that the lunges are coming up and further helps students remember the combination.

Group fitness classes have their own set of verbal terminology. This language can sound foreign to an outsider—especially if it’s not conveyed well. If you enhance your communication skills with effective cuing, you’ll find you have an invaluable tool in every class you teach. Take time to practice these skills. Ask a coworker or manager to critique your skill set. You may even videotape your class and evaluate yourself at a later date. Regardless, any step you take toward improving your cuing ability will make your students’ experience better and ensure your success as an instructor.

cuing problems and solutions


relying on counting out loud

talking too much

cuing too late

What to Do

Listen to music in your car or at home. Count in your head and practice random 2-beat cues out loud. Next, eliminate out-loud counting altogether, and reintroduce it only in certain parts once you are efficient at cuing without counting out loud.

Limit talking in class to cuing and motivation only. Save long explanations for the strength or stretch segments of the workout.

  • Evaluate the amount of cuing you are giving.
  • Observe students to get a better understanding of what’s happening when they don’t grasp a move.
  • Check that you are using various voice inflections to indicate that a change is coming up.
  • Try to implement other advance-warning cues—such as a clap or a certain vocal sound—to indicate upcoming changes.
  • Say less, be specific and give succinct cues, such as “Knees up!” versus “Ready, knees up now.”
Krista Popowych

Krista Popowych inspires fitness leaders, trainers and managers around the globe with her motivating sessions. She is the 2014 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and a three-time (2016, 2008, 2003) canfitpro Canadian Fitness Presenter of the YearShe is Keiser’s global director of education, as well as a Balanced Body® master trainer, JumpSport® consultant, DVD creator, published writer, Adidas-sponsored fit pro and IDEA Group Fitness Committee member.

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