Elite trainers have in-depth knowledge and skill in their area of expertise and know how to communicate information effectively to their clientele. While some trainers may seem blessed with an ability to communicate well, most of us need to work hard at it. One critical communication skill that takes practice and that most elite trainers need at some point in their careers is cuing.

All group exercise instructors worth their salt understand the importance of cuing while leading a class. I discovered this firsthand as a graduate student when I agreed to teach an undergraduate activity course on aerobic fitness that had to include a variety of group exercise methods, such as low-impact aerobics and step. Although I had taken a course in group exercise instruction and had choreographed the entire session, I was not prepared for how difficult the cuing would be. Having to communicate to participants not only what we were doing at any given moment but also what we were about to do was difficult. In fact, I have to admit that those first few classes were pretty bad. However, with time, repetition and a lot of effort I did improve.

Although cuing in a one-on-one training session is different than it is in the group environment, I highly recommend that personal trainers get some experience in group exercise leadership, as it is
extremely valuable. In addition, my industry experience has led me to believe that trainers with a group leadership background are better at cuing overall.

Effective cuing can be elusive, especially when a trainer has a particular teaching style and the client has a different learning style. A trainer who is unable to adapt his teaching style to a client’s learning style will be ineffective (with that particular client), and the client will become increasingly frustrated. Is one style of instruction better than another, or is one wrong while another is right? I believe that almost any trainer can be effective with a client (assuming that the trainer has the proper educational background, skill and ethical conduct). The most effective way is to have a good match of teaching and learning styles. But I also believe that the best trainers are those who have a firm grasp of effective cuing techniques and can adapt their styles to meet clients’ individual needs.

Learning Styles

Let’s take a look at learning preferences, since this is an important aspect of becoming an effective teacher and communicator. According to Rose and Nicholl (1997) there are three basic learning preferences: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

Visual: Learning Through Seeing. Visual learners learn best through seeing the information being taught. Seeing would include activities such as reading text and looking at pictures, flow charts or diagrams. Visual learners also process information while observing demonstrations; for example, when watching a trainer perform a movement several times.

Auditory: Learning Through Hearing. Auditory learners prefer to learn by hearing instructions, listening to lectures and taking notes.

Kinesthetic: Learning Through Doing. Kinesthetic learners prefer movement and hands-on activities. They like to use the senses of touch, smell and taste in the learning experience.

Although most individuals are going to have a dominant learning preference, it will not be exclusive. That is, we use all of these learning styles to a certain degree. My wife, for example, has a learning preference that is highly visual, moderately kinesthetic and to a small degree auditory. It is difficult for her to paint a picture in her mind based on auditory descriptions. She needs to see it in order to “get” it. Many of our conversations end with her saying, “Just show it to me.” It also helps for her to try it out herself and learn experientially.

I have experienced similar situations when training clients. One client of mine was highly kinesthetic and explanations only confused her—so much so that I stopped even trying to explain movements to her and realized it was better to demonstrate an exercise once or twice and then have her do it while I provided manual and verbal feedback.

Effective Cuing Principles

Visual Cuing

In order for visual cuing to be effective, the trainer’s physical movements must be efficient and precise so the client can see how to perform the movement correctly. If you are giving visual cues, avoid unnecessary gestures and movements that will get in the way. When possible, break down the exercise into parts that can be sequenced together.

Even seemingly simple movements, such as a biceps curl, should be cued visually to enhance performance. When a client watches you perform the movement first, she has a good reference point for correct mechanics; this can be enhanced if the client can view herself performing the movement in a mirror.

It is also extremely helpful to demonstrate common technique errors while you explain how to avoid them. For example, a common error in performing the biceps curl is anterior movement of the elbow. By seeing how this error looks, the client will be more attuned to self-correction.

Verbal Cuing

This is the bread and butter of good coaching. Experienced trainers have developed specific verbal cues to use with clients when teaching certain movements. These cues have been practiced and refined during thousands of training sessions.

Verbal cuing is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching for novice trainers. They may know how to perform a movement correctly and even how to demonstrate it perfectly, but often they stumble over their words when trying to correct a client verbally. If you’re a novice trainer, endeavor to provide specific feedback in language that reinforces correct movement patterns: “Your knees stayed in proper alignment with your ankles that time” or “Keep your elbow closer to your side.” Phrases like “Good job” and “Well done” don’t provide feedback that is specific enough to reinforce correct movement patterns.

Verbal cues can be transitional, goal-oriented, process-oriented or mindful (Jones & Rose 2005).

  • Transitional cues guide clients from one exercise movement to another (e.g., “one, two, three, begin”).
  • Goal-oriented cues help motivate individuals to complete a task and can be timed (e.g., number of seconds to sustain a movement) or numerical (e.g., number of repetitions to complete).
  • Process-oriented cues focus on the quality of the movement and how the body feels during the exercise.
  • Mindful cues use stimuli such as events, visualization or imagery to help the client complete the movement. Instructors of mind-body disciplines, like yoga and Pilates, rely heavily on mindful cuing.

Each kind of verbal cue is effective when used appropriately.

Kinesthetic Cuing

Also called tactile or physical cuing, this can be a very effective technique for teaching proper movement patterns, especially with novice clients, as it trains their kinesthetic awareness. In this technique the trainer physically guides the client’s body through the desired movement pattern or into the proper position. When the muscle group being challenged is touched, the client receives more somatosensory feedback, which can help develop a stronger mind-body connection.

For example, in a standing transverse twist with a cable machine, the goal is to “separate” the movement of the upper torso from the hips. Kinesthetic cues will help accomplish this: Instruct the client to pull the cable across his body by turning the shoulders and keeping his hips stationary. Most individuals really struggle with this at first. Assist your client by firmly holding onto his hip bones to keep him stationary, which will help him gain a better understanding of how to stabilize the hips while his upper body is twisting.

Once he understands this, place your fingertips lightly on the hip bones so the client must stabilize on his own. He will feel his hips move away from your fingers if the movement is performed incorrectly.

Any kind of physical touch between trainer and client must be appropriate. Before you begin, state that you will be using touch and explain why. Pay attention to nonverbal cues and discontinue touch if you feel the client is uncomfortable.

Putting It All Together

Although it is helpful to practice each of these cuing styles independently, the truth is that we typically use all three simultaneously or sequentially when teaching a new movement. For example, a common technique I use when teaching a rowing movement is to perform the movement myself first (visual cue) while explaining the proper form and naming the muscle groups that are being used (verbal cues). Simultaneously, I have the client place a hand between my shoulder blades as I am doing the movement (kinesthetic cue). I first perform the row with little to no scapular retraction and ask the client to note the low level of muscular activity. Then I perform the row properly with strong scapular retraction and ask the client to perform the movement as in the latter demonstration. We then switch spots, and I place my hand between the client’s shoulder blades, explaining that I want to feel the same magnitude of scapular retraction. This technique, while simple, is extremely effective for clients of all abilities and capitalizes on all three cuing types.

While knowledge of physiology and exercise is obviously a critical aspect of being a high-quality trainer, effective
cuing can turn a good trainer into an
exceptional one.