As a personal trainer you take pride in your ability to motivate and inspire your clients to new levels of fitness, strength and self-esteem. Have you ever considered exactly how you do this? Is it your choice of words? Your tone of voice? Is it your timing (cadence of delivery)? Have you noticed that a key phrase works for one client, but not another? Or it works the first few times, then sounds trite or overused?

During one-on-one sessions—aware of it or not—trainers communicate constantly through cues. This is especially true now that so many trainers are using functional training with a variety of props. What are the principles you use to articulate to your clients? As a trainer, you guide your participants into proper body alignment, specific techniques and actions through your choice of words. You motivate and instruct with your cues! Therefore, determining how you sense things and how you communicate will prove beneficial. Taking the time to understand the principles of sensory awareness will also enhance your cuing skills and be a rewarding experience in itself.

What’s Your Type?

Each of us is a sensory being. Sound esoteric? It isn’t when you consider that each of us develops—and strongly depends on—one of our
sensory modalities. Knowing what “type” you are is the first step in developing successful cuing techniques for clients. The three main sensory modalities are visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and all three come with specific habits and cuing techniques.

Why is using sensory awareness cues important? It is a good idea to know, because it often determines success and exercise adherence among your clients.

  • To speak directly to a client’s primary modality means you are communicating in the most efficient way.
  • By being aware of how to speak to all three sensory modalities, you are sure to be on target for every participant.
  • Your own primary modality is the easiest for you to speak in, often unconsciously. For instance, do you say, “Do you see what I mean?” (visual), “Can you hear what I am saying?” (auditory) or “Try to get a handle on what I am saying” (kinesthetic)?

Practice makes perfect. Listen to how you and your clients use language. Which of the key words do you pick up in their speech: seeing, hearing or feeling? This becomes a fun discovery project.

Cuing One Step at a Time

To maximize sensory awareness cues, I have developed what I call “the ladder to successful communication.” I use this simple learning tool to implement new levels of cuing. The first step on the ladder is to cue an action. For most veteran trainers this is simple: What do I want my client to do? The action defines the following: Which body part is moving? Which body part is stationary? What is the direction of movement? The next step on the ladder is to direct the client’s focus. Is it internal or external? The third step is to incorporate sensory awareness cues—visual, auditory or kinesthetic.

I spoke with Courtney Wogan, a trainer at the Western Athletic Club in downtown San Francisco, about her training program. To illustrate the “ladder” process, I chose three examples from one of Courtney’s routine training sessions.

Exercise: Lat Pull-Down
on a Machine

Purpose: To define the exercise in a safe, clear manner.

Action: Your client is seated facing the machine. You say: “Place your hands on the bar, making sure that your wrists are neutral. Shrug and then release your shoulders to ensure that your neck muscles are not engaged and your trapezius muscles are not elevated when you begin your pull-down. Lean away from the bar. Breathe in. Exhale as you pull the bar to your chest.”

Focus: As the client continues with the lat pull-down exercise, the focus is external. “As you pull down, feel your breastbone rise as your elbows move closer to your waistline. Press your sitz bones evenly into the seat.” Now shift to an internal focus: “Even out your breath. Inhale as you release the bar upward and exhale as you pull the bar to you. Imagine that your chest is a cylinder. Empty this cylinder as you pull down. Fill it all the way to the top as you release the bar upward. Make your movements steady and even.”

Sensory Awareness Cue: “Visualize your back as a triangle, with the wide points at your shoulders and the point facing downward. Draw your arms evenly down the sides of this triangle to the center point. Focus on the rhythm of your breath. Bring your attention to your shoulder blades as you pull. Feel your lats engaging as your shoulder blades retract downward.” (Here you could even lightly touch the client’s lats.) In this example we have directed the focus inward and used both visual and kinesthetic cues.

Exercise: Crunch
on a Stability Ball

Purpose: To establish the movement and set up a safe experience on the ball.

Action: “Sit on the ball in such a way that your feet are securely planted on the floor. Be aware that the ball is a circle and as such will roll. Your feet and pelvis are your main points of stability. Move gently forward and backward, tracking the floor through the ball. Allow the back of your pelvis to sink into the ball. This sacral area is your steering device and your stability point on the ball.” By naming the sacral area the “steering device,” you caution the client not to lose contact with this area or the ball will be a ball and not an abdominal crunch device.

Focus: The focus, which is internal, has already been established because of the safety issue. The actual crunch action now needs to be cued. “Walk your feet out so that the lower tips of your shoulder blades are making contact with the ball. Draw your navel downward toward the ball. Maintain the length in your trunk and bring your awareness into the connection between your ribs and your hips. Place your hands behind your head, dropping your chin downward toward your cervical spine (not your chest). Exhale as you focus your attention on your abdominal wall, feeling it contract. Lift your upper back toward the ceiling. Inhale as you press your torso back into the ball.”

Sensory Awareness Cue: “Visualize your spinal column as a flex straw. Sense into the contact made at the base of the straw as you lift and curl from the flex point of the straw.” (Note: The word sense is a kinesthetic directive that asks one to investigate. The focus is directed into the spot. The phrase sense into is asking, “What does this area feel like? What is happening in this area?”)

Exercise: Lateral Moving Squat With a Dyna-Band®

Purpose: To accurately find the most comfortable range of motion.

Action: “Step into the middle of your Dyna-Band, gripping the edges while maintaining a neutral wrist. The balls of your feet are evenly pressing the Dyna-Band into the floor. Pull the edges up to your waist as you widen your feet to stretch the Dyna-Band. Feet, knees and legs are parallel, hip-distance apart.”

Focus: “Soften your knees, reaching your tailbone slightly backward as you step to the right two steps. Reverse and step to the left two steps. Allow your shoulder blades to ‘melt’ downward as your chest broadens. Reach your tailbone farther backwards into a full squat.”

Sensory Awareness Cue: “Bring your focus into the action of your thighbones reaching forward as your buttocks reach backward. Make your movements even as if your tailbone were drawing even strokes downward then upward.”

Communicating with clients is not always as cut-and-dried as engaging in conversation. Learning the subtleties involved in sensory awareness cuing can enable you to articulate your thoughts on an advanced level, leading to a rewarding outcome for both you and your clients.