“Cueing” clients is a big part of a trainer’s work. It is the sum of all the things we say and do to help you, our clients, execute a movement correctly. For example I may ask you to “engage your upper back,” or I may say “put your shoulders in your back pockets,” or I may actually touch your upper back. All of these cues are driving the same movement. Cueing is part science and part art, and you can actually find a fair number of articles written on the subject. There are internal cues and external cues. We can cue with contact or without contact. We can over-cue our clients. We can under-cue our clients. Which cues are most successful can vary from client to client.
There are a number of widely used cues and then we have our own cues. Sometimes they are crafted with a client in mind but sometimes they just fly out of our mouths and stick. When they stick, they become part of our cueing toolkit.
If I were to have one of my own cues put on a t-shirt, it would say “Do it like you want to be here.” This phrase flew out of my mouth when I was working with a group of folks who had been lifting with me for a couple of months. At the moment they were moving like floppy noodles, not like powerlifters. The energy in the gym was low. The room was hot and crowded. The New York City subway had zapped the remaining energy from them during their commute. They showed up corporeally speaking, but they were not present. We all show up to things a little “checked out” sometimes. It is beautifully human.
I knew they knew how to lift, and I was so tired of hearing my own voice repeat a litany of the same cues that I knew they could recite and then execute on their own. I too was a bit of a floppy noodle.
They did know how to lift but it was uncomfortable to be there, in their bodies, in that hot gym, at the end of a long day. In response, they had checked out. And in response to their absence, I opened my mouth and shouted over the music, “DO IT LIKE YOU WANT TO BE HERE!” After we had a good laugh, most of them landed in their bodies, and they all began to lift just as well as I knew they could. From there I could cue them as needed.
“Do it like you want to be here,” has become one of my favorite cues but it probably doesn’t sound that constructive to other trainers.
After some time with a particular movement, you know how to do the movement, and eventually, at comfortable weights, it can become routine. The movements become part of your procedural memory. You have demonstrated the ability to do the movement, but as it gets harder you will probably need to be reminded to move correctly. Some things that may make it harder are doing more reps, using heavier weights, working with tempo, or you are just feeling like garbage that day. But if you have been doing the movement for some time, you probably already know what moving correctly entails and if you need cues, you can cue yourself. What you really need — is to be reminded is to be present.
Now you can use cues to stay present. I do. I use cues for myself almost like mantras. You can say those things to yourself, to keep yourself mindful of what your body is doing, the way in which one might count breaths when practicing mindfulness meditation at first. For a deadlift I say to myself as I execute each part of the lift, “Big brace. Push the floor away. Hips!” The reminder is simple. Being present for a whole workout is really hard.
I took karate for a couple of years and one of my teachers, Sensei David, would remind the class that we were there to “practice,” implying that we were going to make mistakes because that is the work of practicing to get better. I needed that reminder. Repeatedly. I also realized that this mentality applied whenever we use the term “practice.” For me this included having a mindfulness meditation practice in which I had to be reminded to come back to the present moment as often as 10 time in a minute! I was practicing coming back to myself in a controlled environment, so I could do it under stress.
Stress makes us uncomfortable. It causes tension. Maybe your heart races when you are under stress, and your breath gets shallow, even though you are just sitting on a meditation cushion. All this discomfort makes many of us mentally check out — even just a little. Or maybe we stay in our bodies, but those feelings are associated with fear so it gets scary, and we get more stressed out. But if we invite ourselves to practice staying with our bodies in a tolerable and controlled environment we are more likely to do so under stress. I realized the same went for powerlifting practice which I did four times a week. I needed to practice in a controlled environment, the gym, so when I was under stress, whether that was dealing with a personal conflict or competing I could still stay present and I could still pick up the very heavy thing.
Each time we train, we should be practicing the movements and we should be practicing feeling them. When we do this, we are engaging in a sort of mindfulness practice.
If you are working with me, I am going to make damn sure that you are practicing staying present.
Why? Three reasons:
You are more likely to do it correctly which leads to less risk of injury.
You are more likely to do it correctly which leads to more gains.
You are practicing being in your body, creating a conversation with your body, during the discomfort that comes with the stress of exercise. We are practicing tolerating the discomfort of your feelings (happy/sad type feelings as well as feelings like fatigue/excitement) by staying with the movement, even when it is hard for emotional or physical reasons.
Well yes, with cueing. I am going to cue you to feel into the moving parts as well as the stabilizing parts. And we are going to work on holding both in consciousness at once. You may be surprised, but this is hard.
I am going to ask you to feel a part of your body that is still but working on bracing and I am going to ask you to experience tolerable amounts of discomfort. Not what I deem tolerable mind you — that is up to you.
By starting off and warming up with the intention of fully arriving in yourself because sometimes we need time to land in our bodies.
A lot of good trainers do this without it being an explicit intention. Because if you are not paying attention to how you are moving, you are not going to see the same results as you would if you did. I did not reinvent the wheel, I am simply doing this with a very clear intention.
I invite you to play with this on your own. Next time you find yourself engaging in movement — whether that be lifting weights, walking, running, dancing, snowboarding, cooking, or gardening — practice staying engaged with your body. See if you can feel not just the moving parts but the support of your trunk, of your whole back, of your feet on the ground (if they are on the ground). Notice that when you engage with your whole body in some ways it may feel harder (takes more energy), but in other ways it may feel easier (lends itself to more controlled movement). Afterwards, take stock of the experience. Maybe you hated it. Maybe you loved it. Maybe it was a mixed bag. Regardless you now know yourself a little bit better and that in itself is pretty cool.