One of the most useful aspects of working with a coach or therapist is the ability for someone else to objectively examine your movement and correct it, which often comes in the form of providing cues. While these cues can seem silly or random, providing proper cues is a complex process that takes into account the client’s level of experience, the exercise involved, and the training goal.  Hopefully, this blog can help you better understand the cues each coach is giving you, as well as provide ways to incorporate cues into your sport to improve performance during a competition.

There are three main categories of cues – verbal cues, visual cues, and environmental cues.  Under both verbal and visual cues exist the sub-categories of external and internal cues. Aaron Swanson, a notable physical therapist and blogger, has written an extensive series on these topics, and if you are interested in more readings, here is a link to the first article of his awesome seven part series.

 As a rule of thumb, external verbal cues are best for all levels of learning to improve performance. These will be the vast majority of cues you will experience while being coached at Par4Success. By providing a quick phrase right before performing a lift, a coach can help calm your mind and simplify the exercise to let your body fully express its capabilities. A good example of an external verbal cue is to “push the ground away” while performing a deadlift. A recent suggestion has been made, however, about the usefulness of internal verbal cues, specifically during low-level skill acquisition and with chronic pain. The way our brain stores “movement memories” can often be drastically altered by pain and/or years of poor training, which cannot be undone with external verbal cues. Internal verbal cues ask the trainee to become more in-tuned with and aware of how their body is moving – “squeeze your glutes” is a simple example when performing a bridge.  This is a very important aspect of therapy and can be very effective when learning basic, slow movements that require precise body position. However, when playing a sport or performing a dynamic movement, research has shown that internal cues can negatively affect your performance. While the exact mechanism isn’t understood, a good hypothesis is that by using internal verbal cues during a high-performance task, you are actually hindering your body’s ability to perform by using your brain too much. 

External visual cues are very often used in golf – think about the flag! This can be used in training as well by providing targets for exercises such as scoop ball tosses, or in rehabilitation when mirrors are used to provide feedback for patients. Internal visual cues are best served prior to completing a task – think visualization. Greg Nuckols, a top-ranked powerlifter and writer, has created an awesome summary of the research when it comes to mental imagery, which can be easily applied to every sport. Try to create an environment, both in reality and in your mind, as close as possible to the task you want to do, and think about what needs to happen to have a successful lift, pass or putt.

Finally, environmental cues have become increasingly popular in the training and rehabilitation world with the utilization of Functional Movement Systems, started by therapist and strength coach Gray Cook and others. This style of therapy and training involves developmental positions, such as lying on your back or on all fours and performing exercises with the assistance or resistance of bands, blocks, or other props. This style of training utilizes the body’s natural ability to adapt to inputs in an attempt to change how your body reflexively moves. The assistance or resistance is given in the right amounts and at the right places to allow your body to subconsciously make corrections, again allowing your body to do the work instead of getting your brain involved.

When teaching an exercise, well-known strength coach Mike Robertson likes to utilize a four-step process – name the exercise, describe it verbally, demonstrate it, and then coach it. Point three is incredibly important for coaches and therapists alike – to properly teach something, a coach should be able to demonstrate it to a high level of proficiency. After performing a few reps of the exercise in a safe way, a good coach will take the time to figure out which cue will most simply and quickly fix whatever issues with form they are seeing.

Giving cues and good coaching is an ongoing and ever-evolving process, but each trainee can help by remembering cues that worked well for them, incorporating visualization before a session or lift, and by being engaged and present during a training or therapy session!

Bobby Prengle, SPT, CSCS
Par4Success Intern, Summer 2016
Class of 2017
Duke University School of Medicine
Doctor of Physical Therapy Division
For more on the Physical Therapy services we offer here at Par4Success, please visit our Physical Therapy page.