Changing the Internal by Coaching the External

Kevin Mullins | 05 Feb 2015

All trainers have been there before. You are trying your hardest to teach your clients to deadlift, squat, bench press, or even just walk correctly. You tell them to push their hips back, keep their chest up, flare their lats, and push their heels into the floor - all valid cues for any of the big four movements. Yet, there is still struggle, and an inability to master the movement.


All of these aforementioned cues are considered internal; which means they draw focus inside the client’s body. Depending on the exercise, the amount of internal cues that can be given to a client are seemingly endless. I admit that I have spent a lot of time in previous years saying, “push your hips back, and keep your chest up” when teaching a client a deadlift, bent-over-row, or even pick up a dumbbell appropriately from the floor.

Why, then, did I struggle to see results with these phrases when they are absolutely correct?

Chances are that our clientele know very little-to-nothing about the human body. Heck, I've even met surgeons and doctors who don’t understand pelvic tilt and spinal flexion-extension relationships. So, saying things like, Squeeze your glutes and try to bring your pelvis to a posterior tilt pattern” is only going to confuse them further.

Our challenge then as fitness professionals is to create a scenario for success without creating paralysis by analysis. If a client doesn't understand exactly what the pelvis is, then how can we possibly expect them to move it through a full anterior-posterior tilt pattern in the exercises?

Introducing: External Cues

External cues are the act of coaching the client’s focus outside of the client’s body. For example, saying, “push your butt back towards the wall” is a better alternative to, “push your hips back into an anterior pelvic tilt.” External cues help remove the clients from their own heads, and allow them to focus on completing an action - as opposed to each and every motor mechanic of a particular movement.

Cues should be very simple, yet very vivid.

For example, when I have clients do pull-ups - or lat-pulldowns - I tell them to have a "proud chest" like a security guard, and pull their elbows into their hip pockets. For me; this cues thoracic extension, lumbar stability, and proper movement of the scapula during the pulling phase. For the client; they have simple tasks that they can picture easily.

Another example, and joke, is that I often tell clients when they deadlift to,“make like a dancer and bring your hips to the bar.” It elicits a laugh and a lighter moment in our session, but also creates that vivid image of squeezing the glutes completely so that the pelvis comes forward towards the bar and the spine stays tall. I have many other goofy cues as well, but I don’t want to turn this blog into a list.

Because our cues are our own personal language, as trainers and coaches we should take pride in developing them and nurturing them. Granted, they shouldn’t be kept under lock and key and treated as though they are pertinent to National Security, but they should be held in high regard. They are what make us unique as trainers and lend to creating the experience that is training.

External Cue: How-To:

I challenge you to take many of those cues you've been using throughout your career and finding creative ways to introduce them into the session. Ask yourself:

  1. What does that movement look like?
  2. Is there something in everyday life that involves this movement without thought?
  3. Do my clients struggle with movements because they can’t, or because I can’t?
  4. Can I simplify the movement down to one action?

Our ultimate responsibility to our clients is to provide a fitness experience, and not just a training session. Everything from appropriate programming to the coaching we do during movements, and even our enthusiasm for our career lends itself to making our clients better as individuals. That is our ultimate responsibility.


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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is the Director of Product Development for The St. James in Springfield, VA. The author of Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success is a former EQUINOX Master Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Group Fitness coach. He has presented for the NSCA, SCW Mania, and contributes content to PTontheNet, other websites, and his own page:

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