If you’ve ever found yourself playing a sport or in a gym somewhere you’ve probably at some point been given a piece of information that related to your performance of a skill or movement. For the purpose of this post we’ll call this piece of information the ‘feedback’ that is meant to direct your attention towards refining a component of the movement that you just completed and it is most commonly delivered in the form of a cue.
Cues are snippets of information, or task-orientated information, used to teach you how to perform the task/skill . Said another way, coaching cues are perhaps most often used to focus your attention on the key feature of the task/skill which is being taught (e.g., keeping the bar close during the second pull of a snatch, spreading the floor apart with your feet as you squat, or pressing yourself away from the bar while bench pressing) (2).
Cues can be visual, tactile, or verbal.
A visual cue often comes in the form of a demonstration from a coach or another individual. This sort of demonstration can happen before an individual performs an exercise, during, or after the set has been performed and can be quite effective for visual learners.
The next type of cue, tactile cueing, deals with people who are kinesthetic learners. Kinesthetic learner’s typically respond better to being put into a specific position, they may need to be put in a position so that they can feel what it should be like to be in that specific position while performing a movement. These sort of adjustments can be made before the movement has begun; having an adjustment made to your starting position in a deadlift, during the movement by having you drive your knees out against a coaches hands while performing an air squat, or at the ‘end’ of a movement while being cued to finish pressing the bar over head during a strict press.
A verbal cue is a concise phrase, often a word or two, that helps direct a learners attention to critical task stimuli and information about the movement that they are about to perform.
A verbal cue can come in the form of an internal cue; something that directs our attention to our own body (i.e. feel the weight in your foot), or an external cue; something that directs our attention towards the environmental affect of the action or something outside our body (i.e. pull the bar apart, spread the floor, brush your shirt with the bar).
While using internal cues our attention is directed towards our bodies movements, for example, while setting up for a squat you might here a coach instruct you to brace your core or take a deep breathe of air and think about pushing your obliques out. This causes us to shift our focus more towards the conscious control of the action that we are trying to perform. One of the common arguments that has arisen with internal cues is that they cause us to focus too much on the conscious control of a movement thus resulting in a jerky, hesitant, or unnatural movement.
It is believed that these type of cues can disrupt our automatic control/movement processes as they direct use to consciously organize our body’s movement [3,4].
As discussed earlier, an external cue is something that will direct our focus outside of our body. An example of this might be to provide an athlete with a cue to hit their head on the ceiling when they jump, brush their shirt with the bar during a clean, or to point their elbows at the wall while front squatting.
Using an external cue causes us to perform the movement without shifting as much of our conscious processes to the action which allows the action to be controlled more automatically. Said another way, it allows us to focus more on the outcome of the movement than the internal actions that are needed in order to perform that movement or skill.
How does this happen? The movement may be produced more automatically due to the precise motor units being activated to the optimal degree at the optimal time in order to maximize performance, whereas with internal cueing an unnecessary amount of motor units may be activated and force production may be altered in a way that may negatively impact an individual’s performance.
Now how can you use this in your own training. If you’ve ever noticed that your knees are caving in while squatting you could think about “spreading the floor apart”. Maybe the bar is getting away from you while you perform a snatch? Next time remind yourself to brush your shirt with the bar or maybe try to simplify it even more to thinking about one word i.e. ‘close’. Or maybe you have trouble keeping your upper back tight during bench press or your shoulder pulled back while sitting? Think about ‘squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades’ and see if that helps.
So which type of cue is the most effective? To be honest, at this point in time a lot of literature supports external cues being more effective for the long-term acquisition of a skill. However, when it comes to coaching it pays to incorporate each and every single one of the methods of cueing that you have at your disposal.
At the end of the day the best cue is the one that works. It doesn’t matter whether you made it up on the spot, heard someone say it, watched someone use it on another person, or you read it in a book. The cue that delivers the change in performance that we are after is the cue that is at that point in time the most effective.
This week in training:
A. Box Squat: 4 x 5 @ 80% 1RM or RPE 8 @ 3,2,1,1
B. Sumo Stance Good Morning: 4 x 6 @ RPE 8 @ 3,2,1,1
C1. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat: 3 x 8/Leg @ Rpe 8 @ 1,1,1,1
C1. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift- 3 x 8/Leg @ Rpe 8 @ 1,1,1,1
D. Deadbugs- 3 x 10/side
A) i) Incline Bench Press- 4×6 @ RPE 8 @ 2,2,1,1
ii) Bent Over Barbell Row- 4 x 6 @ RPE 8/10 @ 1,2,2,1
B) i) Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press- 3 x 6/side @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1,1,1,1
ii) Single Arm Dumbbell Row- 3 x 6/side @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1,2,1,1
C) Structural Work:
I) Zottman Curls- 3 x 8 @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1,1,1,1
II) Tricep Press Downs (with rope or band)- 12 Reps @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1,2,1,1
A) Conventional Deadlift- 4 x 4 @ 77.5% @ 1,1,1,1 *reset each rep (no touch-n-go)
B) i) Push Press: 3 x 6 @ 75% @ 0,1,1,1
ii) Pull-Up: 3 x 6 @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1,2,1,1
C) i) Single Arm Z-Press- 3 x 6/side @ 8RPE @ 1,2,2,1
ii) Lat Pull down- 3 x 7 @ Rpe 8/10 @ 1,2,1,1
D) Hollow Hold- 3 x 30s
- Benz A, Winkelman N, Porter J, and Nimphius S. Coaching instructions and cues for enhancing sprint performance. Strength Cond J 38: 1–11, 2016.
- Winkelman NC. (2016) Attentional Focus and Cueing for Speed Development. Strength & Conditioning Journal.
- Wulf, G., McNevin, N.H., & Shea, C.H. (2001a). The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A: Human Experimental Psychology, 54, 1143–1154.
- Wulf, G., Shea, C.H., & Park, J. (2001b). Attention and motor performance: Preferences for and advantages of an external focus. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 72, 335–344.