One of the requirements for a coach to be “good” is their ability to relay information to a client so that they can correctly and comfortably execute strength training movements. The inability to do this contributes to incorrect form, which in turn stalls progress at best and can cause injury at worst.
Being able to teach exercises properly is at the forefront of the Certified Personal Trainer’s job. There are several core concepts that personal trainers need to be aware of to be successful at coaching exercises. These include:
- Appropriate exercise selection
- How to use cueing and compensatory assistance together
- Using the correct type of cueing
- Frequency of feedback
None of these concepts should be thought of in isolation; instead, they must be integrated.
APPROPRIATE EXERCISE SELECTION
The first thing a personal trainer or corrective exercise specialist will do with a new client is a movement assessment. The assessment helps the trainer design the client’s “trainable menu.” That is, what exercises the client can and can’t do currently, and which ones they may never be to do (i.e., due to injury, anthropometrics, or preference).
At first, clients may have a limited exercise menu. The more novice the individual is, the fewer exercises they have at their disposal. For example, you would not expect a beginner to complete a push jerk, a back squat, or a conventional deadlift. When attempting to expand a client’s training menu, the personal trainer needs to consider: (1) learning potential of the exercise and (2) performance.
LEARNING POTENTIAL AND PERFORMANCE
Learning potential and performance share a relationship that is based on available information. Performance strictly refers to the ‘correctness’ of the movement, not the load per se. If a client masters an exercise, it has been learned and can be used to help clients reach goals.
If a client does an exercise 100% correctly, there is little learning potential. That means this exercise can be loaded up. On the flip side, if a client does an exercise with too many errors, there is also little learning potential.
For example, imagine trying to teach a power clean to a client before they knew how to do prerequisite movements such as a squat or a hinge. They would have severe detriments to performance and would find the exercise challenging to learn.
However, if a client has minor errors in an exercise (i.e., slight foot pronation during a squat), then they have the potential to detect and correct errors. The load that a client uses is a function of an acceptable level of error. If they exhibit slight foot pronation during a 30-pound goblet squat, the errors will not cause problems that they may with a heavy back squat.
Work on coaching minor errors before adding more load. If they have excellent technique, load the exercise up, and if they have significant technical errors, regress the exercise.
USING COMPENSATORY ASSISTANCE AND CUEING TOGETHER
You can think of compensatory feedback as a subcomponent of cueing. Cueing involves merely using words to change a client’s movement. Compensatory assistance involves using external props to help the client understand the movement. You should use cueing and compensatory assistance in conjunction with each other.
For example, a coach may put a band around a client’s knees and instruct them to push the band out. The cue “knees out” coupled with the band resistance (the compensatory assistance) can help the client avoid foot pronation or valgus collapse.
Compensatory assistance can be accomplished in several ways, including with your own hands, with a band, with dowels, or even with weights.
INTERNAL VERSUS EXTERNAL CUEING
For an exercise to be done correctly, the movement needs to be correct (what we would consider technique), and a client should feel the exercise in the right spot. Therefore, we can judge the correctness of a resistance training movement based on how a lift looks and how it feels. The personal trainer needs to then cue a client to ensure that both components are met.
Internal cueing directs attention towards what is going on in the body (i.e. squeeze your chest muscles) whereas external cueing directs attention to the outcome of the movement (i.e. punch the bar up). Internal cueing is essential to ensure that the client feels the exercise in the right spot.
External cueing is very useful for lifting higher loads and for getting a movement down correctly. By the end of this piece, you’ll learn how to put all these concepts together, including internal and external cueing.
FREQUENCY OF FEEDBACK
When I teach the importance of frequency of feedback in my strength and conditioning courses, I encourage my students to think of a GPS. I tell them to imagine the first time they ever drove to campus. I ask if they used a GPS. Most of them say yes. A personal trainer is a lot like a GPS.
Clients need directions the first time they do an exercise. However, the goal is to have the client learn. If a student in my class relied on the GPS each time they went to campus, they would never learn how to get to school. Similarly, we do not want clients to be reliant on personal trainers for movement success.
Personal trainers should be wary of giving too much feedback. For a client to learn, they should be able to detect and correct errors on their own. When people are introduced to a new movement, they need lots of feedback.
However, as they continue to practice, try giving less feedback. Of course, if a client is in a position where they may injure themselves, step in with some feedback.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
To put these concepts together, it’s useful to see them in practice. We will use the deadlift as an example since this is one of the more technically demanding lifts that require feeling it in the right places as well as moving correctly.
Check out the videos below and see these principles in action. And remember, to correctly coach exercises you need to pick the appropriate exercises, cue properly, and give the correct amount of real-time feedback and direction to your clients.
INTERNAL CUEING: BUILDING UP TENSION
CUEING SCAPULAR POSITIONING
EXTERNAL CUEING WITH COMPENSATORY ASSISTANCE: GETTING THE MOVEMENT DOWN
COMBINING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CUEING WITH COMPENSATORY ASSISTANCE