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Layering Your Cues: A Simple Way to Drastically Improve Your Coaching

I used to be really shy. Part of the reason why I picked the coaching profession was because I knew it would take me out of my comfort zone.

If I had gone WITH my comfort zone, I would have majored in English and become a writer of some kind. But I knew if I did that, I would never really force myself to develop as a person.

Plus, after going to one of the University of Evansville’s campus days (where you got to sit in on classes and whatnot) I quickly realized the people I would be surrounded by in an English major weren’t exactly my cup of tea.
As much as I love writing, I’m not one to participate in a conversation on the inner workings of a Jane Austen novel. I’m a nerd, but I have standards.

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Anyway, part of being good at coaching is being able to interact with people you don’t know well and getting them to do things they’ve never done before in a way that is fun and engaging for them.

So naturally, I wasn’t the best at that when I was 1st starting out coaching. It just wasn’t a natural skill set for me. I could sit at my computer and write up an incredible program, no questions asked, but as far as cueing someone through that program effectively so that they could pick up movements with ease and quickly overcome technical roadblocks…yeah that wasn’t so easy.

But looking back, it was a blessing in disguise. Because it forced me to study how great coaches do what they do.

One of the primary lessons I have learned and applied is that while programming systems (e.g. structuring a macrocycle, progression/regression continuums for different movement patterns) are fantastic, if you don’t have COACHING systems, the programming stuff won’t really go very far.

I would rather have a coach on our team who couldn’t program for shit but could COACH versus someone who could write up a great program, but not know how to teach it effectively.

When I say coaching systems, let me frame it in the context of a deadlift.

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Sure, we know what we want a deadlift to look like when it is all said and done. And we even know the movement progressions we are going to take them through to get them to pulling a bar off the floor.

But what about the cues? Do we have a system for that?

I first began thinking about this after shadowing at IFAST (Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training) back in 2012 when I was coaching in Dayton, Ohio.
I think it was strength coach Mike Robertson who was talking about it, but it was a story about someone who trained there.

This trainee was given a cue on a movement she had done many times before.

After the set, she turned to the coach flabbergasted and said,

“Why didn’t you ever tell me that before?”

“Because you weren’t ready for it!”

A lightbulb went off in my head upon hearing that story and it’s probably one of the more powerful things I’ve heard in my short coaching career.

To be the most effective coach for your clients, you have to know how to layer your cues.

This basically means don’t give them everything at once! And this is where the systems come in, because you have to know which cues are needed at what time and know when to introduce the next one.

The difficult aspect of this is it is a very fluid process. It’s not as set in stone as a set and rep scheme, for instance. It evolves on the fly based on someone’s learning style (visual vs. auditory) and if you actually gave the right cue for that individual in the first place.

This topic could be a novel, so I’m going to just use one exercise I referenced above, the deadlift, and one set of cues.

I know, big surprise. But the deadlift a solid example because it has many nuances. I’ll do my best to keep this as broad as possible, but please understand that everyone is different and the beauty of having a system is that you can plug and play as needed based on the person you have in front of you. It just takes practice. I’ll sum everything up at the end so you can see the “system”.

Ok, so the deadlift. What is the first thing you want someone to be able to do?

Engage their lats?
Spread the floor with their feet?

Not quite. Let’s pretend they have never set foot in a gym and are learning the deadlift for the first time.

They don’t know what lats are and asking them to “spread the floor” will only lead to confusion and possibly a poor joke regarding butter and/or jelly.

All you need them to do is be able to push their hips and butt back while keeping a very slight knee bend.

Cue #1
“Pretend your lower legs and knees are stuck in concrete. Push your butt back as if you are trying to touch an imaginary wall behind you.”

With these cues, the trainee can establish that they should keep their knees from increasing their bend as they push their butt back. If they happen to still bend their knees excessively, you can then point out what they did and then re-state the cue.

“So (insert name) your knees bent too much there. Pretend your lower legs and knees are stuck in concrete.”

At this point, they will go “ohhh, got it, ok” and then perform it properly. For whatever reason, they just didn’t comprehend the cue initially, but in the context of their own mistake, are now able to understand it.

So we have them accessing a solid hip hinge. Now what?

Now can we cue them into their lats and get them death gripping the bar and bracing their butt cheeks with no mercy for human life at the finish?

Almost.

You don’t do or say anything else and just have them do a few reps. It won’t look perfect, but you want the client to get a feel for the hip hinge without having to think about a bunch of other stuff.

From there, you can move onto the next movement if you are doing a superset/circuit or just have them rest for a few seconds while you “layer on” the next cue.

The following are the rest of the cues I use for teaching the deadlift, in order of difficulty (again, not the same for everyone).
Same system is used…cue is given, reps are performed, and then next cue is given if they are succeeding with the prior cue.

Cue #2
“Keep your hands and arms pinned to your sides like you are in a straight-jacket as you pick the bar up and come back down.”

Cue #3:
“Grip the bar like you want to break it in half.”

Cue #4:
“Snap your butt toward the wall in front of you at the finish.”

Cue #5:
“Keep your ribs down, like you are doing a standing crunch, at the finish.”

Cue #6:
“Take a sharp inhale through your nose right before you pull the bar off the floor.”

Cue #7:
“Sharply exhale through your mouth at the finish.”

There are, of course, other cues you can use and definitely a few others that come into play from time-to-time, but the above is a pretty good representation of the stages I like to take someone through when learning the deadlift.

The funny thing is, getting to the “next cue” may take a few sessions. And you may find that getting someone to gain a firm understanding (and solid performance) of the above 7 cues may take months.

And that’s ok. Because it’s the same way with movements, right? You may start someone with a TRX Squat and build them up over a period of months to a back squat. It won’t happen overnight.

Understandably, there is a natural need to fix what is wrong. It’s just part of being a coach. You want to FIX. But part of having all the tools is knowing when you just need to use a hammer to get the job done versus a drill.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but holding back on someone looking perfect in the short-term will lead to them looking perfect in the long-term WITHOUT much assistance. And I think that’s the ultimate goal of coaching. To be able to get someone autonomous with their movement. This is something I still have a LONG way to go on, but I think it relates back to what we just talked about…it will come in stages.

To sum up a basic cueing system you can use in your coaching;

#1: Cue
#2: Performance of cue (if good, move to next cue, if not, help them understand what they did and what they need to do by re-stating the cue)

And that’s it. Pretty simple, huh? It’s virtually guaranteed success because you don’t let yourself push them forward until they have mastered what you have given them.
A lot can be solved just by having a system like this. Experiment with different movements, come up with your own cues, and have fun with it. You’ll mess up often, but every time you’ll get a little better.

And speaking of cues, there’s a cue I stumbled upon about a year and a half ago that I’ve been using with great success.  It has influenced how I approach nearly every movement I coach.

I actually put together a short video going pretty in-depth on said cue.  Just head over HERE to get access.  If you’re a coach, you won’t regret it.

THE NUMBER-ONE CUE TO GIVE YOUR CLIENTS

Dominate All Life,
Kasey, CSCS