Say What You Mean: Cueing For Optimal Organization And Function

As a teacher or coach your words are more powerful than you know.  

The unfortunate byproduct is that your cues with clients may be doing more harm than good, creating unnecessary tension or sabotaging the desired movement entirely.  In this article we'll explore the problems with most teachers' cues and explore a more effective and efficient approach based on two distinct approaches in the available literature.

Intention ≠ Impact

Look, I know you mean well when you say things like "stand hip-width apart" or "squeeze the glutes".  But the impact of your words on your client is very different from your intention.  The problem is this: you're cueing based on anatomical or biomechanical theory, and they're responding based on personal sensory awareness (which comes with all sorts of baggage).

Let's use spinal neutrality as an example.  We commonly hear and use cues like:

  • Flat back
  • Stand up straight
  • Engage your core (whatever that is)

With each of these cues, we're attempting to fit the body in front of us into the narrow confines of what we've learned to be anatomically correct.  But bodies don't fit in boxes like that.  

In fact for the past decade motor control researcher Gabriele Wulf has demonstrated that cues with this internal focus are counterproductive and ineffective.  The bulk of her research points to the fact that cueing based on external effects is far superior to internal focus.  This is true for both skill acquisition and retention (1).

Wulf's research focuses on something called the constrained action hypothesis.  

Essentially when you focus on external cues, your body operates on reflexive motor control (you know, the kind that gives you day-to-day function). Internal focus (e.g., "squeeze the glutes") on the other hand tries to override millions of years of selective pressure on nervous system function, shifting it to conscious control.  

As Dr. Andreo Spina puts it: your glute is smarter than you.  Stop trying to outthink it. 

You didn't learn to walk by consciously controlling individual muscles or limbs.  It was all based on external effect: you either fell over or stayed upright.  That's how we learn most effectively.  Interestingly this scientific line of inquiry matches up perfectly with the work of numerous somatic educators...

Psychomotor Function

With a bit of creativity we can find couple this external focus with precise anatomical landmarks.  This approach (called ideokinesis) uses thought as a facilitator of movement.  The pioneers of this field, Mabel Ellsworth Todd and Lulu Sweigard, found through their practices that even imagining a movement could lead to significant changes in the body (2).  

How does this work?  It turns out that even the intention of a movement results in action potential within the associated tissues.  Put simply: when you think about squatting, your body primes itself to squat.  Accumulate enough deliberate practice over time, and these action potentials can shift our physical structure and function.

In fact Sweigard's research found nine main lines of movement that led to improved biomechanical efficiency:

From Sweigard's "Human Movement Potential"

From Sweigard's "Human Movement Potential"

1. Lengthen the spine downward.
2. Shorten distance between mid front pelvis and 12th thoracic vertebra.
3. From top of the sternum to top of the spine. 
4. Narrow the rib case.
5. Widen the back of the pelvis.
6. Narrow the front of the pelvis.
7. From center of knee to center of femoral joint.
8. From big toe to heel.
9. Lengthen the central axis of the trunk upward.

Notice how none of these lines relate to engaging specific musculature.  They are effect-driven with specific anatomical loci.  

We can see them represented in this image.

Putting It Into Practice

This is where the magic happens for us when cueing our students.  When we couple anatomical precision with external focus, we create the perfect conditions for them to learn more effective and efficient ways of moving.  

To get started try this exercise to find more ease in standing.  From there you'll find that just about any bipedal movement improves as well.  Our primary anatomical foci will be the manubrim (the topmost part of the sternum) and the ischial tuberosities (your sitbones).

Take a moment to find these on your own body.

When you find them, we're going to consider two distinct lines of force: one upward from the manubrium, one downward from the tuberosities.  These two equal lines of force will balance each other out along your vertical axis as shown here:

Use this follow-along audio to really get into the experience:

Notice any shifts?

Give it a try yourself, and then use these ideas as a springboard for cueing other movements.  Where can you couple anatomical precision with external focus in the deadlift?  In your asana practice?  You can always pursue improved coordination in your movements.  Happy hunting.


Further reading:

1. Gabriele Wulf. Attentional Focus and Motor Learning: A Review of 10 Years of Research. E-Journal Bewegung und Training. 2007

2. Lulu Sweigard. Psychomotor Function As Correlated With Body Mechanics And Posture. Transaction of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1949