How To Cue Movement Effectively

This article was originally published at BreakingMuscle.com

The biggest struggle of a movement practice is that we simply don't have the right words to talk about movement. As a culture, we are largely divorced from our bodies—disembodied, if you will. As a result, we pursue fitness goals without much grasp of the territory we're working with. The scary thing is that many "experts" are just as lost.

We hear the same cliché cues parroted over and over. But the reality is that different bodies need different cues. To more effectively use cueing, we need to follow a few simple rules:

  • The location of cueing must be exact
  • The cue must have definite direction
  • The cue must have a relevant functional goal

Let's unpack each a bit, shall we?

Location, Location, Location

If verbal cueing is going to do us any good, we have to be speaking the same language. If I say “hips back while cueing a deadlift, that's a pretty vague term. Is that hip socket?  Hip crest?  Sit bones?  Does the student know the difference between these places?  This is where the best teachers truly shine. A knowledge of anatomy, coupled with creative wording, can paint a much better picture in a student's mind.

Consider the devious cue of “shoulders down and back,” given so frequently to yogis in an upward-facing dog. Twenty students in a room will likely have twenty different responses to such vague cueing. Do you know what part of the shoulder?  Do you know why?  Keep in mind the shoulder girdle is highly complex (comprised of three distinct joints). Unless we cue with accuracy and precision, we'll constantly struggle both to teach and perform movement.

Direct the Movement

It’s vitally important to keep in mind that all movement, voluntary or involuntary, is directed by the nervous system. If we want to improve efficiency of movement, we need to play nicely with the body. When we make concrete cues, we improve their specificity. This specificity works wonders in generating functional movement from abstract cues.

Consider for instance the cue of “standing straight.” Not only is this anatomically impossible, it completely lacks a sense of direction. How much better to cue a sinking downward of the sitbones and a “lifting upwards from the manubrium (top of the sternum). These directional cues produce a far better result by clarifying the process at hand. We certainly won't be standing straight up, but we'll find a much better sense of length and verticality.

Make it Work

This problem runs rampant in yoga studios. Many teachers simply cue for the sake of cueing without regard for whether the prompt improves the movement at hand. Consider the infamous "hug your elbows in" cue one hears when lowering to chaturaṅga. On the surface this seems harmless. It has a specific location and direction. But the truth is this cue does little to improve the function of the shoulder girdle in eccentric pressing. It may do more harm than good. See, hugging the elbows in toward the ribs can actually shear the shoulder joint. Hugging elbows in toward the ribs simply doesn't improve the movement at hand. And if we don't improve the movement we're teaching, what's the point?

A Humbling Realization

As teachers we must ask ourselves: Does this cue actually improve coordination of the movement at hand?  Does it make the movement better?  The answer could be yes, no, or the dreaded I don't know.

If you truly don't know, it's far better to err on the side of caution. It can be humbling to realize we truly don't know what's going on, but we have to adopt a growth mindset in these situations. This is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the body for our own benefit and that of our students.

Putting it all Together

A working understanding of movement can be enriched by better cueing. As students we will be better able to direct our own bodies, and as teachers we will be better able to guide our students.

Proper cueing has three distinct ingredients: an exact location, a definite direction, and a relevant functional goal. When we start cooking with these ingredients, movement takes on new life, injuries plummet, and we find improved strength and ease. And that's a winning combination, if you ask me.