Following the cues from your trainer can sometimes feel like you're trying to translate another language. If you’re new to exercise or trying a workout, and you’re feeling stuck or lost during your workouts, these explanations will help.
So, why do trainers use confusing cues anyway? Cues are meant to help you connect mind to body, becoming more aware of your movements and body alignment. The prompts are intended to help you fix your form, maximize your workout, and prevent injury. From your trainer’s vantage point, they will be able to observe whether certain muscle groups are overactive or underactive, depending on the exercise. Muscle imbalances can be “due to poor posture, stress, repetitive movement, or injury.” (1) As movement continues with the imbalances, your body will begin to move along the path of least resistance. (2) Human movement is dependent on the balance between the “muscle length and muscle strength around a joint” (3). Prolonged muscle imbalances can create the muscle on one side of the joint to be chronically shortened while the opposing side is chronically lengthened. (4) This is where the terms “overactive” and “underactive” come from. Personal trainers and exercise instructors will use language to help clients make slight shifts in their movements to force the muscle that should be working to actually do the work. (As a side note, if you are working with a trainer, they should have completed a postural analysis to assess the five kinetic chain checkpoints: feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and head to note if any are out of alignment. (5) Corrective exercises can be provided if there are misalignments.)
Form cues can help you perform exercises more effectively, but it will only help if you’re focused on the task at hand. Many times, clients go on autopilot when they’re working out with a trainer or are in a group fitness class. It gets easy to tune out and go through the motions. But using the right muscles during an exercise requires attention from the exerciser, not just the trainer. (6) Knowing your body and taking the time to analyze your form is essential no matter where you are in your fitness journey.
Common Cues and What Your Trainer Wants You to Focus On
1. “Drop your shoulders” or “Keep your shoulders away from your ears”
This cue is referring to the position of your scapula. Scapular depression is often a passive movement due to gravity, but during exercises, you might find your shoulders lifting up to your ears. (7) So move your shoulders into a neutral position. The key muscles involved are your lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi.
2. “Tuck your tailbone”
This cue helps you bring awareness to the midline of your body. It is intended to reduce the degree of your anterior pelvic tilt. To do this, you will engage your abs and scoop your hips so that they’re tilted slightly forward. This helps to flatten out the curve of the low back and straighten your spine. (8) The key muscles used are your lower abdominals and pelvic floor.
3. “Square your hips”
This cue refers to the position of your hips. Focus on your two hip points and your pubic bone to make sure they are in alignment. To have them square means they are in the same plane, meaning one hip is not higher or lower than the other, and one hip isn’t more in front of or behind the other. (9) The key muscles involved are the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae (abductors muscles), lower abdominals, hamstrings.
4. “Zip your navel to your spine” or “Brace your core”
This cue is trying to get you to focus on and activate your transverse abdominis. This is the deepest layer of your abdominals, including all four layers around your lumbar spine. This helps stabilize your back and supports your hips and pelvis. (10) In very simple terms, flex your abs. When this direction is given, people tend to puff out their bellies. What your trainer is trying to get you to do is engage the core. You actually want to feel as if you’re pulling your belly button back, toward your spine. The key muscles used are the transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, multifidus (muscles deep in your back that run along your spine), and pelvic floor. (11)
5. “Push through your heels” or “Drive through the heels”
This cue is very common for beginner exerciser issues. Sometimes when a person does a squat they will peel their heels off the ground as they descend or ascend. It’s also common to see a beginner using the leg press pushing with their toes more than their heels. However, if you have relatively decent form, following this cue can lead to hypercorrection. If engaging in proper squat form, no matter the exerciser's level, the weight should never be fully shifted to the heels, because the knee and ankle are then not being accounted for properly. (12) For this, you want to actually engage your full foot, assuring your ankle, knees, and hips are in the correct alignment.
6. “Don’t Arch Your Back” or “Pop your butt”
This cue is trying to get you from a rounded back or bowed back to a straight-aligned spine. Overextension in the lumbar region can be just as bad as excessive flexion. You want a neutral spine. A neutral spine is a happy spine. This is done by contracting your abdominals. The key muscles involved are rectus abdominus and external obliques. Depending on the exercise you may be engaging your glutes as well. (13)
7. “Pinch your shoulder blades”
This cue is supposed to bring the client into the proper posture, typically for pulling exercises but the shoulder joint is complex. Proper function relies on the “glenohumeral and scapulothoracic force couples for dynamic stability throughout its large range of motion.” (14) When you’re directed to squeeze the shoulder blades, the muscle primarily contracted is the rhomboids. While it is good to activate the rhomboids, this cue can often lead to excessive retraction and elevation of the scapula which then leads to excessive activation of the upper trapezius. (15) The focus for this cue should be to stabilize the scapula for movement. The key muscles involved are the levator scapulae, trapezius, rhomboids, and serratus anterior.
Make sure to check in with your trainer about proper form. They should be correcting you as you go. But since they can’t see you contract the muscles deep in your body, it’s your job to become more aware of which muscles should be activated and how to engage them if you’re not. If you think you might be doing it wrong, ask questions.
1-5. Skull, K. (Accessed: 2023, July 1). Overactive verses underactive muscled: What does it all mean?. National Academy of Sports Medicine. https://blog.nasm.org/overactive-versus-underactive-muscles#:~:text=Overactive%20and%20underactive%20muscles%20are,or%20have%20chronic%20decreased%20tone. Accessed 5 June 2023.
6. Hosford, B. (2015, September 19). 4 Critical Exercise Technique Cues. National Federation of Professional Trainers. https://www.nfpt.com/blog/improve-form-cues. Accessed 5 June 2023.
7. Hacking, C. (2021, Oct 7). Scapular depression. Radiopaedia. https://radiopaedia.org/articles/scapular-depression-1?lang=us#:~:text=Scapular%20depression%20refers%20to%20the,movement%20at%20the%20acromioclavicular%20joint. Accessed 5 June 2023.
8. Foster, A. (2022, January 31). All the tea about tucking the tailbone. Yoga Anatomy Academy. https://yogaanatomyacademy.com/all-the-tea-about-tucking-the-tailbone/#:~:text=The%20idea%20that%20tucking%20the,that%20attach%20to%20the%20tailbone) . Accessed 5 June 2023.
9. Hunsberger, M. (2021, May4). 7 Yoga Alignment Cues Explained. Do You. https://www.doyou.com/7-yoga-alignment-cues-explained-29234/#:~:text=Square%20Your%20Hips,of%2C%20or%20behind%20the%20other. Accessed 7 June 2023.
10. Ayuda, T. (2018, February, 20). 9 Common Trainer Cues, Decoded. Daily Burn. https://dailyburn.com/life/fitness/common-trainer-cues-decoded/#:~:text=Pull%20your%20belly%20button%20towards%20the%20spine.&text=%E2%80%9CBy%20activating%20your%20transverse%20abs,and%20pelvis%2C%E2%80%9D%20he%20adds. Accessed 7 June 2023.
11. Anderson, A. (2022, November 14). What to Know About Abdominal Bracing Exercises. Jump Start by WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/what-to-know-about-abdominal-bracing-exercises. Accessed 7 June 2023.
12. Boly, J. (2019, April 24). Two Of The Most Popular Squat Cues That Need Rethinking: Better ways to cue strong squats for beginner and experienced lifters alike. Bar Bend. https://barbend.com/squat-cue-rethink/. Accessed 7 June 2023.
13. Walls, S. (2012, Secmeber 12). An Overuse of the "Arch Your Back" Cue, and How to Create Better Positioning During Your Lifts. Strength and Performance Training Inc. http://www.saptstrength.com/blog/2012/12/13/an-overreaction-to-the-arch-your-back-cue-and-how-to-create-better-positioning-during-your-lifts. Accessed 7 June 2023.
14-15. Dovan, M. (2021, March 29). Stop telling clients to squeeze the shoulder blades. Rehab-U. https://rehab-u.com/stop-telling-clients-to-squeeze-the-shoulder-blades/#:~:text=The%20%E2%80%9Csqueeze%20the%20shoulder%20blades,way%20to%20stabilize%20the%20scapula. Accessed 7 June 2023.