Are you over-correcting your clients? How to optimize cueing in group sessions

Great coaches understand the need for cueing to ensure technique adherence. Especially in a group setting, our clients both appreciate and need a little reminder every once in a while, regardless of experience. But have you ever considered the possibility of over correcting?

As trainers, we often to get an idea of the perfect exercise form – knees tracking toes, feet at an exactly 12 degree angle on squats, elbows next to ears during overhead press, you know. 

And for the most part, we have a good reason. Improper technique can both cause injury and reduce results. But does a singular, perfect technique really exist?

What exactly is perfect technique?

Have you ever seen a MLB pitcher throw a fastball? What about an NBA player take a jump shot? To save you a Google search, here are some pictures.

No one is supposed to move like that. Yet, by doing so, these people have made it to the top of their sport. Try telling them to do anything differently. 

Of course, these elite athletes train all day, every day. And they can still get injured. But there’s plenty to learn here about enforcing the “right” thing in our clients.

Some trainers talk about your knees going past your toes as if your knees will  immediately blow out. Despite “knees never traveling past the toes” being drilled into our heads since the dawn of time, it’s absolutely a myth. Just watch a child squat and come up perfectly fine. 

Sometimes, we have to let our clients feel out what works for them, not what we think it’s supposed to look like. How are you going to tell the six foot 7 guy in your class to squat the same as everyone else? Their body is literally different, and so follows their technique.

To be clear – there are some non-negotiables. Obviously if someone puts their spine at risk under heavy loads, we need to intervene. But there’s a difference between good coaching and over-cueing.

The Top Three Reasons to Stop Over-cueing

Reason One: Anatomical differences 

To carry on with the squat example, consider the anatomy of hip. We all have different pelvic widths and angles. You’ve got your femoral neck at all angles, and the femoral head sitting inside the acetabulum, which can be wide, deep, anteverted or retroverted. Many of us even have differences between sides, not to mention the variations among a group of people.

If you lie 10 different people on their backs and just put them through passive range of motion, you’ll immediately see distinctions. Ask them to stand up and move their body weight against gravity, and the differences compound.

Dean Somerset gives a great speech about anatomical differences which I highly recommend. He also uses athletes as an example, but this time on the same team. Tell me these guys who play the same sport don’t have different requirements.

Your group class is your own team of athletes, and each person has their own ideal technique. Don’t coach them out of it.

Reason Two: Are they doing the exercise wrong, or are you choosing the wrong exercise?

It’s easy to blame it on their lack of technique. After all, it’s highly possible that they’re pretty new to this whole gym thing. But instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, why not give them a square?

Maybe they need to squat wider due to their anatomy. Maybe their stability limits full depth in a lunge. Maybe their shoulder injury prevents them from pressing bilaterally overhead. Or maybe it’s their first day and they simply fatigue after 10 seconds of a plank, and they literally cannot keep their back from arching during the entire interval. 

Who knows – that’s why you’re a great coach. You have the ability to assess each individual difference and prescribe exercises accordingly. Find the underlying reason why they’re doing the exercise wrong and address that. In the meantime, choose exercises that a) allow them to generate consistent tension safely around joints, b) challenge their existing work capacity just enough, and c) leave room for progressive overload.

Reason Three: Overcorrecting can cause more problems than it fixes

Take a second to think about why your members came to you in the first place. What were their goals? To lose weight? To promote active aging? To get more active so they can enjoy time with their family?

Unless you coach Olympic lifters, I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t so they could execute a snatch perfectly.

They came to you for help! The big rocks that get results – showing up consistently, eating well at home, working large muscle groups, etc. – are more important than the minutiae. When we overcorrect our clients, however, we bring their attention away from their successes and highlight their mistakes. 

Reason Four: Forcing certain postures can actually injure someone

Our body will find a way of doing what we tell it to do. If we need to clear an eight foot wall to run away from a bear, we’ll figure it out or get eaten. But the gym is not life or death. Your members don’t need to throw their back out trying to raise 135 pounds overhead when there are other options.

A good rule of thumb is that if a client can’t do it with their bodyweight, don’t load it. Put someone with their back against the wall, and ask them to touch the wall with the back of their hand. Without arching their back or doing some weird twisty thing with their neck or shoulder. If they can’t get into this “perfect” overhead technique naturally, what do you think is going to happen under load and fatigue?

That’s right – they’ll crank their thoracic spine, load up their traps, and probably leave with some impingement (if they didn’t already have it). 

A large percentage of my clientele never touch anything overhead. Why? Because the population I coach are suffering from injury, and their posture is out of whack.

Does that mean we never train shoulders? Of course not! But we train within their usable range of motion rather than against it. The gyms that did the opposite are why they have a nagging injury in the first place. All you have to do is head back to reason #2.

We utilize a Red Light/Green light system to automatically triage our members in to exercises. Let’s say it’s a press-heavy workout. Our system features options for those with shoulder injury, weakness, inexperience, or what have you. That way, they know when they walk in for training, they just look at the board, select their best option, and get on with the workout. You could do something similar to keep your clients safe, or come up with your own method.

Reason Five: They’re wasting time trying to think

Most people can only process one or two things at a time. Multitasking, despite how great we all claim to be at it, ruins productivity. Research has shown over and over again that switching between tasks that involve executive control costs time. And that’s just when the tasks are predictable.

Add in the time it takes for your members to process new information, take action, and get to that “perfect technique”, and you’ve lost valuable reps. When training groups, that could mean the difference between 10 and 15 reps per station. 

So ask yourself – who got the better workout? The person who raised the med ball a little less than directly overhead 15 times, or the one who spent the entire 30 seconds trying to figure out how to make you happy?

Finding a balance – How to Cue in a Group Setting

Who does your business attract? People who might lack confidence? people who are looking to go hard? people who are injury prone?

I know with us, the majority of our members lack confidence in joining a fitness program. They need encouragement rather than punishment. They came searching for comfort in simply being in a gym environment. And in general, they want to enjoy themselves, not be scolded the entire time.

Yet they also want to be corrected. If they didn’t, they would be at one of those chain gyms, lost in a sea of 35 people in a tiny, windowed room. But they’re not. No one paid attention to them there, and they weren’t making progress. So where is the sweet spot?

Types of cues – Motivational vs Corrective

Much like you wouldn’t just yell “you can do it!” for an hour, not everything you say during a session should be corrective. Each type of cue has a time and place, and members can actually give YOU cues on what they need. It just takes a little attention and emotional intelligence, which all good trainers possess. 

Motivational cues

We’re in the business of helping people, and that involves a little motivation. Whether it’s listening and re-framing their story when they’re struggling, or empowering them to squeeze out one last rep, that’s why they hired us.

Rewarding good behavior goes a long way. According to psychological theory, there are four general ways to induce action, plus a fifth called extinction. They are as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement
  2. Negative Reinforcement
  3. Positive punishment
  4. Negative punishment

The above are actually a part of operant conditioning, a term coined by B.F. Skinner  back in the mid-20th century. Skinner tested animals’ response to exposure to external stimuli, such as a shock or a treat. As such, he was able to carefully manipulate behavior. 

While we’d like to think humans are more advanced than rats, you only have to look at your clients to know this stuff works. Positive reinforcement involves adding something to increase the likelihood of behavior, such as a leaderboard for hitting PR’s. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, removes something to increase behavior, such as taking away a final set if they can hit a certain amount of reps in 45 seconds. 

Punishment, although it has a negative connotation, can also be an effective means of motivation. Just ask any parent. For example, coaches might use positive punishment when we add push ups if someone is late. Or they can implement negative punishment by taking seconds off of rest periods for half-assed effort. 

Finally, extinction is the equivalent of just ignoring someone. In my opinion, it’s the worst thing a coach can do. People start to learn that what they do doesn’t influence the outcome at all, so they just stop. Please, don’t be that coach. 

So, now that we know that using a well-orchestrated motivational cue has a larger effect than “keep your ribs over your pelvis, is there’s still a place for correctives?

Corrective cues

Language is the way we get our message across. Based off of the words you use, what you intend on relaying may or may not make sense to the recipient. 

Much like motivational cues, there are various ways to correct exercise technique. There’s a big difference between saying “sit back” vs “sit back on a box”. In one, your client might lean forward and just stick their butt out. In the other, they might exhibit a more natural squat. It all depends, so choose wisely.

Internally-focused cues ask your clients to think about how their own body is moving. Sitting back, bracing your core, and knees tracking toes all count as internal cues. External cues involves focusing the outcome of that movement – you end up sitting on a box or squeezing oranges under your armpits. (Yes, they’re largely imaginary.)

Getting these cues right is even more important in the group setting than in personal training. You’re not working with one person for an hour. You’ve got to balance the needs of a room full of eyes. 

Novices respond better to externally-focused cues. New trainees aren’t as in tune with their bodies. They don’t know what muscles to activate to try and break the bar in half. They just know the outcome. 

Expert trainees and coaches like yourself, on the other hand, know that it requires creating tension through external rotation of the shoulder. For those people, a quick reminder to activate the lats or keep the shoulders away from their ears is all they need. 

Now that you understand the types of cues, how do you use them?

How to choose the right cues at the right time

Again, and I can’t stress this enough, get to know your members. Spend time with them individually and see what clicks. Take notes if you need to. But don’t skip out on these little things. Because that’s what makes us all better. 

Tip #1 – Pick up on personality during the assessment

“If you’re not assessing, you’re just guessing”

Let me say it louder for those in the back – you have to do assessments for group training. How you do so might vary, but you need to know them as individuals. Otherwise you won’t make an impact. 

After reading about motivation, you’re likely thinking of a client who responds well to each type of cue. For example, I know athletes that definitely improve their effort if I take away their precious rest for slacking off. But your average mother of three might feel discouraged by that. Maybe she would love to head home to her kids earlier, and she clocks in a PR time when one less set dangles over her head. 

The mental aspect of training is more important than the physical. Based on your assessment, you should know which clients respond to what. Take that information to fire off the right motivational cues during a session. 

Tip #2 Train your staff to have a consistent message across classes

If you run a gym, or someone else coaches your class, it’s important to be consistent. Changing the message and shifting between cues will confuse your clients. Sure, trainers can have their own style. Some are going to be more energetic and lean towards motivational, while others are stronger on the technical side. 

Still, your members need consistency. If you’re programming a class that someone else will lead, make sure to meet with them. Go over “if this… then this…” scenarios. Share your common cues, and be open about which clients prefer what. Gym owners may even hold a weekly overview meeting, or use an app that lets them compare notes. 

You don’t have to be robots, but make sure you’re using similar language to connect with your team. 

Tip #3: Group newcomers and long-term members at the same stations 

This might seem counter-intuitive to some. Why not let the experienced people help the newcomers? Doesn’t it foster community?

Yes, but it also creates chaos. Remember – your members aren’t the coaches. You are. And they’re all there to get a great workout. 

Grouping them together allows you to identify when you’ll likely need to intervene. If, for example, say have one slightly more complex station, like bear crawls. You’ll know which rotation requires you to use corrective cues, such as not letting a bucket spill off of your back, and which you can be more motivational (Come on, Diane, I know you can get back to the start!).

Grouping your members by experience level not only allows you to better focus your attention, but it keeps members pushing each other. The new ones won’t feel discouraged by the guy who’s been here ten years, and your long-term members can feel free to go all out. 

Final thoughts 

The beauty of coaching is that it’s both an art and a science. You’re already a great coach by even considering these factors. Now it’s up to you to be creative! Get to know your members’ wants and needs, and start crafting your master plan. 

Sometimes less is more, and your talent lies in what you don’t say. Knowing when to intervene and when to let your clients figure it out is a masterful skill. So is being able to speak their language. Nobody likes a show off, but everyone can recognize a master at work.