Hero Banner - TheCritical_X - 700x200 - 200215_v3

Coaching Cues: Lost in Translation

Coaching Cues: Lost in Translation

Coaching cues are an inescapable part of the profession. Sooner or later, you’re going to use a concoction of words to get a client to use their body in a specific way. And sooner or later, you’re going to find that your homemade word salad doesn’t have the effect you hoped for. So you ask for the same thing in a different way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it’s incredibly frustrating. Someone’s paying for your expertise and you’re unable to fulfill your responsibility.

Part of the problem with coaching cues is translation. We want the client to change the way they’re coordinating a movement. In our head, we translate that coordination task into proprioception – how it feels. Or at least, how it feels to us. Then we translate that proprioceptive experience to a verbal command, like “Lock your ribs down!” The client receives this cue aurally, translates it based on their own subjective experience (what they think locking the ribs down feels like) and tries again. But we’re still not seeing what we want.

The cue “Lock your ribs down!” goes through five stages of translation: coordination, proprioception, verbal/aural, proprioception and coordination. That’s five potential points of failure. When a coaching cue goes wrong, we don’t know which one it is. It could be one or more of those stages. And that’s to say nothing of the coach’s vocabulary, the client’s vocabulary or the coach’s capacity for explanation!

If we continue to give coaching cues this way, we’re not going to solve the problem of translation. Sure, we might come across the odd cue that works for most people most of the time. But that’s often not how it plays out. Instead, it’s a merry-go-round of asking for the same thing in different ways until something clicks. And those are the success stories!

I don’t have a solution to all of your coaching-cue woes. But I do have an alternative to help with translation. Let’s call it a “kinaesthetic cue”. Instead of going through a messy translation from coordination to proprioception, verbal/aural and back again, I stop at proprioception. “Remember what X felt like? Do that!” Then I tune the intensity of that feeling. Let’s look at some examples.

When I screen new clients, I have them perform a hollow-body test. That test gives them the experience of resisting spinal extension and creating spinal flexion. When that client’s performing a pull-up/lat pull-down/strict press/overhead squat, I don’t cue them to “Lock your ribs down!” Instead, I say, “You’re extending your spine. Don’t do that. Remember when we did the hollow-body test and how that felt? Do that!” Then we’ll tune the intensity of their response to get the desired effect.


A good kinaesthetic cue negates the problem of translation. Instead, it’s a problem of experience and memory. Does the client have the experience of resisting spinal extension? Yes! Do they remember what that feels like? Hopefully! Well, recreate that feeling.

Instead of a verbal cue mired in layers of translation, I’ve given them a kinaesthetic (proprioceptive) reference of what ‘doing it right’ feels like. And because both tasks (the screening test and the target exercise) bias rectus abdominis to resist spinal extension, my cue is likely to be effective.

The same approach can be applied to flexing the spine during deadlifts and back squats. The arch hold is another part of my screening process. It also gives clients a reference for creating spinal extension and resisting spinal flexion. So when they flex their back like an angry cat during a deadlift, I don’t tell them “Maintain a neutral spine!” I tell them, “You’re flexing your spine. Don’t do that. Remember when we did the arch hold and how that felt? Do that!” Then tune the intensity of their response.


When I can’t fall back on a client’s experience for a kinaesthetic cue, I try to create it. A common fault with (Olympic) weightlifters is not knowing what midfoot balance feels like. So I created a drill that lets them feel what doing it wrong (heel balance or toe balance) feels like and what doing it right (midfoot balance) feels like.

The sequence below begins in the shortstop position. From here I have clients perform two motions: flex the knees while dorsiflexing the ankles and extend the knees while plantarflexing the ankles. The first motion (knee flexion) shifts their weight to the front foot until their heels lift. The second motion (knee extension) shifts their weight to the rear foot until their toes lift. I want them to find equilibrium between the two: full-foot contact and midfoot balance. That simple drill creates a clear sense of ‘doing it wrong’ versus ‘doing it right.’ 

Midfoot-balance drill

Notice that none of this is lost in translation. Sure, there might be some tweaking involved. But I’m not trawling through a laundry list of coaching cues to get what I want. The client’s subjective, proprioceptive experience gets me in the ballpark. All that’s left is to fine tune their sense to get it where it needs to be.

When you can, cue your client with a kinaesthetic cue. When they don’t have the necessary experience, find a way to create it.

~ The Critical Coach

P.S. If you enjoyed this, please share it with someone else.