“Proper form first.” This core concept should be the driving force of our training methods with our personal training clients regardless of fitness level or program design. Proper form is crucial not only to ensure we are activating and strengthening the intended muscle groups optimally but also in preventing injuries in our clients.

There are several factors to consider when it comes to teaching proper form and having your clients, whether online or in person, follow your techniques to achieve proper form and thus, their desired physique goals. 

Proper Form to Prevent Injury

This may seem rudimentary but could mean the difference between a coach/trainer who has a thriving business with clients excelling on all levels, and one who’s facing many hurt and unhappy clients as a result of neglecting proper form direction. You want your clients to be happy with your guidance and their results. They will be motivated to continue their training with you because they’re seeing results. The way they continue seeing results starts with training safely. 

Proper form isn’t just about technique and alignment; it’s also about safely loading the muscles with the proper weight and understanding when to stop or scale back. 

It can be tempting to push a client to do one more set. It’s even likely they’ll have a day where they’re feeling strong and want to push a boundary for themselves. You should encourage and challenge your clients. You should not push your clients or allow them to push themselves to higher reps or heavier weights if proper form is being compromised to achieve it. 

The set is over when proper form fails. Period.

Those performing exercises with low-quality movement patterns were seven times more likely to be injured.

Injuries don’t just harm the body, they harm a client’s mindset and confidence. Once a client becomes injured once, there’s typically a fear of it happening again. This could deter your client from coming back for a long time and even derail all the progress they’ve worked hard to achieve. 

Injuries are expensive. The cost of injury is steep when we consider potential surgeries, time off work, medications, physical therapy, and overall recovery. In addition, if your client is a parent with young kids that they now cannot lift due to an injury, think of the devastating effects on not only your client’s life now, but also their family’s. 

Re-Programming the Mind-Body Connection

When we think about learning something new as an adult it can feel daunting. We often experience feelings of stubbornness and resistance because not only is this new thing challenging physically, but it’s likely challenging a habit or a perception of reality we’ve held for an extended period of time. 

It’s much easier and more efficient for your client to learn an exercise with proper form upfront than it is to correct and help your client re-learn an exercise they’ve potentially been doing wrong for a good portion of their active lives.

As mentioned above, you’ll likely encounter some resistance with a client while correcting their form in the beginning of your time together as you work to overcome old poor form habits. You cannot control what was learned by your clients in the past with an old coach, trainer, or online program they followed, or simply their bodies’ learned compensatory patterns. 

What you can do is remain calm, patient, and understanding of their discomfort as you work to correct it. It’s likely going to be a slower process. If your client is concerned about spending more time on form and eager to achieve a goal within a certain time frame, it can be helpful to remind them that lifelong health is the ultimate goal and it’s important to get there safely. 

“Who cares if you look good in a bikini if you’re in a wheelchair?” Brassy, but true. 

Real-Time Proper Form Application

Proper form as it relates to load is just as relevant as establishing basic, optimal movement patterns. Form above all else means that a personal record (PR) does not come at the expense of proper form. Loading a muscle too heavy too soon can result in overtraining. Doing so too frequently without adequate rest between workouts or trying to bump up to a heavier weight before the client is physically ready to increase is a recipe for injury.

Reminding your client to focus on their progress while leaving the particulars up to you is important, especially now when we have thousands of fitness influencers on social media who often exemplify very dangerous and risky exercises and training styles that often don’t have the credentials to be teaching them in the first. 

Muscle Targeting 

When we perform proper exercise techniques, we ensure our clients are hitting the right muscle groups. This is important not just to adhere to your programmed 2 or 3-day splits, but again also to ensure we aren’t accidentally overtraining a muscle group back-to-back without sufficient rest and recovery time between.

Different variations of the same exercise can yield very different results, as is the case with moment arms when we front or backload a squat, for instance. Loading the right muscle is crucial, especially if you’re boasting a program that helps women Gain Glutes of Steel for Summer, for example. We want to deliver the desired result.

Form cues to take into account when programming specific exercises include:

  • Joint angle (think standing barbell bicep curl versus dumbbell hammer curls)
  • Posture angles (bent-over row versus standing cable row)
  • Personal posture considerations (anterior pelvic tilt versus posterior pelvic tilt)
  • Incline/decline angles (incline bench press versus decline bench press)
  • Deficits that increase the ROM (floor pushup versus pushup with hands on an elevated surface)
  • Different variations of the same exercises

Keep it simple and easy to understand. 

Proper Form Cues

Form cues help people get into a position from the vantage point of the observer (trainer). Personal trainers and exercise instructors use specific language to help their participants and clients exercise effectively.

The best instructors know how to cue both inner and outer awareness of their clients and students. Fine-tuning your anatomy knowledge and going deeper with your choice of words will set you apart from other fitness professionals. 

Form cues help people perform exercises more effectively, but there’s something often missing.

The form cues explained below are crucial because an exercise participant is often trying to look a certain way from the outside, with little regard for what’s happening inside. This increases the risk for injury. Especially when added resistance is involved. Fitness is often motivated by the outer image we want to achieve. What about the inside?

Some people hire personal trainers so they can tune out from exercise and don’t have to think about what they’re doing. Even with cues, they can be absent-minded and “go through the motions”. It’s the same reason people listen to music or watch tv when doing cardio. To get it over with. This does not produce efficient movement nor a mind-body connection.

Sometimes, the reasoning behind the cues gets lost, is misunderstood or people go through the motions mindlessly. Understanding the deeper goal of a cue is what’s really needed for the best chance at injury prevention. This is where anatomy comes in.   

When cueing, focus on what you “do want to happen” instead of what you “don’t want to happen”.  Our minds go to what our words indicate, whether negative or positive.

Each cue below includes the key muscles involved and their attachment sites, along with a suggestion for “going deeper” with your cues.

1. Keep Your Shoulders Away From Your Ears
Also means: Depress your scapula.

Lower Trapezius – Lateral spine of scapula to Spinous processes T6-T12.
Latissimus Dorsi – Bicipital groove to Inferior angle of scapula, ribs 9-12, thoraco-lumbar fascia and iliac crest.   

Going deeper: “Feel the scapula moving down toward your back pockets while keeping your ribs anchored to your pelvis in the front.”

2. Don’t Arch Your Back
Also means: Contract your abdominals.

Rectus Abdominus
– Xiphoid process of sternum and costal cartilage of ribs to Pubic bone.
External Obliques – Ribs 8-12 to Iliac crest, facia of rectus abdominus, inguinal ligament and pubic bone.

Going deeper: “Feel the bottom of your rib cage reaching toward your pelvis.”

3. Pull the tummy in
Also means: Naval to spine.

Transversus Abdominus – Thoraco-lumbar fascia to Linea alba, iliac crest and pubic bone.

Going deeper: “Imagine a belt around your waist, tightening, like a corset. Picture pulling your belly inward away from the belt. Exhale to help you feel the muscle shortening and then work on breathing in and out while holding the contraction.”

4. Open Your Chest
Also means:  Retract and depress your scapula and extend the thoracic spine.

Rhomboids – Medial border of scapula to Spinous processes C7-T5.
Middle Trapezius – Middle spine of scapula to Spinous processes T1-T5.
Lower Trapezius – Lateral spine of scapula to Spinous processes T6-T12.
Latissimus Dorsi – Bicipital groove to Inferior angle of scapula, ribs 9-12, thoraco-lumbar fascia and iliac crest.
Infraspinatus – Posterior surface of scapula to Greater tubercle of humerus.
Teres Minor – Superior, lateral border of scapula to Greater tubercle of humerus. 

Going deeper: “Pinch an imaginary pencil between your shoulder blades, using your muscles. Try doing one at a time to see if they feel even.”

Corrective Exercise Tip
Ask your client if you can touch them and then show them where they should be feeling the muscles contract. Ask them if they can feel the muscles on both the right and left sides. Sometimes one side is harder to contract than the other, because it’s weaker.

Take the time to work on an isolated/corrective exercise for the muscle before continuing forward with the workout. Knowing the muscle attachments will help you create an exercise. These small strength differences are what cause compensation by other muscles, which can lead to injury from over-use of the stronger muscles.

If you want your client to contract the glutes or any specific muscle group, giving them these kind of form cues can be very helpful. Phrases such as the following can help solidify a visual for aural learners (those who learn by listening):

  • “proud peacock” to extend the thoracic spine and lift the chest
  • “pretend there’s a pencil between your shoulder blades and squeeze it as you raise these dumbbells” to retract shoulder blades
  • “try you want to crack a walnut with your cheeks” to engage the glutes fully
  • “imagine maintaining a straight line from the cable to your elbow” to discourage pushing down with the hands instead of pulling with the back.
  • “make sure you can see all ten toes between your knees when you look down” to ensure knees do not cave in.

For kinesthetic learners, you may need to have a more hands-on approach or have them feel what they need to do correctly before engaging in a new exercise. Ask your clients to squeeze purposefully an area that’s about to be worked, so they understand what the activation of that muscle should feel like in the contraction of the exercise.

This helps establish a mind-body connection between the brain and the actual muscle group so your client builds muscle memory and understands where and how the contraction/activation should come from. 

Hands-on Form Cues

For a client that doesn’t respond to a proper form cue such as, “Keep your back straight,” use a yard stick or broomstick and hold it against the client’s back. If they hold one hand at the top pressing the stick into their head and the other hand at the lumbar spine holding the stick against the sacrum, you can direct them to hinge without losing contact with the stick.

For a client who has a difficult time controlling the upper arm during a bicep curl or lateral shoulder rotation, have them hold a towel between their upper arms and torso and tell them not to drop it.

For excessive cervical extension that can happen alongside lumbar extension (the two are closely linked neurally), have your client hold a ball under the chin while performing the exercise, and tell them to hold the ball in place.


Lastly, walking your clients through proper breathing techniques will ensure they can push further, recover faster, train stronger, and most importantly do all of it safely. Too often we see clients holding their breath under times of stress. Reminding them to breathe in alignment with the exercises will allow them to get those extra reps in without passing out.

Clients who are not in cardiovascular shape, especially at first, are likely going to need verbal cues on when to inhale and when to exhale. Inhaling at the top of lift (positive) and exhaling on the work (negative) can help to further engage the muscle and get the most bang for your buck so speak of the exercise. A good cue for this to remember is to “exhale on the exertion”. That works most of the time, but for some clients, the eccentric motion feels like more work, so you could saying, “exhale while pushing, pulling, or squeezing”.

Don’t let your clients just throw the weights around. Everything needs to be slow, controlled, and intentional, including the breath. The same way you’d inform a client not to let gravity take the weight in a renegade row on the way down we should be reminding them to control their breathing in every direction. 

As a trainer, your job isn’t just to count reps and hope a client doesn’t notice when we zone and skip a few, and then somehow always respond with, “You’ve got three more.”  Jokes aside proper form protects the client and it protects you and your business.

Helping clients understand the value of slow progressions, safe building phases, muscle loading, form variation to target different groups with similar exercises and proper breathing techniques are all part of your duties to get your clients to their goals in the safest most efficient way possible. The referrals will be flowing if you can do these things with a smile, good energy, and a banging playlist.