Many people hire a personal trainer to ensure good form and posture while exercising. Exercise can be harmful if done improperly. The better your cues, the more effective and safe the exercises are for your clients.

What are 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 for 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.

I believe that a smaller amount of focused exercise is more effective than a larger amount of such unfocused exercise. Mindfulness is showing up more frequently in resistance training research. Using the right muscles during an exercise requires attention from the exerciser. Personal trainers can help with this.

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. You get what you ask for…

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 into 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 connecting to your pubic bone.”

3. Tighten your Tummy
Also means: Compress your rib cage.

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. 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.

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.

Accountability as a Fitness Professional

Focus on form cues and guiding clients into properly as fitness coaches, but with more science and mindfulness. Personal trainers are essentially “muscle specialists”. Make sure you’re up to speed with your anatomy knowledge. It’ll increase your credibility and their body awareness all in one.

Review your anatomy and get cueing! Check out this Online Anatomy Course for continuing education, CECs and growing in your profession!

Beverly Hosford

Beverly Hosford, MA teaches anatomy and body awareness using a skeleton named Andy, balloons, play-doh, ribbons, guided visualizations, and corrective exercises. She is an instructor, author, and a business coach for fitness professionals. Learn how to help your clients sleep better with in Bev’s NFPT Sleep Coach Program and dive deeper into anatomy in her NFPT Fundamentals of Anatomy Course.