The fitness industry has its own language at times. After all, who else talks about sets and reps, beast mode and squaring your hips? While many cues are easy to catch onto (can you say “tap it back”?), there are ones that trip everyone up the first few times in class. Sure, you could mimic what those around you are doing, but you want to be certain you perform your workout properly to prevent injuries and get the most from it.
If you’re too shy to ask your teacher what she or he means, consider this your fitness dictionary. The cues below are ones fitness instructors claim to use all the time — but that often confuse people. Read up so you can go into your class or session confident. If there’s ever a time you don’t understand something, speak up! That’s what your teacher is there for.
CUE: “TIGHTEN UP”
Synonym: Brace your core
Definition: “Bracing is the act of creating intra-abdominal pressure in the core,” explains Kyle Firmstone, certified strength and conditioning specialist and master trainer at Crunch 34th Street in New York City. You do this by breathing in and tightening up like you’re about to get punched in the gut. “You should always be ready to take a little slap to the stomach,” he says.
Why it matters: A solid core is essential for healthy, safe movement, especially when you’re lifting weights. “When the core is braced, the spine is structurally supported and at less risk for any injury,” Firmstone says. “This also allows the joints to move more freely and limit any compensation by other joints due to instability in your core.”
CUE: “SPREAD THE FLOOR”
Synonyms: Knees out; elbow pits forward
Definition: This term is most common in bilateral movements like pushups and squats. “Imagine there is a seam between your hands or feet that you are trying to tear apart and grab the ground,” Firmstone says. This will make your shoulders or hips externally rotate, creating tension in your lats or butt.
Why it matters: Firmstone considers this cue second only to having a solid core when it comes to getting an effective, safe workout. “A stable hip and shoulder joint support the spine much like the chassis on car. This action also mitigates any stress on joints like the elbows and knees,” he says.
CUE: “HINGE AT YOUR HIPS”
Synonyms: Butt back; reach your butt back
Definition: This cue could be used to improve any movement involving hip flexion, such as deadlifts, squats and kettlebell swings. For this movement, you want to flex at your hips and put the weight of the exercise mainly into your glutes, Firmstone says.
Why it matters: “The ability to hip hinge is essential for movements in the gym and life,” Firmstone says. “Initiating movement with proper hip flexion takes load away from the spine and knees,” which also reduces the risk of injuries to those body parts. “The glutes are the largest muscle group and learning to use them appropriately may save someone from a lifetime of orthopedic issues,” Firmstone adds.
CUE: “SQUEEZE YOUR GLUTES”
Synonym: Engage your glutes
Definition: Imagine you have a winning lottery ticket between your butt cheeks, says Under Armour Training Team member Shana Verstegen, fitness director at Supreme Health and Fitness in Wisconsin. You don’t want to lose that ticket, so fire those glutes up to hold onto it!
Why it matters: Squeezing your glutes leads to spinal stability, proper knee alignment, core stability, and proper posture, says Verstegen, who considers it a “fix it all” cue because it does so much with one simple squeeze.
CUE: “SHOULDERS DOWN AND BACK”
Synonym: Big chest
Definition: Press your shoulders down and away from the ears and pull them back so your chest is tall and proud. “Your shoulder blades should feel anchored, as if being placed in your back pockets,” Verstegen says.
Why it matters: “Most of us hold tension in our traps and neck, so when exercise becomes strenuous, we lift the shoulders to the ears,” she says. But we want to avoid this posture for two reasons: First, most of us sit like this all day at a desk, which can lead to poor posture — and you don’t want to further encourage that at the gym. Second, the correct posture allows the shoulder joint and thoracic spine to move more freely, reducing the risk of injuries, Verstegen explains.
CUE: “HIDE YOUR RIBS”
Synonym: Knit your ribs
Definition: Think of an Olympic gymnast finishing a floor routine, Verstegen says. If you’re excessively arching your back like that, you need to “hide your ribs,” i.e. pull them in.
Why it matters: Arching your lower back can place too much pressure on the lumbar spine, leading to back pain or even a herniated disc, Verstegen says. This cue also causes you to automatically brace your core, leading to greater strength, power, athleticism and safety.
READ MORE > GETTING TO KNOW THE LINGO: YOGA
Definition: Reach with your fingers, toes, or heels, without hyperextending or locking out your joints. Keep the softest bend in your elbows or knees, says master yoga teacher Danielle Karuna, CEO and founder of Provita.
Why it matters: “The whole practice of yoga is about the flow of energy, and if you lock your joints, you cut off that energy,” Karuna says. You also increase the risk of injuries.
CUE: “ROOT TO RISE”
Synonym: Ground through your feet
Definition: Often given in mountain pose or when transitioning from forward fold to upward salute (urdhva hastasana), this cue is about pressing your feet into the ground to find steadiness and a solid foundation. From there, you can rise to your tallest point possible.
Why it matters: The more solid your foundation in any pose, the more you’ll get from it in class. But this also applies beyond the mat. “In mountain pose, you imagine yourself to be a mountain, with roots so deep in the ground that you are unmovable,” Karuna explains. “From there, you can rise to find your height, length, and see your potential.”
CUE: “LEAD WITH YOUR HEART”
Synonym: Let your heart shine
Definition: Physically this means chest forward and shoulders back. “If you lift your heart, it creates a natural S curve in your spine and your shoulders draw back, which is healthier for your back and body,” Karuna says.
Why it matters: “Especially in this day and age, everyone has horrendous posture. We round our shoulders forward and cave into our chest, and it’s wreaking havoc on our spine and back health,” she says. Beyond the physical aspect, it’s a reminder to get out of your head and into your body. “We are such analytical creatures and we tend to be cut off from our bodies,” Karuna says. “Start to trust yourself and your intuition, and lead with your heart” outside of yoga, too.