One of the best parts of workout classes or springing for a personal training session is getting expert instruction from a fitness pro. But sometimes, trainers use lingo that makes sense to them as a professional but doesn’t quite translate to people who don’t spend their whole day thinking about working out. Plus, some of the classic exercise cues that have been floating around for decades are outdated, whether because we better understand body mechanics now, they’re grounded in the outdated more-is-more and exercise-as-punishment mentalities or they sound good but aren’t effective.
Ahead, the cues trainers think should be retired, plus what you can do if you hear any of them.
“ENGAGE YOUR CORE”
This can be confusing, and people often think it means they should suck in their stomach, explains Jaclyn Fulop, board licensed physical therapist and founder of Exchange Physical Therapy Group.
She prefers to tell people to activate their core, and uses a specific method to help clients understand what she means by that: “I tell them to cough and to feel the sensation in their stomach muscles mid-cough, then explain that this is what engaging or stabilizing the core feels like.”
“DON’T LET YOUR KNEES GO PAST YOUR TOES”
This is a common cue in lunges and sometimes squats, with the idea that it’ll protect your knees from injury. If someone does have knee pain, then it’s a good idea to back off and stay conservative, says Alec Hyde, DPT, a performance physical therapist at Complex Health and Wellness.
If you don’t have knee problems, there’s no reason to be worried about your knees going past your toes. In fact, it might be worse not to train in this range of motion, Hyde says. That’s because many daily activities, like walking down the stairs or even jumping up and down, require the knees to naturally travel over the toes.
“CURL YOUR HEAD UP”
You might hear this while doing situps or other ab exercises that involve lying on your back. But, it rarely has the intended effect of activating the core muscles, says Samira Shuruk, a certified trainer and Pilates instructor. “People end up tucking the chin, rounding the shoulders and activating neck, shoulder and chest muscles, but not abs,” she explains.
Instead, Shuruk recommends imagining you’re lifting your sternum while keeping your shoulders relaxed. Another option: Try to shorten the space between your rib cage and hip bones while relaxing your shoulders and neck.
“TUCK YOUR TAILBONE”
Tucking is a frequent movement in everything from barre workouts to weightlifting. It helps you achieve posterior pelvic tilt, a position that activates both the glute muscles and the abdominals. But “tuck your tailbone” can be a confusing cue, and many of Fulop’s clients don’t understand it at first. “A better way to imagine this is tucking your tail between your legs like a dog that just got into trouble,” Fulop says.
“DRAW YOUR BELLY BUTTON TO YOUR SPINE”
Another problematic core cue, this phrase results in people trying to suck in their stomach, which doesn’t do much good for training your muscles. “The intention is good here, but it doesn’t give the best understanding of how the core muscles work,” says Lauren Vickers, trainer and athletics team manager at F45 Training. The idea is to engage the transverse abdominis (TVA), a deep core muscle that acts like a girdle to protect the lower back and helps create core stability.
Instead of sucking in, try to think of activating this in the way a corset tightens, wrapping around the body and engaging all of the core muscles, Vickers advises. “Sometimes it’s helpful to pause for a breath and visualize this. The stronger the TVA activation, the more engagement through all of the core muscles in our exercises.”
“IT’S FRIDAY. TIME TO BURN CALORIES FOR THE WEEKEND!”
To be fair, this isn’t a form cue. “This is meant to be a motivational cue, but there’s so much wrong with it,” says Crissy Fishbane, a certified therapeutic exercise specialist, personal trainer and wellness coach. “It tells us that the only reason we work out is to create a caloric deficit, so we can eat more and then enjoy life. But working out itself should be an enjoyable endeavor.”
So, if you hear something like this in a workout, what can you do? Try to remind yourself of all the other reasons you’re working out, Fishbane recommends. “Focus on the positive aspects of working out, rather than creating negative energy around exercise and movement.” Some alternative cues you can mentally tell yourself include, “Feel how good it is to move your body,” and “This exercise is going to give you so much strength and energy for the weekend!”
“PICK YOUR HEAD UP”
Head and neck position is more important than you might imagine, which is why many coaches and trainers cue it. This cue is usually meant to keep people from dropping their head, letting their chin jut forward, or looking at the floor while they do an exercise, says Steve Stonehouse, a certified personal trainer and director of education for STRIDE. The problem is it tends to cause people to overcorrect, arching their neck into an unnatural position, especially during exercises that involve bending forward like deadlifts, bent-over rows and kettlebell swings.
“Ideally, you want a neutral spine with the ears right above the shoulders, looking straight ahead,” Stonehouse says. That means you will end up looking at the floor in some exercises — and that’s OK, as long as you’re not straining your neck.
“PINCH YOUR SHOULDER BLADES”
It’s not that this cue is wrong, Fulop says, but it’s incomplete. She prefers “drop your shoulders and squeeze your shoulder blades together” instead. “It’s important that the shoulders be drawn downward first, then backward to be pinched together,” she explains. “When you pull the shoulder blades downward, you are relaxing and stretching the upper traps. Almost everyone has tight upper traps, and people hold a lot of stress in the shoulders, so it’s important to increase the space between the earlobes and the top of the shoulders.” With this small extra step, you’re activating additional muscles and making sure the exercise is done correctly.
“DON’T LIFT WEIGHT WITH YOUR BACK”
This cue grinds Hyde’s gears because saying what not to do isn’t all that helpful. If you’re doing a deadlift, you probably know you shouldn’t primarily use your lower back to do this movement, but that doesn’t necessarily prevent you from doing so. “Through research, we have seen that external cues are much more effective at creating a change,” Hyde explains. External cues involve something outside your body. For example, you might think about pushing the floor away with your feet to engage the right muscles for a deadlift.
“PICK IT UP”
You’ll hear this cue a lot in cardio workouts, encouraging you to up your intensity, but it’s incredibly vague and can cause a lot of confusion, according to Eric von Frohlich, a certified personal trainer and founder of Row House. “Oftentimes, you look around as an instructor says ‘pick it up,’ and people stop what they’re doing to look to see what they need to pick up!”
Von Frolich’s advice for anytime you hear this cue: “Think about what’s going to help you enhance the move to get the most out of it, or what will make the move more challenging for you in a good way. Ask yourself, ‘Am I going deep enough in this move?’ or ‘Am I engaging the right muscles to really feel the intensity?’ There are so many ways to level up.”
This cue is used in reference to a variety of exercises, but it’s problematic because the natural curvature of the spine is actually what gives it stability, says Alisa Tucker, AKT master trainer. Flattening your back actually puts you in a more vulnerable position, especially when doing an exercise that uses weights or is a high-impact exercise, Tucker says. “Of course, we don’t want to exaggerate the curves in the spine, but we also don’t want to eliminate them.”
The solution: Focus on keeping your rib cage closed while supporting the movement with your core (maybe using some of the preferred core cues mentioned earlier in this article). The one exception is if you’re doing a core exercise while on your back and you can’t keep a natural curve in your low back without arching. “Then it’s safer to press the lower back into the floor,” Tucker says. “But while standing and kneeling, working from a neutral spine is optimal.”
“NO PAIN, NO GAIN”
This is another motivational cue that’s meant to make you push harder. “But more often than not, what it ends up doing is teaching a person to not trust their body, which can be a very dangerous situation,” Fishbane says. “Pain is a signal to our body. On any given day, we have different factors that can impact our abilities in the gym, from sleep and food intake to hormones and stress levels. As a society, we have been taught for so long to push through the pain and this is exactly why so many individuals hate the thought of working out.”
It can help to remind yourself that it’s OK to listen to your body, and that your exercise effort might look different from one day to the next — and that’s OK. “When we learn to listen to and trust our body, we find that we know when we have the energy and stamina to give more to our workout,” Fishbane says. “And we also know when we need to back off and take a more fluid approach to our sessions.”
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