Dec 9, 2016
The Right Cues

In order to help athletes make gains in the weightroom, coaches need to know what methods to use at what time. There has been a lot of debate over whether internal or external cues are more effective. Most strength coaches point to external cues as the better of the two, but some have found that internal cues can still play an important role. Here is a guide to using these coaching techniques effectively.

First we have to understand what these different methods are and how they play a role in strength training. Coaching an athlete through a workout requires their attentional focus, which is broken up into two categories: internal focus and external focus.

Internal focus is when the athlete is told to be aware of a certain part of their body. Coaches will use internal cues by saying things like “hips back,” “chest up,” and “focus on squeezing your quads.” This helps the athlete hone in on their internal focus so that they are aware of their body and technique during an exercise.

External focus is when the athlete is told to be aware of their relation with the environment, without any reference to the body itself. Coaches will use external cues by referencing things outside the body such as, “press the bar through the ceiling” or “press into the floor.” This is also a form of motivation that helps the athlete focus on reaching a goal and making gains during an exercise by directing awareness outside of the body.

Recent research has shown that when strength and conditioning coaches use external focus cues, athletes have an increased attentional focus than when guided with internal cues.

According to, “The difference in the use and effectiveness of these cues is vast, and research bears out that external cues are far superior. The current theory is that internal cues, by causing the learner to focus so closely on the body, actually restrict maximal learning by inducing ‘micro-choke’ events where muscles fire in larger amount and not in the correct sequence. Essentially there is less automaticity as a result of focusing so closely on how you’re moving.”

Yet, others have pointed out that while external cues are the desired method for coaching most exercises, there are certain instances when using internal cues might be very important. “So the research tells us that external cues are superior to internal cues. Does that mean we should do away with all internal cues?” writes Kyle Norman of the Denver Fitness Journal.

Norman has found that when teaching certain exercises such as squat, deadlift, or kettlebell swing, to a beginner, internal cues are essential to ensuring proper form. “I want clients particularly aware of glute contraction at the very top of a squat, deadlift or kettlebell swing. Contracting the glutes tightly at the top of these movements is important for keeping the pelvis and lumbar spine in good, safe position and for getting the most ‘oomph’ into the lift,” Norman writes. “Before I teach these exercises, I want the client to know what it feels like to squeeze their glutes. I simply want them to know what the glute contracting feels like. I don’t need them to move fast or lift heavy. In this case, an internal cue seems to be the best way to go.”

When considering whether to use internal or external cues in the weightroom, be sure to know the type of athlete that you’re training. When working with those who are new to strength training or have never done a certain exercise, it may help to start with internal cues so that they focus on perfecting their form. Once proper form is established, external cues will almost certainly push an athlete to get the most out their workout.

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