“Be mindful when it comes to your words. A string of some that don’t mean much to you may stick with someone for a lifetime.” Rachael Wolchin
As teachers of movement, in whatever capacity, we use our words in the form of “cues” to help our clients find a movement, a position, a shape, stability, strength and length. These cues are often passed down from teacher to student, either in our own practice or during our teacher training program. An example of one that we know all too well is “draw belly button to spine”.
Cues are meant to make teaching movement easier by giving the client an image or direction to grasp on to. This can help to make the specific movements we have them execute more straightforward to understand. Of course, if we only use anatomical terms and references your clients will be lost, or even worse, make an incorrect assumption of where these structures are located or what they do.
We get very used to saying things a certain way, by habit or comfort, but have you ever thought about what your words (aka cues) really mean from a movement perspective? Are they really producing the result that you are intending, or are they creating muscular patterns that may not serve the client well?
From a biomechanical perspective, movement is produced by the central nervous system sending a message to the muscles that then move the bones. How the CNS interprets the inputs from the brain determines the message that is sent through the body. A client hears what you say then their brain communicates what it interprets from your words to the CNS.
Our bodies and brains are amazing. The CNS has an automatic mechanism of ensuring the proper functioning of our musculoskeletal system in the most effective and efficient manner without having to consciously and deliberately activate muscles to produce movement of our bones. However, over time the messages may have become more like broken telephone, so as teachers of movement we aim to help people decipher the messages to find better movement again. While we do this, it is important not to complicate matters by unintentionally delivering new messages via our cues that create even more faulty patterns.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common cues, and the effect they may have on movement or lack thereof as the case may be. For each cue, I suggest an alternative cue to try.
1) “Pull the knee cap up the leg”
This cue is sometimes used to create stability of the knee and a full lengthening of the joint. However, this can create excessive shear from the back of the patella on the menisci, promotes a posterior (backward) glide of the femur over the tibia, and locks short the vasti muscles that are innately designed to stabilize the knee joint. This further exacerbates a loose or wandering knee cap known as Patellofemoral Syndrome.
Just allow the kneecap to move as it should. It will draw up toward the femur naturally as the knee extends and becomes stable to bear weight. If you do cue a lengthening of the front of the leg by drawing the knee cap up, also be sure to cue for its release when the knee is held straight.
Alternative cue: Gently lengthen the knee joint until the femur (thigh bone) is aligned over/with the tibia (shin bone). A tactile cue with the client’s finger tip in the center of the patella will allow them to feel its natural movement up and down as the knee bends and straightens.
2) “Keep the sitz bones aligned over the heels as you fold forward at the hip”
The rolling down movement from standing as if aiming to touch your toes is functionally intended to promote what is called lumbopelvic rhythm.
For effective lumbopelvic rhythm in standing, the pelvis should glide backward slightly as the body folds forward to maintain the Center of Balance over the femur heads, thus preventing us from falling forward.
When we prevent this lumbopelvic rhythm by cueing to keep the sitz bones over the heels, the entire back line of muscles contracts to keep us from falling, therefore preventing or limiting movement in the intended direction, as well as promoting hyperextension of the knees as an attempt to maintain balance.
Alternative cue: In standing, nod your chin then nod your sacrum and ribs as you roll sequentially through your spine. Then, allow your pelvis to roll over your femur heads as you continue to fold towards the floor.
3) “Pull your shoulders down your back” OR “Pull your shoulders back” OR “Shoulders back, chest up” (basically any cue that pulls the shoulder blades artificially against the back of the ribs)
In “Human Movement Potential”, Sweigard states: “it is unfortunate that many of our postural admonitions recommend that the shoulders be held in a specific position…The shoulder girdle must hang free to allow the full range of movement permitted by its design”.
Cueing to hold the shoulders in any position, up, down, forward, or back creates unnecessary tension in the musculature and in effect weakens the stabilizing structures that, not only help to hold the bones in place, but also to allow for the hanging of the shoulder girdle on top of the rib cage with integrity as the spine and arms move.
Alternative cue: Stack up your vertebrae until your ribs align over the pelvis, then allow your collar bones to fall open and your shoulder blades to hang. Read more about simple alignment ideas in Stack your Boxes: Strategies for Standing and Walking
4) “Squeeze your glutes”
I think we all know that squeezing a muscle is not using a muscle for movement. While isometric contraction can be used to create isolated strength in a muscle when static, it is not a functional approach for producing strength in movement. When used for movement, isometric contraction (which literally means same length) actually inhibits the range of motion, and eliminates the strengthening benefits of eccentric contraction (the controlled lengthening phase of a muscle). Fun fact: If a person is moving in the intended direction and through the intended full range of motion, the muscles are working. The muscles do not need to be voluntarily activated. Repetition through the full range will continue to build strength of the muscles required for this movement.
Alternative cue: A tactile cue works wonders here so that the client can feel their “glutes” working in any position as they extend the hip (ie to return from a squat or a forward bend, bridging, prone hip extension, lunge on the Reformer, etc). Have the client put their hands on their buttocks, and to feel for movement from this area. My favorite image is feeling that the buttocks change from a squishy marshmallow to a firm grapefruit as you approach the end range of a movement.
You may also find this article of interest…”Clench it or Move it? How to use your muscles for their intended purpose”
5) “Keep your eyes on the ceiling as you ab curl”
This cue has made its way around the fitness world for decades. Have you ever watched someone from the side while they perform an ab curl and continue to look straight up at the ceiling? Remind you of anything? Think of what our postures have become from sitting and staring at computers all day – rounded thoracic spine with head forward causing excess tension in the neck and shoulders. So if we are working with our clients to help correct their posture, why would we ask them do an exercise that sends their head jutting forward and shortens their neck extensors while rounding their thoracic spine?
Fun fact: Did you know that the neck flexors are often the weakest group of muscles in the entire body?
Alternative cue: In supine with knees bent, nod your chin gently and lift your head to look towards your thighs. Drop/nod your sternum and ribs to roll further until the back of your ribs fall heavy into the mat.
6) “Pull belly button to spine”
If you have read any of Katy Bowman’s books, then you already know that there are many implications with cinching the waist. As she explains in “Alignment Matters”, the contents of the abdomen have to go somewhere when we pull the belly in toward the spine – they become compressed upwards into the ribcage or downwards into the pelvis. This creates excessive pressure on the pelvic floor (pelvic prolapse anyone?) and inhibits contraction of the diaphragm necessary for effective breathing (wait, isn’t that a fundamental Pilates principle?).
Have you heard the rumor that Pilates Instructors are prone to having weak pelvic floors? Perhaps this cue is why.
The intention of this cue has typically been as a means of contracting the deep inner unit, primarily the Transversus Abdominis. However, electromyography and ultrasound studies have shown that this is not the case, and instead further contracts the superficial abdominal muscles, namely the Rectus Abdominis, which is already held short regularly due to our desk-jockey postural habits.
Alternative cue: Again, tactile cues work well here. The inner unit muscles are core stabilizers, and are most effectively activated (involuntarily not consciously) when the spine is maintained in a neutral position as the limbs move. Have the client place their fingers just inside their hip bones (ASISs). As they move their leg as in a single leg raise or single leg circle, cue them simply to keep their pelvis still and they will feel the abdominals activate to accomplish this.
To offer another perspective of my aforementioned bottom line: if the pelvis is not moving (remains neutral) as the limbs move, the muscles are working.
Our clients listen to what we say, and translate our cues into messages that guide their movement. The words we use have power to assist or detract from their ability to move with more efficiency, grace, strength, or whatever you are aiming to accomplish in your sessions. Think about the cues you use and what they might mean to clients, and the affect they have on their bodies. Do these cues truly match your intention?
Holly Wallis, Certified Movement & Rehabilitation Specialist, PMA®-CPT
Director of US Operations, Body Harmonics Pilates & Movement Institute
Studio Director, ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611
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