If you are a personal training client, you know that your trainer frequently provides guidance as you perform each movement so that you use the best possible form and get the most out of every rep. Or, you may have either heard us coaching our clients on the gym floor, or experienced it yourself while in classes we teach. You might hear things like “hinge at the hips” or “lock out your arms at the top” or “tuck your chin”. Some of these cues you might even store away in your mind for use during your own workouts. But which cues are the most important, and applicable to the general public? I’m here to share with you the three cues I use most often with my clients, and all of them will attest that they hear them multiple times during every workout. They probably hear me saying these things in their sleep, to be honest, but I’m okay with that, because these three cues are hugely important to keep in mind and are meant to correct the most common faults in nearly every exercise. My hope is that they will improve your workouts as well.
1. Activate your core. This is probably the most common of all the cues that I and other trainers use with our clients. It’s not even 100% accurate, technically, because (fun fact!) the core consists of abdominals, back, hips, and glutes, but most people understand that what we mean by “core” in this context is the abdominal muscles. Did you know that you should be actively using your abs during virtually every movement you do? Even if you’re lying on your back doing something that seems unrelated to the abs, such as a floor press, you should have your abdominals pulled in (or braced, or flexed–however you like to think of it.) The job of your abdominals is to stabilize your spine (and they should be doing that continuously) but when you pay greater attention to actively using them to hold your torso in a solid position during all movements, you’ll get a lot more work out of them, as well as whatever other muscle group you’re training at that moment. The next time you find yourself getting a little floppy through the torso during a movement, imagine me reminding you to activate your core.
2. Bring your shoulders down and back. One of my smart-aleck clients asked me, while I was demonstrating a TRX row the other day, if he should keep his shoulders up and forward throughout the exercise. Very funny! But it’s not uncommon to see folks doing all manner of movements with their shoulders up around their ears. We all do it at least occasionally–all that stress makes us tense! But really, the only exercise where you want to be lifting your shoulders up is during a shoulder shrug. Every single other movement–yes, including overhead presses–is better done with those shoulders down and back. One cue I’ve heard other trainers use for this is “put your shoulder blades in your back pockets.” Essentially, you just want your scapulae (or shoulder blades) to be held down and tight against your back instead of rotating outward and upward. Holding this low-and-tight position throughout an exercise strengthens your back, helps to undo that forward hunch we all get from too much computer work, and keeps your shoulders locked into a safe and stable position for whatever movement you might be doing. Try to remember to do a quick shoulder check before and during every exercise.
3. Don’t forget to breathe! It is pretty amazing how many people hold their breath while performing an exercise. It’s somewhat natural to hold the breath when putting in a huge effort (this is called the valsalva maneuver and can increase your blood pressure dramatically, so be careful), but I’ve trained so many people who hold their breath no matter what they’re doing, and it’s really not great if you want to get through a whole set without passing out. Thus, I’m constantly saying to my clients, “Don’t forget to breathe!” (usually followed by a big whoosh of air from them.) Why is breathing important? The simple answer is that, when you are using your muscles, they need oxygen to work. If you don’t breathe, there’s no oxygen, and they won’t function very well. The general rule of thumb is that you inhale on the easy (eccentric) part of an exercise, and exhale on the hard (concentric) part. So, if you were squatting, you would inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up. If you’re doing a pull-up, you exhale up (as you pull) and inhale down (as you release). It can take awhile to naturally breathe correctly during every exercise, so give it some time. Meanwhile, please just make sure you’re breathing at all!