Matthew Cain, PhD by Matthew Cain, PhD

Health and exercise professionals use different types of verbal instruction to effectively communicate and instruct their clients to move efficiently and to successfully perform an exercise. Verbal instruction, in the form of cueing, has shown to help improve motor control and learning, while attempting to optimize motor performance (Benz et al., 2016; Makaruk et al., 2014; Wulf, 2013, Marchant, 2011). The cues you use can help improve your client’s ability to perform the movement and, overtime, help him or her display unconscious competence when performing a specific movement or exercise. Unconscious competence allows a client to think minimally about the movement or exercise and instead focus his or her attention on successfully accomplishing the task. For example, as the client becomes more comfortable with an exercise such as the squat, he or she no longer has to think about how to perform the movement. Therefore, the client can turn his or her attentional focus to executing the movement with superior performance (e.g., beating a previous personal record or improving 1-repetition maximum).

As a health and exercise professional, you can help your clients move more effectively and efficiently by utilizing two types of verbal cues: internal and external cues. Internal cues—or internal focus of attention—can be used to enhance motor learning and performance, especially in novice clients, whose movement or exercise technique often needs to be significantly improved. Internal cues direct a client’s attention toward his or her body and the movement process, as it relates to the exercise being performed (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Makaruk et al., 2014; Wulf, 2013; Marchant, 2011; Peh et al., 2011). Telling your client to “push through your heels” when performing a squat or “explode through your hips or push through your feet” when performing jumping and sprinting movements are examples of internal cues.

You also may utilize external cues to enhance motor learning and performance in all populations. External cues—or external focus of attention—direct a client’s attention toward the effect the movement will have on the surrounding environment and the movement outcome, as it relates to the exercise being performed (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Makaruk et al., 2014; Wulf, 2013; Marchant, 2011; Peh et al., 2011). Telling your client to “push through the floor” when performing a squat or “push (explode) off the ground” when performing jumping and sprinting movements are examples of external cues.

Existing literature suggests that external cueing is the most effective type of cueing to improve motor learning and performance in all populations (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Wulf, 2013; Makaruk et al., 2014). For example, external cueing has been shown to enhance the motor learning process by increasing movement effectiveness and efficiency. While movement effectiveness “is associated with accuracy, consistency, and reliability in achieving the movement goal,” movement efficiency is “the investment of relatively little physical and mental effort,” when successfully performing the movement (Wulf, 2013).

By comparison, internal cueing has not been shown to be the most effective type of cueing to improve motor learning and performance (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Makaruk et al., 2014; Wulf, 2013). Furthermore, it has been shown that this form of cueing may even hinder performance in certain situations (Halperin et al., 2017; Halperin and Williams et al., 2016). However, literature and expert anecdotal experience suggests internal cueing may provide benefits, depending on the population served. Specifically, this type of cueing may be beneficial for beginning exercisers. Additionally, internal cueing has been shown to enhance muscular recruitment and activation and, potentially, muscular development, depending on the population served (Schoenfeld et al., 2016; Marchant, 2011; Snyder, 2009).

Although, existing literature heavily supports the use of external cues to enhance movement efficiency, all types of cueing should be utilized to improve and instruct human movement. When teaching a movement or exercise, start with two to three cues to influence the desired movement and make sure the client knows the purpose of the exercise. This allows time for the client to comprehend the information, feel competent and not be overwhelmed. In addition, ask your clients which cues they think are most effective, while observing how the cues impacted the desired movements throughout their sessions. Keep in mind, however, that all clients are different, and one might respond better to internal cues, while another might prefer external cues. Therefore, observing which cueing types seem more effective than others and asking for your clients’ input and preferences will help them move more efficiently and effectively.

In addition to verbal cues, using visual cueing (through demonstration of proper exercise technique) can and should be utilized, as all influence human movement efficiency. Therefore, be sure to use a combination of cueing variables, driven by the existing literature guidelines, client preference and anecdotal training experience, to help maximize your clients’ movement effectiveness and efficiency.   

Want to help your clients move more smoothly? Become an ACE Functional Training Specialist and gain a better understanding fascia assessments, the application of appropriate exercise progressions, stretching techniques and more! 


Benz, A., Winkelman, N., Porter, J., & Nimphius, S. (2016). Coaching instructions and cues for enhancing sprint performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 1-11.

Halperin, I., Chapman, D. W., Martin, D. T., & Abbiss, C. (2017). The effects of attentional focus instructions on punching velocity and impact forces among trained combat athletes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(5), 500-507.

Halperin, I., Williams, K. J., Martin, D. T., & Chapman, D. W. (2016). The effects of attentional focusing instructions on force production during the isometric midthigh pull. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 30(4), 919-923.

Makaruk, H., & Porter, J. M. (2014). Focus of attention for strength and conditioning training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 36(1), 16-22.

Marchant, D. C. (2011). Attentional focusing instructions and force production. Frontiers in psychology, 1, 210.

Marchant, D. C., Greig, M., Bullough, J., & Hitchen, D. (2011). Instructions to adopt an external focus enhance muscular endurance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(3), 466-473.

Peh, S. Y. C., Chow, J. Y., & Davids, K. (2011). Focus of attention and its impact on movement behaviour. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 14(1), 70-78.

Schoenfeld, B. J., & Contreras, B. (2016). Attentional focus for maximizing muscle development: The mind-muscle connection. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 27-29.

Snyder, B. J., & Leech, J. R. (2009). Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(8), 2204-2209.

Winkelman, N. C., Clark, K. P., & Ryan, L. J. (2017). Experience level influences the effect of attentional focus on sprint performance. Human movement science, 52, 84-95.

Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 77-104.

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