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“Arch your back!”

“Okay, now extend your hips at the top.”

“Um, uh, push your knees out.”

” Oh, don’t forget to brace your abs, too.”

These were cues one of our new interns were giving an athlete the other day while trying to coach him through his very first deadlift session.

It wasn’t going well, and I could tell said intern was getting a little perplexed as to why things weren’t going to plan or falling into place.  No matter which cues he used the athlete resembled more of a melting candle than someone who was “getting” the exercise.

At one point I was half-expecting him to blurt out, “okay, I got it! Stand-up, hop on one leg, pat your head, and say the alphabet backwards!”

Obviously that didn’t happen (and if it did I probably would have laughed), but it’s something I think a lot of trainers and coaches (new and old) struggle with on a daily basis.  And that’s CUEING!!!

Or, to be more specific: using internal cues when external cues would be more beneficial and worthwhile.

This is something we’ve been more cognizant of at Cressey Performance and paying more attention to, and it’s been working like a charm with many of our athletes and general population clients.

And we’re not the only ones.  A few weeks ago I was forwarded an article by Armi Legge of that he wrote titled How a Simple Mind Trick Can Make You Stronger in Seconds, which breaks down the science behind the efficacy of using external foci over internal.

I won’t spoil the entire article (you can click the link above), but in his own words Amri breaks it down like this :

An internal focus of attention means you’re thinking about your body movements. Your legs when squatting, your arms when doing chin-ups, your chest when benching, etc.

An external focus means you’re focusing on something in your environment that’s relevant to your task. If you’re squatting, this would mean focusing on the bar or on pushing the bar towards the ceiling.

This is an incredibly subtle difference, but it can have a huge impact on your performance. In some cases, researchers will give one group instructions that only differ by one or two words.

In a study using a vertical jump test, here were the instructions:

Internal focus: “Focus on your fingers.”

External focus: “Focus on the rungs.”

The latter option is better. Research has consistently shown that an external focus improves motor learning, strength, coordination, and performance across a wide range of activities and ability levels.

And as such this is EXACTLY the road we’re travelling down more and more at the facility using more external cues when coaching something through their session.

Some quick examples:


Internal Cue:  Arch your back, get your chest up.

External Cue: Show me the logo on your shirt.

Internal Cue: Push your hips back

External Cue:  Try to hit the wall behind you with your hips.


Internal Cue: Push your knees out.

External Cue: Spread the floor with your feet.

Internal Cue: Grip the bar tight.

External Cue:  Try to melt the bar with your hands.

Bench Press

Internal Cue: Push the bar up.

External Cue: Try to hit the ceiling.

Med Ball Throws

** Particularly when trying to get them to throw the ball with some anger!

Internal Cue: Use your hips to throw the ball.

External Cue:  Pretend someone just took a massive shit on your car and now you’re pissed.

Note:  If I’m working with a young athlete I might say something along the lines of “pretend Voldemort actually defeated Harry Potter,” or something to that affect.

And it’s really that simple.  While we’re often under the impression that we need to a bunch of smoke and mirrors in order to see marked improvements in the gym, sometimes it’s just a matter of using a simple Jedi mind trick.

Try it today, and let me know what you think!

**Photo credit above (coach) to

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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  • lavackfitness

    The research out there is incredible. I have always used a mix of external and internal, never really realizing just how much better external was until Nick Winkelman’s lecture at Perform Better over the weekend. Been using pretty much only external cues this week and it is unbelievable how much better my clients are performing without any other adjustments to their training program.

    • TonyGentilcore

      You’re not the only person who has been referring back to Nick on this front. I’ll definitely have to check out more of his stuff.

  • Michael Zweifel

    The ole someone took a shit on your car cue. It’s classic that always seems to work haha!

    • TonyGentilcore

      I thought some would get a kick out of that one.

  • Rees

    LOL. As if a tiny shit would be acceptable???

    Great stuff man.

  • I wish I had gotten the Harry Potter cue when I was younger, I would have trained my ass off!

    Nice post.


    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks Jake – glad you liked it.

  • jeff

    This is great! I was subconsciously using more and externally cues (because they were working better) without realizing there were two different categories of cues! This will help use external cues more effectively so thanks!

    • TonyGentilcore

      You’re welcome Jeff. And be sure to check out Armi’s article that I linked to if you haven’t already. He goes into a bit more detail about the science behind it.

  • Guillermo Muñoz Mireles

    Great tips Tony! I usually use a combination of both. Most clients tend to respond differently to them. I’ll experiment with only using external cues for a week and I’ll see what happens.

  • Tim Enfield

    Yup, Thanks to Nick Winkelman and Athlete’s Performance I’ve switched to mainly external cueing. Awesome Stuff, particularly in the case of movement skills and speed training.

  • Chris

    I wonder whether the external cue works because it stops you from focusing on whether your muscles are hurting! So instead of focusing on a muscle (or hips or hands etc) and instantly recognising when they are starting to hurt or tire, you are not focusing on them and when they start hurting it takes you a little while to notice. Sort of like how sometimes you can zone out on music (more often doing cardio).

    • TonyGentilcore

      Some food for thought for sure Chris!

  • Alan Reilly

    I skipped Nick’s lecture last weekend for Al Vermeil—it was a tough choice—so thanks for the good recap!

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  • Gustavo Osorio

    Great post, do you have any tips for athltes who struggle with pull ups? I’ve tried the “bring your elbows to the ribs” cue and had some success but am still searching for a better cue.

    • TonyGentilcore

      With pull-ups it’s all about greasing the groove. Lets say someone can only perform five pull-ups. I’d cut that number in half to 2 or 3, and every hour or so I’d have them perform 2-3 reps.

      By the end of the day they’d have done anywhere from 15-20 additional chin-up/pull-ups. By the end of the week, 105-140. That adds up quickly after a month,and I can guarantee that after following this protocol for a few months their numbers will go through the roof.

  • Jess

    Yes – I remember when my powerlifting coach told me to “pick a light” on the ceiling – totally changed and corrected my squat and deadlift forms instantly by forcing me to keep a tight core, shoulders back, eyes up.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Literally, the number of external cues one can use are endless. Glad you found one that worked for you.

  • Thanks for the shout-out Tony, and great article.

    It seems we agree on all of the important stuff, like the Dark Knight being one of the best movies of all time… and cueing, of course 🙂

    Do you ever use any kind of progression of cues, or do you transfer people over to external ASAP? Just curious what you use with most clients, as I don’t think there’s any research on that specifically.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hmm, good question. I think we as a staff have just been toying with the external cues full boar. Now real progression.

      It’s just a matter of finding which ones work for which people. I still use internal cues, too.

  • Hadi

    for deadlift i always state that you should act as a big breasted women trying to show off her arse to the guy behind her. Works like a charm

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