By: CJ Gotcher, SSC
A good coach is expected to provide value by producing results in real-time, and tactile cueing—using touch to communicate what the lifter needs to do—is one of the most efficient ways to get these results. Unfortunately, going hands-on involves entering a person’s space in a way that may be otherwise very intimate. This presents the coach with the challenge of creating rapid results while respecting people’s boundaries and building trust.
The Rules of Cueing Have Changed: Helping Your Clients Without Crossing Lines
15 years ago, my dad signed me up with a personal trainer at the local Big Box Gym to get ready for the physical requirements of the US Naval Academy. I didn’t know any better, so circuit machine and dumbbell work was the plan. After all, who knows more than the PT at your local gym? Apparently plenty of people, as it turns out, since I didn’t get stronger.
Fast forward to today. There are still pinsetters and cheerleaders out there, but the market for coaches and trainers has changed dramatically.
In just a few years, CrossFit inspired hundreds of thousands of lifters to look for coaching in the barbell lifts and adult gymnastics. Combined with the newfound mainstream appreciation of strength for health and the growth of social media, consumers are more informed now than ever before. They are one click away from Mark Rippetoe, Christopher Sommer, and Quinn Henoch. Why spend their money on clipboard-carrying rep-counters? Through online coaching, they have access to the world’s best coaches, answering their questions and checking their videos.
A good coach is expected to provide value by producing results in real-time. The lifter who steps in the gym and leaves with a new PR, a better squat, less (or no) pain, and renewed confidence in their abilities is a lifter who comes back for more.
Tactile cueing—using touch to communicate what the lifter needs to do—is one of the most efficient ways to get these results. Anyone who has been well-coached can remember how a well-placed hand, pipe, or block of wood made things ‘click’ where words failed.
There are many reasons for this. Tactile cues are novel since we’re not used to being touched, so we pay extra attention. Tactile cues bypass language, and thinking in words tends to interfere with the intuitive, quick reactions needed to perform well. As if that wasn’t enough, most tactile cues are also externally focused, a quality which tends to lead to faster learning. Whatever the reason, it’s in our best interest to learn how to use tactile cues effectively.
Unfortunately, going hands-on involves entering a person’s space in a way that may be otherwise very intimate. This presents the coach with the challenge of creating rapid results while respecting people’s boundaries and building trust, and a lot has changed in the last 15 years.
Social media has been a double-edged sword for coaches. On the one hand, it has flooded the conversation with charlatans and quacks, making it harder for good coaching to stand out. On the other hand, it has connected lifters and coaches alike in a way that exposes unprofessional, unacceptable, even criminal repeat behavior.
#MeToo and social media have opened people’s eyes to what should have been obvious: everyone, regardless of profession or standing, needs to earn our trust and consent to enter our space. To serve our lifters best, we need to accept what those in the allied manual-treatment professions realized a long time ago: professionalism and respect are a prerequisite for that trust.
This realization might come slowly. It’s rare that a coach, even a grossly unprofessional one, is called out on the platform. So in the long priority list of skills we develop to become better coaches, marketers, business owners, and content providers, ‘professionalism’ may seem low on the list.
What we often fail to realize is that unprofessional conduct is a slow, quiet bleed. A lifter may not say when some grabby spotting makes them uncomfortable, especially if they were nervous already. Their enthusiasm will fade, and a few sessions into their training, they’ll say something like “I’m not sure if I have the money right now,” walk out the door, and find another coach. Or worse, never train again, and lose the benefits a stronger body has to offer.
This article is about making effective and respectful contact in a way that gets results while retaining lifters, especially encouraging those who would otherwise be wary of the gym to stick with you.
It Starts at the Door
This trust-building doesn’t start on the platform.
Everything we do affects how our lifters feel. That includes our reputation, demeanor, and behavior on and off the job.
Consider this: if the Dalai Lama reaches out, puts his hand on your shoulder, and leans in to whisper something, you’re likely honored and listening closely.
Now imagine the 100% Juicy-Juice personal trainer-bro at your local gym. The one with dozens of duckface-shirtless Instagram pics and a penchant for using words like ‘thot’ in conversation. If he reaches out to grab you the way the Dalai Lama did, you probably don’t feel so honored.
How we carry ourselves and demonstrate respect from the start helps build trust we can translate to results on the platform.
On the Platform
Still, no amount of polo shirts and good handshakes will build trust if you’re a clod with your lifters’ boundaries and personal space. We want to respect that space without coming across as awkward and forced, whipping out a consent contract with each new cue.
When contact is going to be more personally invasive, and in any situation where there is doubt, I stick to the “4 E’s.”
Explain the Cue
Execute as Planned
Evaluate the Outcome
Explain the Cue
We can accept almost any contact if it’s framed in the right way. Think of the dancer or the wrestler wrapped up in an embrace that, in a different setting, would raise eyebrows. Outside of comedy specials and offhand jokes, no one bats an eye. It’s just dance. It’s just wrestling.
Explaining the cue before you use it sets up the rest of the interaction by giving the touch meaning. You’ve identified a problem that needs to be fixed, and when you use the cue, your lifter knows what it’s for and why you’re doing it. It’s just coaching.
Ideally, build this explanation into a teaching progression for each movement. When you first teach it, either in a fundamentals-style class or a first coaching session, mention common faults as you walk through the lift. You can also point out the lifter’s movement errors at this teaching stage, even if you have higher priority issues and don’t intend to correct them immediately. If you don’t have the opportunity for a full teaching progression, the time between sets is usually enough to show the lifter what’s needed.
If you’ve coached the lifter this way, later cues seamlessly point back to the previous explanations. Personally, I tend to start with verbal cues: “Knees.” “Feel the steel.” Since they’re already familiar with what I want to see, the verbal cue points to which fault I’m trying to correct and gives meaning to the follow-on tactile cue.
Finally, telegraph your move. In boxing, we want to communicate as little as possible to our opponent so our hits can sneak past their defenses. Any subtle movement that warns them of your next punch is ‘telegraphing.’ In coaching, we want the lifters to see what’s coming and to give them every opportunity to understand it before it happens. Mimic the cue you’re saying as you’re about to give it. Demo it. Describe it. Often it’s nothing more than a quick gesture, but make it clear what they should expect.
“Elicit” is a fancy way of saying “ask.” After working with hundreds or thousands of lifters, we sometimes start treating them like moving meat-bags, forgetting that they want to move well, and if we ask them to work with us, they’re more likely to buy into the process.
Again, this starts at the first session. I usually let the lifter know that I’ll be using tactile cues, ask if that’s okay, and tell them they can always stop if they feel uncomfortable. I’ve heard coaches’ concern that people might get cold feet at this point, but I’ve never seen it. More importantly, if someone did express an issue with touch, I’d consider it a blessing that they let me know before, not after, I’ve invaded their space.
It doesn’t stop there, though. There are two ways you can ask for consent in mid-lift: explicitly or implicitly.
For explicit consent, ask. “Okay?” “All right?” “May I?” Take a few examples from the squat:
“May I move your hips into position [Elicit]? You’re way high [Explain].”
“Too high. I’m moving you to depth [Explain], okay? [Elicit]”
The key here is to pay attention. If you ask, “May I?”, wait for a positive response. If you go for the more casual “okay?”, pay attention to body language. If they put themselves in position, ready to go, perfect. If you see discomfort and hesitation, check in with them or wave off.
Implicit requests are even more seamless. These are ‘target cues’ that require the lifter to move themselves to you. Here, the lifter expresses consent by executing the task, and they are among my favorite cues. Target cues are often incredibly effective at teaching the correct position because they require the lifter’s active participation. Win-win.
Execute as Planned
This one is simple.
Imagine your jiu-jitsu sensei trying to correct a finer point on an arm lock. They’ve explained your mistake well and tell you they’re going to demo it on you so you can feel it done right. You set yourself up for the move… and your instructor wraps you from behind and puts you in a choke hold. “You need to be ready for anything!”
It’s a dramatic example, but I’ve seen it. This kind of switcheroo is an amateur move at best, and it can be an enormous violation of trust. No one’s choking their lifters on the lifting platform (I hope), but we often do this on a small scale: we set up a cue to fix something, and mid-rep, see something else that needs fixing and reach over to…
Pause. Imagine being in mid-joke and saying the punchline to a completely different, unrelated joke. Even if it’s not upsetting, it’s ineffective. The lifter has to adjust focus mid-rep to the new fix. It breaks the learning cycle and makes for an ineffective cue. Unless safety is at risk, correct the problem you started with. You can help them fix that other thing next set.
Evaluate the Outcome
This step is vital to the effectiveness and professional execution of a cue. It’s easy, but especially in group coaching environments, it’s often missed.
The purpose of a cue is to create better movement. Cues educate the lifter and actively engage them in the process. When we cue someone and fail to communicate the follow through, whether we’re distracted by another lifter or just satisfied by the correction and see no need to comment, we cut that process short.
It also leads them to question why you bothered with a physical cue at all. Why touch someone if it doesn’t matter whether they received the message? Make sure it worked and let them know.
Real Life, In Real Time
Coaching is complex.
It takes time to learn the mechanics behind the movements, develop the skill to see faults, and build enough confidence to apply corrections in real time.
Even more complex, we’re dealing with people, not angles and force vectors. Every day, we apply practical psychology to build relationships that make us more effective.
Because of this, there are few universal rules of coaching, even in defining what is professional. A ‘crude’ cue might be more memorable and stick with the lifter when they’re getting crushed.
Even surprise, which can be a problem, has its place. While I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, Coach Woolfolk was helping me with the Olympic lifts, and I asked which leg should go forward in the split.
“Hmm… let’s see. Here, take an even, hip-width stance and lean into my hand.” He put his hand in front of me, and me being a clueless and gullible college kid, I leaned into it. No surprise, he yanked it away suddenly. In my sputtering panic, I instinctively caught myself with my left leg, and he pointed to it.
It took 2 seconds to execute and was remarkably effective: it has stuck with me to this day.
Or consider Dmitry Klokov and his famous jerk punch. It’s definitely surprising, maybe a little painful, and there was certainly no warning. Have I used this cue? No. But it’s effective, and when people are paying hundreds or thousands for a star weightlifter to fix their lifts, they’re more likely to forgive the inconvenience. You can see in another video how he uses a similar tactic, this time communicating the same idea with just the warned threat of a punch to keep the head back. Different audience, different relationship. Both approaches may work for you and your lifter.
Since it is so complicated, this isn’t a rulebook. It’s not a checklist that guarantees professional and effective cueing or a charm against accusations of inappropriate conduct. It’s certainly not a judgment: “Do these things or you’re a bad coach.”
Bringing Strength to Everyone
Hopefully, I’ve provided you with some ideas for how you might improve your cues and tweak your communication to reach those ‘hard to fix’ clients you’ve been stuck with.
Hopefully, this opens the range of who you can coach and who feels comfortable coming to the gym. There are untold numbers of people right now who want the kind of improved quality of life a good coach can help them reach, but because of trauma histories or past gym experiences, they won’t take the next step.
Hopefully, you can be the coach who gets them there.