Verbal Cues to Enhance Specific Muscle Activity

There are times in training where we may want the athlete to ‘feel’ the activity in a particular area. When doing isolated exercises (leg extensions, calf raises, biceps curls, etc.) this is pretty easy to do, but when it comes to compound exercises (leg press, bench press, lunges, etc.) this is sometimes difficult. A recent study in the JoSCR (Vol. 26, #9, Sept 2012, pg 2394) noticed increased electromyographic (EMG) activity in the pectoralis major muscles increased by 22% when the subject was given verbal instruction to ‘focus on the chest muscles’ as well as increased EMG activity by 26% in the triceps when instructed to use only the triceps. These results were seen at lighter intensities (50%), but when the intensity was increased to 80% the results were less effective.

In our program, we cue muscle activity quite a bit in the beginning (especially with the body weight activities). We do this because we want to increase the players overall sense of awareness, we want to teach our players to ‘feel’ the muscles working while they learn more about muscle function and the movements they control.

We do this as they are learning to perform specific exercises, with the hope that they will begin to listen to their bodies as they train.

Is this necessary? Is the body so disconnected that we actually have to tell it what muscles to fire to move in a particular path?

That was a rhetorical question, but the answer is “NO!” It is not necessary, and isolating your verbal cues around specific muscles can sometimes be counter productive as players try to use specific muscles to do a specific task. The body is smarter than we sometimes think. Sometimes it is better to focus on the outcome or the simple fact of pushing hard. For example, in a lunge motion, young athletes sometimes have a hard time maintaining good knee alignment. If you cue them to focus on the hamstrings, glutes, quads or calves to help correct this you might never get the result you are looking for. Instead, try cuing the player to push hard into the ground with a full foot (balance between the ball and the heel). Many times, as they listen to your cues and tell their body to push hard into the ground, the right muscles fire with the right amounts of force to get you the desired outcome.

So when would we use this verbal cuing technique around specific muscles and when should we focus on movement? We sometimes cue specific muscles in the early stages of the rehab to sport transition. After an injury, the body can become a bit disconnected from the movement. The goal is get the player moving in a rhythmic pattern while also gaining some understanding of how specific exercises feel, what they target and why. Sometimes we do this with cuing and sometimes we have to use a pre-activation exercise like isometric ball squeezes to get the VMO to fire before lunging). Athletes respond in different ways to different coaching cues, but the goal is always to get them to execute efficiently. So when do you cue your athletes and when do you just let them move?


  1. Great practical information Scott. Thanks. ” The goal is to get the player moving in a rhythmic pattern while also gaining some understanding of how specific exercises feel, what they target and why.” Really helpful way to think about it. Working with our lacrosse players the other day on change of direction, leaning in the direction of the change and using the inside leg. Normal cue of leaning in the direction of the change was not connecting with some of them. I noticed one of the players was actually touching the ground or the cone with his inside hand and as a result getting into the right position. So we made that the cue for some of the others. Pretty quickly they felt the difference, shifted to the inside leg and were moving rhythmically. As they got the ” feel” they didn’t need to touch the ground or cone but they had made the kinesthetic connection in an intrinsic way. We were able to move from efficient, rhythmic movement to quicken the tempo and being to move more dynamically. Appreciate your insight into the process here. Understanding what’s happening and why allows us to replicate it and take it deeper. Sometimes players give us the cue if we’re paying attention.

  2. Absolutely right! The whole “inside leg” as the primary decelerator is a very simple, and natural movement, but some players have a very hard time with it. I plan on using the touch the ground with the inside hand cue very soon…Thanks!

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