If you've ever been to a barre class where the instructor asks you to do something with your hips that feels anatomically impossible, you're not alone. We've all been there, trembling in a plié squat, thinking, "What the tuck are they talking about?"
Cueing—a technique used by personal trainers and fitness instructors to help clients achieve a specific movement—can be crazy confusing, and this bewilderment doesn't just happen at the barre. You hear confusing cues in yoga class, during personal-training sessions, group classes, and even in your favorite workout videos. We're going to explain what the 12 most common ones really mean, so the next time someone tells you to knit your ribs in, you don't go running for the nearest set of needles and yarn.
1. Engage Your Core
(also: activate your core, draw navel to spine, pull belly button to spine)
Let's start with the most basic and common cue: Engage your core. The reason you hear this a million times and across a variety of workouts is because it's the single most important thing you can do to prevent injury and ensure you're actually firing the muscles you want to be working. Engaging your core is not to be confused with flexing or sucking in your stomach. It's bracing the abdominal and lower back muscles to stabilize the spine and allow proper breathing. Try coughing. Feel that stabilizing sensation in your midsection? That's engaging your core.
2. Balance on Sits Bones
(also: sit, sitz, or sitting bones)
Your sit bones refer to—you guessed it—the bones you sit on, otherwise known as the ischium bones of your pelvis. They curve to create two bony protrusions underneath your seat called ischial tuberosities. These bones can be hard to locate due to the muscles and fat that pad our bums, but you'll feel them when you sit up straight with a neutral spine, shoulders stacked over hips. To locate yours, try rolling into a ball (as shown). You should feel two pressure points connect to the mat. Once there, engage core to balance on those two bones. This is a cue most often heard during yoga or Pilates classes, but you should also know where these bones are if you're an indoor or outdoor cyclist as they are your main point of contact with the saddle.
3. Lengthen Your Spine
(also: extend or elongate the spine, find length in your spine)
If you're thinking to yourself: It's not possible to make my spine longer—then you're right; anatomically, you can't. But what you can do is stretch the muscles and soft tissue that surround the spine and contribute to its mobility. Improper posture and daily activities that pull your shoulders forward (such as sitting at a desk all day, hunching over your phone, etc.) can cause tightness and decreased flexibility and range of motion. In Pilates, this cue refers to a spinal extension (shown here) and will stretch and thus elongate the spine.
4. Knit Ribs In
(also: close your rib cage, don't let ribs flare, ribs down, zip up your ribs)
Knitting your ribs in is another way of reminding you to engage your core muscles to properly support your spine. "Opening" the ribs is a common compensation that happens when someone lacks the strength or range of motion to perform an exercise (like reaching overhead) with proper form and alignment. To close your ribs, activate your abdominal muscles to keep spine neutral and enable normal breathing.
5. Resist the Weight
(also: fight against the force)
Thought you just had to lift the weights? Turns out, you also need to resist them. This cue is a reminder to prevent gravity from controlling the movement. As you lower a weight (for example, in the downward phase of a biceps curl), don't let the force of the weight and the pull of gravity yank your forearm down uncontrollably. Instead, contract your muscle (in this case, the biceps) to resist those forces and maintain control of the movement. This goes for external resistance like dumbbells and barbells, but also for your own body weight, like lowering your legs during a double leg drop exercise for your lower abs.
6. Spread the Floor
(also: spread the mat apart, push the floor away, drive the ground away)
This cue prevents you from collapsing into your shoulders and reminds you to activate your legs and butt during a plank (shown here), but it's also a great reminder to prevent your knees from collapsing in during a squat, sumo deadlift, or wide-stance lift. This is an example of external cueing, a technique used to help you focus on an external object in your environment (the floor) or the outcome of the action rather than your own body to help you achieve proper form and movement.
(also: pulse it out, pulse reps)
Pulsing during a workout is not humping or twerking—what you do in your free time is your business. A "pulse" is a partial movement (think of it like a mini version of the full exercise), and a training technique used to add additional stress to a muscle group. In the case of a bridge (shown here), it may loosely resemble a pelvic thrust, yes, but what you're really doing here is using a very small, controlled movement to exhaust the glute and hamstring muscles. Pulsing an exercise after you've completed a set of the full movement is a great way to further tax the muscles without adding additional weight or requiring a spotter.
8. Stay Light on Your Toes
(also: land lightly, light feet, soft landing, toe-to-heel)
This cue is often used during jumping, high-impact, or plyometric exercises. The idea is to recruit your muscles and joints to maintain control of your own body weight as you make contact with the ground. To stay light on your toes, let toes hit ground first (rather than stomping down with your entire foot). Then use the mobility in your ankles to roll through the balls of your feet, to midfeet, to heels as you bend your knees. This allows you to properly distribute your own weight as you land and lets your muscles absorb most of the impact instead of your joints.
9. Burn It Out
(also: feel the burn)
Similar to pulsing, when told to "burn it out," you're being asked to perform an exercise repeatedly to completely fatigue the muscle or muscle group (such as the triceps, shown here). As muscles start to fatigue and use up all of their stored energy, your body releases lactic acid, which results in a tingling, burning sensation. Of course, if this burning ever feels more like an impending injury than muscle fatigue, you should stop the exercise immediately. Otherwise, light those guns on fire.
10. Draw Shoulder Blades Back
(also: pinch shoulder blades together, draw shoulders down)
As mentioned above, many of our daily activities cause our shoulders to slump and fall forward. But proper posture and alignment calls for our scapulae, or shoulder blades, to be pulled back rather than forward. This cue is especially important when performing exercises that target your shoulders, back, and lats, since you need to first ensure your shoulder blades are in the correct position before strengthing the muscles that surround them to hold them in the proper place. To practice, pretend there's a sheet of paper between your shoulder blades and that you need to squeeze them together to hold it in place.
11. Square Your Hips
(also: hips like headlights, square off, square your shoulders)
When you're instructed to square your hips, you're being asked to keep hips in-line and balanced so that they form right angles with an external surface (the floor, wall, an opponent, etc.). The same goes for squaring your shoulders. The reason this cue is used with hips and shoulders is because the pelvis and shoulder girdles require stability for proper form and alignment. You'll use the muscles surrounding each (core and glutes for hips; upper back, shoulder, and arm muscles for shoulders) to lock them in place, ensuring balance.
12. Tuck Hips
(also: pelvic tuck, scoop, hollow core, flat back, neutral spine)
Tucking is often heard in barre or Pilates classes, but understanding the concept will benefit you with basic posture and most exercises. The purpose is to encourage perfect posture by eliminating an excessive arch in your lower back. To do so, roll or rotate your pelvis under, engage core, and stack shoulders in-line with hips. This is where you'll find a "neutral spine," or "flat back." This position prevents overcompensation and is less stressful on your lower back, which means less risk of injury.
Special thanks to Rodrick Covington, certified Pilates and fitness instructor and founder of Core Rhythm Fitness, for demonstrating these moves for us.