Word minimalism and cueing

I spend a lot of time thinking about cueing. More specifically, I spend a lot of time figuring out how to give people the minimal amount of instructions to get them to fully experience a movement in a way that feels strong and easeful. 

This is opposite how I used to teach. So many words would fly out of my mouth as I struggled to tap into what worked for someone that I was often exhausted at the end of the day and tired of the sound of my voice.

I am still tired of the sound of my voice at the end of the day, but I have learned how to be a more effective communicator. (At least, I think I have. I may, however, suffer from personal bias). Below are a few thoughts regarding how to improve a person’s overall movement experience. 

Learning styles:
But first, I think it’s worthwhile to say a quick word about learning style. When I was in graduate school, my motor control teacher told us there was no foundation for the idea of kinesthetic/visual/auditory learners. Sure enough, evidence shows the classification of learning styles is a myth, with studies regularly showing people learn from all three styles of teaching in an education setting (1).

I struggled with this for a long time. Working with different people, it seemed people were more likely to absorb information if it was given to them in a specific way. Some clients seemed to respond to me demonstrating better than me explaining, while others did well if I gave them a tactile cue.

After sitting with this idea for a while and reading a lot about motor control, I began to realize it wasn’t necessarily the format in which the material was presented that mattered; rather, it was whether the person (or people, if it’s a class setting), had a frame of reference for what I was saying.

Additionally, we were designed to receive information from our visual world, auditory world, and proprioceptive world during movement (2). We process all of this information at once as try to effectively complete a specific task. It stands to reason that whatever additional feedback is given from an outside source should be done in a way that isn’t overwhelming to the recipient and is appropriate for the task at hand. 

For instance, if I ask someone to move his shoulder blade a specific way and the person doesn’t know where the shoulder blade is or how it functions, this cue is useless. If I touch the shoulder blade or demonstrate the exercise, the person has a higher chance of “getting it” because he either feels the body part I am talking about or he has watched me move a specific area so his mirror neurons can do their thing and mimic the movement. It’s not that he’s a visual or kinesthetic learner; he just didn’t know what I was talking about because he was out of touch with that specific part of his body. 

Once I understood this, I began to see more clearly which form of communication would work best for the client, based on the person’s body awareness, pain patterns, and exercise history. Choosing became more situationally dependent, rather than based on the idea the person learned best in a particular way.

Self bodywork:
In the exercise science world, we love to attribute a variety of movement “dysfunctions” to hypertonicity of a muscle. A muscle is considered hypertonic when it is contracted while in a passively stretched state (3). Basically, if the muscle feels hard to the touch when the person is relaxed, the muscle would be considered hypertonic.

In years past, the coach or teacher’s solution probably involved a long, cylindrical apparatus or a hard ball (or a soft ball) and rolling, or smashing, or melting, or maybe even Super D’s version: https://youtu.be/kQM5-Uwui0o.

There was eventually a backlash against all of this self body work that was taking up half of people’s workout sessions, with people arguing that moving (for most people) was more important than “releasing.”

While foam rolling and its cousins probably don’t do what we originally thought (chances are slim fascia is being re-modelled and adhesions are breaking up while we impose discomfort to ourselves), it can be a handy way to increase our overall awareness of a body part. It also temporarily increases range of motion, improving proprioception (4). 

Let’s say I am trying to teach someone to press his feet into the floor. (This is much harder than it sounds. It’s almost like modern day footwear and ground surfaces enable us to levitate, barely grazing the surface of the earth ). I can cue this individual to press his foot into the ground a variety of ways: like he’s pressing a nail into the floor, as though he were spreading his foot like a glove, etc., etc. There is a small chance one of these suggestions might work, but more than likely, this approach will find me (and the client), frustrated because he isn’t able to “get” what I am asking him to do. Instead, a much easier (and faster) method would be to have him roll the bottom of his foot on a golf ball or press various parts of his forefoot into a small, folded towel (the same can be done with the heel). Now, when I say press into the ground he will actually understand what I mean and be able to feel his foot pressing into the ground. Why does this work?

When pressure is applied to the skin, the stretch receptors located in the skin send information up to the brain via the afferent nervous system. This information, along with information from the muscle spindles and the joint receptors, creates an image in the brain about how joint and its associated limb are positioned in space (5). When he places his foot on the golf ball, he feels the pressure of the skin on the bottom of his foot change. This acts as a reminder that his foot consists of tissue that is pressing against the golf ball. The brain map of his foot becomes a little less fuzzy as his somatosensory cortex begins to color in the lines of exactly what his foot looks like. 

I am not suggesting everyone needs to spend all of their time rolling out their body before they start moving; however, if you are going to work on a specific area and the person struggles with sensing that area, 2-4 minutes of self myofascial release or directed tactile awareness drills can go a long way.

The stuck shoulder blades (and other confused body parts):
As movement teachers, we love to tell clients what they should do. “Relax your shoulder blades,” we say, anticipating they understand a) what their shoulder blades are and b) how to relax them.

Neither of these statements is guaranteed. In fact, chances are pretty good the person you are working with that has her shoulders up by her ears isn’t quite sure what her shoulder blades do and has no idea what it means to relax them. 

This leads to mild irritation and a little bit of panic (“why isn’t she doing what I asked? I can’t be more clear. I suck at my job,” you might find yourself thinking. The poor client is wondering, “why is her voice getting more pitched? I moved my arm. Isn’t that what she wants me to do?”). 

There are actually a couple of easy tricks to improve the client’s ability to understand what you are asking without using very many words, otherwise known as the art of word minimalism. (Totally made that up. But minimalism is a thing, and I sometimes think word minimalism should be a thing. As my husband say, “there is great power in silence”).

Trick #1: let the person do what he wants to do (but exaggerate it)
I originally learned this when I began studying Feldenkrais. The lessons routinely take the person into the position he habitually goes. Ortho-bionomy does the same thing, but it’s done in  a manual therapy setting, with the therapist taking you into the position. Why does this work?

Let’s pretend you ask the hypothetical person above to bring her shoulder blades up by her ears. Since they are already elevated, they won’t have far to go. It gives the nervous system a chance to recognize the habituated pattern in a safe environment. Taking the person further into the position will theoretically make it easier for the person to find alternative movement strategies (6).

When people don’t realize they are tensing a muscle, they aren’t going to consciously be able to relax it. Imagine you are teaching someone how to do a single leg deadlift without weight. When the person hinges forward, his left index finger juts out, as though he were going to keep himself up with just the activity in that finger. You have asked him to shake his hands out and relax his fingers, all to no avail. As soon as the movement starts, so does his left index finger.

After observing a set, let’s say you have that same individual sit down and perform a few hand exercises. It doesn’t really matter what they are, as long as they address the fingers both together and individually, contracting and relaxing the hand musculature. What do you think happens when you have the person do his second set of single leg deadlifts?

Nine times out of ten, the excessive hand movement will go away without you saying a word. This, in my opinion, is extremely powerful. By allowing the muscles that wanted to contract to contract and relax through isolated exercise, the nervous system was able to figure out an alternative way to do things.

You could also have him purposefully tighten his hands while performing the single leg deadlift. Once he has performed one set while tightening his hands, have him try a set without his hands tense. Now that he understands what “tense” is, it will make it easier for him to understand what it means to be “not tense.” You have given him a context for understanding your words. 

Trick #2: Shift the perspective
Let’s say trick #1 doesn’t work. The person is still overusing his left index finger and left hand while balancing during the single leg deadlift. What now?

Shift the perspective. This is more standard neuromuscular training. Maybe you add in a bit of work on the feet and ankle, or perhaps you work on the lateral hip or abs. 

This can look a number of ways, but sometimes what I will do is create a little mini awareness/isolation circuit that might look something like this:
Roll bottom of foot with golf ball
Dynamically mobilize top of the foot in standing
Perform 4 supine partial rolls each side, focusing on breath
Perform external hip rotation with feet on wall, 4 per side with isometric hold on last one (focus on breath) (A video of this short circuit can be found here: https://vimeo.com/225732522)

When you return to the single deadlift exercise, the person is going to feel connected to his feet and his center. Chances are high his fingers will be quiet. 

Again, the goal is to minimize the amount of words used and let the person experience the change. If you ask the person how the deadlift feels and he says, “different,” even if he is unable to articulate how it’s different, the ability to acknowledge a shift increases the chance he will be able to repeat the movement in this new way.

Trick #3: “Can you feel…”
Finally, the third trick Is bringing awareness to the person’s habit. Instead of cueing the person to not do something, I simply ask the person if he can feel that he is doing a particular action.

In the case of the person using his index finger to help with his balance, I might ask, “can you feel what your left index finger is doing right now?” This changes the person’s focus from trying to balance to a completely different (though active), body part. 

This works really well for individuals that habitually tighten a specific area when they are responding to a new or stressful situation. For people that clench their jaw or narrow their gaze, asking what their jaw is doing or how they are using their eyes is often the cue they need to snap them out of their habit. When I reference things like this regularly throughout the session, it isn’t unusual for the person to come in a week later holding himself in a completing different way. When I ask what he’s been doing, the response is usually, “I have been thinking about how often I clench my jaw throughout the day. Every time I find myself clenching my jaw, I try and relax it.”

Again, instead of telling the person what NOT to do, I give the individual an opportunity to recognize his tendency and make a conscious decision to change it. This is far more powerful than me overusing my words.


  1. Pashler, H., McDaniel, Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R., (2008). Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 106-116.
  2. Sigrist, R., Rauter, G., Riener, R., & Wolf, P., (2013). Augmented visual, auditory, haptic, and multimodal feedback in motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletic & Review, 20(1), 21-53.
  3. Masi, A.T., Kamat, S., Gajdosik, R., Ahmad, N., & Aldag, J.C., (2015). Muscular hypertonicity: a suspected contributor to rheumatological manifestations observed in ambulatory practice. European Journal of Rheumatology, 2(2).
  4. Kelly, S., & Beardsley, C., (2016). Specific and cross-over effects of foam rolling on ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 11(4).
  5. Longo, M.R., (2017). Expansion of perceptual body maps near - but not across - the wrist. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11(111).
  6. Hiller, S., & Worley, A., (2015). The effectiveness of the Feldenkrais Method: a systematic review of the evidence. Evidence - Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2015/752160/