The Power of Cues for Training Movement and Technique

By on May 3, 2021

Have you ever been struggling to nail a movement, only for someone to give you a pointer and find that it all “clicks?”

A recent example for me, was when Grant told me that I should think of an archer aiming down the bow when I throw punches. This little cue helped me to keep my guard up when throwing a straight, rather than dropping it to my waist (a habit from Karate). I’ve been given many more cues for my punches, including “whip the body like a towel” and “punch behind the bag.”

Cues for training

My punches are still terrible, but these tips have really helped.

Dancers use cues like this all the time. For example, a tip that helps them to keep their neck elongated and chin up, is to imagine their head is being pulled up from the centre by a piece of string attached to the top. Try it and you’ll find it creates a different posture from, say, imagining your neck elongating like an accordion.

Visualization and Cues for More Power

That “punching behind the bag” example is interesting because it isn’t a technique cue, but rather a form of visualization that can generate more power.

Another example of this is to try and “launch the bar through the ceiling” when performing a bench press. Amazing how this simple change in mindset can be enough to completely change your ability to generate power.

Launch the bar through the ceiling when you perform a bench press.

In fact, there is even a martial art that is largely built around this concept. It is called “Yi Chuan,” which translates approximately to “intention fist.” The general idea behind this is to adopt stable and balanced body structures, which you accomplish by using your “Yi” or “mind’s intent.” For example, a great way to adopt a solid stance is to visualize yourself pushing or pulling an object. There are no “set” positions.

See also: The Brain, Movement, and Training

(That said, don’t believe all the videos you see about this one!)

In fact, you could say that any martial art that is based on animal movements is using a form of visualization or cue to guide movement. Moving as you know an animal to move, like a monkey, means visualizing that movement and internalizing those movements.

Cues for punching

So, what exactly is going on here? Why is it that cues can be so transformative in terms of power and form? And how do you make the most of them?

It turns out that cues have an incredible role in training that go far beyond the obvious…

How Cues Can Help You to Jump Higher

Arnold Dance Training

As mentioned, cues are used often in dancing alongside visualization. One particular form of visualization used this way is called “The Franklin Method” (named after Eric Franklin), also known as “Dynamic Neuro-Cognitive Imagery.” This process uses visualization in order to improve jump height, graceful movement, and more.

In one study, it was found that simply by visualizing a spring or a rocket, a dancer could actually increase their vertical jump, with the spring visualization being the most effective (reference). Another study found that cues centered around visualization were most effective at improving the graceful movement of college-level dancers (study).

Cues in Training: The Working Memory Hack

A while ago, I talked about the role of working memory in movement. Working memory being our capacity to store information and hold it in our mental “workspace” such as when carrying over a number during maths, or playing a game of pairs.

We see that working memory can affect the ability to grasp a new physical task, such as a basketball throw. In one study, children with better working memories were faster to learn this skill (study). In other studies, we see that working memory improves sparring performance (study) and reduces falls in the elderly (study). The reverse is also true: complex movement training (such as balance training) can actually improve working memory.

So, why is this? What’s going on here?

Well, when you perform a movement like a throw or a punch, your awareness needs to be divided amongst your body parts. You need to consider the positions of each limb, the distribution of your weight, etc. In other words, you need to be able to pay attention to multiple inputs at once and hold a mental image of them. This is working memory.

See also: Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training

And as anyone who has practiced dance or martial arts will know, it’s very hard to remember everything you need to do at once when you’re just starting out: while you’re in the conscious or cognitive phase of learning. You might remember to turn your hand over when punching one time, only to realize you closed your eyes when hitting the bag, or had an awkward stance.

cues in learning

Visualization and Chunking

When it comes to remembering strings of numbers, the working memory is generally said to have a limit of somewhere between 5 and 9. It is possible to expand this limit by using various tricks, however. One example is called “chunking.” In chunking, you group individual numbers together to form new, bigger numbers. Instead of remembering 3,2,5,9,1,2,6,20, you might remember 32,591,26,20. The latter is much easier.

See also: Why the Brain Loves Parkour: How Complex Movement Triggers Learning and Tips to Enhance Skill Acquisition

My hypothesis, is that using cues and visualization employs a similar strategy. Instead of worrying about the position of each part of your body, you’re now just “moving like a spring” and everything comes into place. That image contains the information you need in a visual format, allowing you to understand what you need to do without splitting your attention 19 ways.

See also: Working Memory and Movement: Why Can’t You Run Fast in Dreams?

And when you change your intent, such as trying to punch behind the bag, your technique naturally organizes itself around the goal and suddenly things look a lot better.


It’s also just a great way to communicate a complex movement pattern without reeling off a huge list of items.

Closing Comments

This is also a reminder not to get lost in the details. Sometimes, focussing too much on the specifics of a movement actually makes you more awkward and slow. Focussing on the outcome and allowing your body to organize itself around that goal, conversely, can help you to develop more power and move with more natural fluidity.

Focus on the outcome and allow your body to organize itself around that goal.

There’s a fine line, but the takeaway is that we should all recognize the value of cues and seek to use them more in our coaching and our own training.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Jeff Nelson says:

    Awesome, always love your writing on cognition. I’m learning to draw and still very much in the conscious phase. This makes me appreciate some of the exercises I’ve been doing even more.

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