Personal Training: Internal vs. External Cues

The following is a guest post by Mike T Nelson, PHD. The views expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect those of Nick Tumminello and Performance U.

There is a secret war brewing in the training world. And, I think it’s time to make my attempt at settling the age old question of what cues to use and when (aka “should I focus on squeezing my butt or not?”)  I know you are debating this one too! Ok, maybe not, but you can still learn some cool stuff on how to lose fat and get bigger gunz!

I’ve spent many many hours reading tons of research (yeah, I am a huge geek) and trying out many different ways over the years on a wide variety of clients/athletes to determine which method is best.  Enough chatter, and strap in for a fun ride.

My Confession…

Before I dive head first into this topic, I have a confession.

I am very biased.

Performance biased actually.

I can hear the crying already now, “But I just want to get bigger and look good nekkid and I don’t give 2 hoots about performance.”

Nothing wrong with wanting to look good at all, but I believe focusing on performance first is the fastest way to get there.

The first thing I do with a new client (after discussing their goals), is to translate their aesthetic goals into a performance goal.

Aesthetic goals –>Performance goal

Here is an example:

Let’s say Johnny Small Arms (name changed here to protect the innocent) wants to get bigger gunz to pick up the ladies at the bar on Friday night.   While you may be expecting me to slap him around a bit for his crazy goal, the reality is it is my job to get him to his goal. He gets to decide his goal; I don’t.

Keep in mind that your goals are your goals. I don’t really care all that much what you want to do, as long as you want to do it!

“Your goal is your goal” is my corollary to Dan John’s “the goal is to keep the goal the goal.”

One of my main goals is to lift the 734 lb Dinnie Stones.   99.9% of you have no idea what the heck I am talking about, and that is totally fine. My goals are my goals and wanting to do something (performance) or have something (aesthetics) is perfectly fine.

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 4.28.07 PM
734 lb Big Stones To Be Lifted

It is your life; do as you wish. My job is to get you to your goal in the safest and fastest way possible.

Back to our friend who currently has string hanging from his shirt sleeves (I mean small arms) and is seeking to display the gun show when the sun is out (er, the black lights at the trendy Friday night club in this case).   After measuring his arm circumference (his main goal), I would have him do a few strength tests.

Here is what we found:


  • Strict barbell curl (straight bar) for 110 lbs for 3 clean reps
  • Seated DB curls at 40 lbs for 5 reps per arm.
  • Strict chin ups, full hang, arms at shoulder width, BW x 5 reps


  • Close grip bench press at 185 x 5 reps
  • Narrow hand position push ups at BW x 12 reps
  • Overhead press (neutral bar) at 85 x 5 reps

Why Performance?

Trying to detect a small change in arm circumference on even a weekly or monthly basis is quite hard. Hell, even with uber expensive lab equipment it is hard!

A study done by Rønnestad BR (2011) was performed over 11 weeks using MRI to determine muscle cross sectional area (a measure of hypertrophy). Their results were debated by Phillips SM (2011) using the very data they found. In short, even with high level researchers using very spendy equipment like MRIs, a small direct change in size is not super easy to detect .

Plus Johnny Small Arms does not want to wait 2-3 months to find out his new arm routine (that he is paying me big money for too) is not delivering.

But if we measure performance along the way, we can detect changes from one training session to the next instead of waiting 3 months to see if it is working.

Performance is measured by the amount of overload (via volume, weight, or density) at each and every session. Muscle physiology 101 states that the local stimulation of the muscle tissue is by far and away the biggest stimulus for muscle growth.   Without the stress on the muscle, there is ZERO reason for it to get bigger and stronger.  Thus, we apply stress via overload and then monitor his performance – can he do more work (volume), in less time (density) or more weight (intensity).

Cues, cues, cues

Since my bias is a performance based model, my bias for cues is also geared towards performance; hence the use of external cues.

Internal vs External

Internal cues are the most common form and are more “feeling based.”

Such as:

“Can you feel this (insert favorite muscle here)?”

“I want you to really feel the lats, glutes, abs, calves, etc.”

Most trainers rely on the client to feel a certain muscle contract.

  • Feel your glutes
  • Feel your lats.
  • Feel your abs.

External cues, however, are based on an outcome not a feeling.

  • Move the weight from point A to B (starting to ending position)
  • Move the weight from your shoulder to overhead.
  • I don’t want to hear you breathe
  • I don’t want to hear you land on your next plyometric

Much of the popular training methods for better or worse are derived from bodybuilding training and tend to focus on internal “feeling” based cues. The assumption (which is a big one), is that “feeling” a muscle results in a better contraction and thus better form. But does it? Hmmmm….

Special Muscles: A Disagreement with the Glute Guy

Mr. Bret Contreras (aka the Glute Guy) would argue that internal cues are best for muscle hypertrophy goals and external cues are best for sports performance. I have a ton of respect for him and his ability to question common beliefs and actually read full research studies – not just a couple abstracts and then declare on an internet forum that he is an expert, but we disagree a bit on this one.

Bret would argue that there is a use for internal cues in regards to the glutes. While I do agree that many don’t have the full function in their glutes (lack of use anyone?), is cueing the clients to feel their glutes the best method?

At the risk of getting dropped from Bret’s Christmas card list, I would disagree that the glutes are a special muscle and have their own rules.

Yes the glutes are important, but I believe every muscle is special as each one serves a unique purpose. Therefore, I don’t like to nominate certain ones for special status.   They are all unique and special, just like snowflakes.   Ahhhhh….

Glute Examples

The downside of the command “you must feel your glutes” is that the client may think they are inordinate when they don’t feel their precious glutes doing everyday tasks (or exercises). They are convinced they must have some gluteal amnesia.

Did their body really forget that they have glutes? Unlikely.

Are their glutes working at their highest potential? Probably not, but function is the key.

Feeling is just one clue towards function.

Do you feel better when you have more sensation or less sensation?

Think back to a time when you felt awesome.

Did you have a lot of sensation or not much?

Hopefully it was when you had less sensation. More sensation all the time results is pain, which sucks large moose balls.

If the goal is less overall sensation, your cues should also use less sensation.

You still want the client to perform the correct movement , but becoming hyper aware of certain muscles is not ideal.   I am all for sensation, but it should happen automatically and not be forced.   Clients don’t need to spend their time searching for more sensation; it will just show up (many times unannounced like a bad pop-in from your crazy neighbor asking to borrow your lawn mower again).

Exercise External Cue Example

While many may not have the best glute function (since they sit on them all day like I am doing right now to bring you this awesome information), I don’t personally find cueing them or kicking my clients in the butt to be superior to external cues.

Will some of them move better with internal cues? Yes! But I believe using external cues will produce even better results.

Glutes, Cues, and an Awesome Deadlift In 2 Simple Steps

Deadlifts are just plain cool, so you should be doing them! With that out of the way, I’ve found the fastest way to teach a deadlift is to give the client one external cue at a time.   Trying to keep multiple internal cues in your head while lifting heavy ass weight is screwed for starters.

Don’t believe me?   Try counting backwards by 19 from 100 next time you do a heavy deadlift.

Ok, don’t really try it, but you get the idea.

Here is a simple way to cue the deadlift.

  • Get the client into the correct start position at the bottom (which may mean elevating the bar position higher than where the mythical 45 lb plates place it at).
  • Once they are at the start position at the bottom, the cue I use is “stand up.”   It is up to their brain to find the best motor pattern to accomplish the task at hand.

If I want to emphasis certain muscle or function, I will simply pick a different exercise.

If their goal is a more hypertrophy based one as in our example with Johnny Former Small Arms, I will select exercises that keep the muscle under tension for a longer period of time. But they are still cued in a point A to B fashion.

Try This Instead

Next time you are doing a 1 arm DB row, think about moving your hand to your hip or think about bringing your elbow back.   Both of them are external cues, but they will feel different.  Again, I am all for feeling during exercise, but don’t go searching for it all the time.

Compare the response to the command above to your performance using an internal cue such as “feel your lat working.”

I am not against feeling and sensation during exercise, but you don’t need to actively seek it out. It will show up.

Internal Cues, Ever?

The only time I would personally use internal cues are with a pre contest bodybuilder doing a posing routine. The entire goal is to display each muscle with as much separation (local control) as possible. This is not new and many old time strongmen like Maxick and Otto Arco used the concept of muscle control in their performances.

Here’s a film from the 1930s showing Weightlifter Otto Arco (1881-1960) giving a demonstration of muscle control plus hand-balancing with his brother Pete.

Does It Transfer?

The key question then becomes that if we have more control over a muscle, does that make us stronger and thus bigger over time?

I think more control does lead to some increase in strength, but not as much as working the body as a whole since the inter and intra muscle coordination in strength is very key.

If you are going to do a stage show where performance is never measured, by all means you need to practice muscle control and using internal cues may be beneficial.  But that type of control is necessary for only a small percentage of people.

What To Do In 3 Steps (Read This!)

Here’s what I recommend to do:

  • Translate your aesthetic goals into measureable performance goals.

Arm size –> Arm strength –> Arm size

  • Don’t sweat the exact exercises, but pick a few compound ones and work to add overload via more volume, more weight, and a better density (volume/time).
  • Use external cues that are performance based. Sensation will show up, which is great, but don’t spend time actively seeking it. Your glutes won’t fall off if you can’t feel them.

Enjoy your new earned size and performance!


Author Bio:

me_400x400For over 18 years, Mike T. Nelson, CSCS, MSME, PhD has dedicated his life to researching human performance. His dedication to this subject is why the world’s top organizations call on him to help their members perform at their best, organizations including: the military’s elite research group, The International Society of Sports Nutrition, American College of Sports Nutrition, National Strength and Conditioning Association, and others.

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I need to thank Aaron Schwenzfeier, Frankie Faires, Adam Glass, Craig Keaton, Cal Dietz and many others for their help in the formation of this article.

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