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Internal vs External Cues

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Internal vs External Cues
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  I recently listened to an interview with Todd Hargrove of BetterMovement.org at the Well Rounded  Athlete. At about 21:30 in the interview, Todd discusses the idea of internal cues vs external cues asthey pertain to learning new movement skills. I found it to be a fascinating concept and one thatpertains very strongly to my current study of the FASTER Global curriculum. What are internal and external cues? Internal cue: The athlete focuses on his/her body parts and how they move.External cue: The athlete focuses on affecting something in his/her environment. He/she focuses onthe outcome  of his/her movement.Below are some examples of internal and external cues from an NSCA article titled What We SayMatters, Part I.(What We Say Matters, Part II is also very interesting. I won’t discuss the whole thing but it goes into feedback frequency, or how much information coaches should give athletes while they’re learning anew skill. Turns out a good bit less feedback is better than giving feedback 100% of the time. Coachesand trainers should definitely read it. On to the internal/external cues.) Table 1 provides examples of internal versus external focus cues for different movements and notethat analogies can be considered external cues. Internal Cue External Cue Sprinting: AccelerationExtend your hip(knee) Activate your quad (glute)Stomach tightDrive the groundawayExplode off thegroundBrace upChange of DirectionHips downFeet wideDrive through bigtoeRoof over headTrain tracks or wide basePush the groundaway   Coaching Movement: Internal vs. ExternalCues  Jumping Explode throughhipsSnap throughanklesDrive hips throughheadTouch the skySnap the groundawayDrive belt buckleupOlympic Lifting:SnatchDrive feet throughgroundDrive chest toceilingSnap hips throughthe bar Drive feet throughgroundDrive chest toceilingSnap hips throughthe bar Push the groundawayDrive/jumpverticalSnap bar toceilingSnap and dropunder bar  Which is best? Internal or External?  The article cites research that demonstrates internal cues to be more effective than external cues.More evidence comes in an article from Strength and Conditioning Research  (a great   resource) titled How Much Difference Do External Cues Make? The followingstudies are cited and they’re summarized: Marchant ( 2009 ) – the researchers found that an external attentional focus led to greater force and torque during isokinetic elbow flexion movements while simultaneously decreasing muscle activationas measured by EMG.Porter ( 2010  ) – the researchers found that directing attention toward jumping as far past the starting line as possible had a much greater effect at increasing broad jump distance compared to focusing attention on extending the knees as fast as possible.Wulf ( 2010  ) – the researchers found that an external focus led to increased jump height withsimultaneously lower EMG activity compared to an internal focus of attention.Wu ( 2012  ) – the researchers found that an external attentional focus let to increased broad jumpdistances despite not affecting peak force production compared to an internal attentional focus.Makaruk ( 2012  ) – the researchers found that 9 weeks of plyometric training with an external focus led to greater standing long jump and countermovement jump (but not drop jump) performance compared   to training with an internal focus.Porter ( 2012  ) – the researchers found that an external focus far away from the body led to greater results than an internal focus or an external focus near the body in terms of standing long jump performance.“So in general, the main factor that is associated with external focus is an increase in performance. Also, there may be a tendency for reduced EMG activity at the same time. This isinteresting, as it may be a mirror image of what happens with internal focus.”  The reference to reduced EMG means that with an external focus, more muscles are actually relaxedduring the movement. The benefit to that is that the muscles acting in opposition to the movement aremore relaxed, thus allowing for better movement. If too many muscles are contracted then we maymove slow.How does an external rather than internal focus result in superior outcomes? The NSCA article citeswork by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf , Director, Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at UNLV: “Wulf et al. (17) defined the hypothesis, stating that focusing on body movements (i.e. internal)increases consciousness and ‘constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control process that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement,’ and therefore by focusing on themovement outcome (i.e., external) allows the ‘motor system to more naturally self-organize,unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.’” From other research by Wulf in another article:“Wulf et al. (2001) explained this benefit of an external focus of attention by postulating the‘constrained action hypothesis’. According to this view, individuals who utilize an internal focusconstrain or ‘freeze”’their motor system by consciously attempting to control it. This also seems tooccur when individuals are not given attentional focus instructions (2). In contrast, an externalfocus promotes the use of more automatic control processes, thereby enhancing performanceand learning (3,5).”To me this suggests that the external cueing allows us to tap into reflexes, reactions and movementscontrolled by the autonomic nervous system. I think any athlete has experienced the situation wherewe think too much and our performance falters. We think very hard about the individual componentsof what we’re trying to do and the result is we don’t ski well, we don’t drive a golf ball well, we miss anOlympic lift. In contrast, we’ve been in that “zone” where things just happen. We don’t think, we do.Everything is coordinated and we’re barely aware of what we’re doing. It seems that the external cuesare the best way to get to our ideal way of moving. Is there a place for internal cues?  So the research tells us that external cues are superior to internal cues. Does that mean we should doaway with all internal cues? That issue has been discussed in an article by Bret Contreras titled WhatTypes of Cues Should Trainers and Coaches Provide? and an article by Sam Lahey titled theScienceand Applications of Coaching Cues. They’re both in agreement that internal cues are sometimes thebest way to go when coaching. As often happens, the coaches in the field have some disagreementwith researchers.Contreras does a very good job in discussing his observations of when internal cues might besuperior to external cues, particularly when it comes to getting an athlete or client to feel his or her glutes. This is from his article: “When I train beginner clients, it takes me considerable time to get their lumbpelvic-hip complex working ideally during squats, deadlifts, back extensions, and glute bridges. In my opinion,external cueing is not ideal for improving form in the most rapid manner possible. My belief is that internal cueing will get the individual to where you want them to be in a much more efficient manner.This applies to preventing lumbar flexion in a deadlift, preventing valgus collapse in a squat, or  preventing lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt in a back extension or hip thrust.1) Palpating different regions of their body to make them aware of the various parts involved and what those parts are doing,3) Having them stop approximately 3/4 the way up on a hip thrust and practicing anterior and  posterior pelvic tilt so they can understand how to prevent anterior tilt from occuring,5) Being ‘hands-on’ during their performance and manually helping place their pelvis in proper  position, manually setting the core in neutral, manually pushing the hips upward to ensure full ROM is reached, and poking the glutes to make sure they’re on and the hammies to make surethey’re not overly activated, and I don’t believe that this heavily ‘internal’ approach can be improved-upon by a purely external cueing approach.”  I tend to agree with Contreras. I’ve often found that I need to bring awareness to one piece of theoverall movement puzzle (glutes are the best example). I want clients particularly aware of glutecontraction at the very top of a squat, deadlift or kettlebell swing. Contracting the glutes tightly at thetop of these movements is important for keeping the pelvis and lumbar spine in good, safe positionand for getting the most “oomph” into the lift. Before I teach these exercises, I want the client to knowwhat it feels like to squeeze their glutes. I simply want them to know what the glute contracting feelslike. I don’t need them to move fast or lift heavy. In this case, an internal cue seems to be the best wayto go. I’m not sure of a more effective cue than saying “Squeeze your butt as tight as possible,” when I
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