Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Expanded Use of Tactile Cues

by Nicholas Racculia, PhD, SSC | January 25, 2018

iron city athletic club

Here at Iron City Athletic Club we are fortunate to work with a wide range of special-needs trainees. We hope to give these often forgotten clients the gift of strength (and the inevitable increases in confidence and independence). They, in return, continue to teach us many useful coaching techniques that will apply to similar (and probably dissimilar) clients.

We learned quickly that clients with special needs sometimes have difficulty both processing verbal cues and implementing those cues correctly. Either the commands get confused or, for clients with conditions such as cerebral palsy, the muscles decline to do what the brain commands. Visual cues inconsistently work. Through experimentation we discovered effective unconventional tactile cues when verbal and visual cues fail. We present a few of the more useful cues here. As these cues are often implemented during a rep, they are not ideal, and should only be used when verbal and visual cues fail.

Verbal cues can be poorly processed as early as the stance in the squat. The stance is rarely consistent from one session to the next; it would be tedious to try to explain proper foot placement each and every set. Intern Graham Schaller developed a very clever quick fix. He put his foot adjacent to where the lifter’s foot should go and asked the lifter to move his foot next to coach’s. The result was amazing. Stance corrections which could take many seconds every repetition are now fixed instantly. The tactile cues of “foot to foot” (Figure 1a) and “toe to toe” (Figure 1b) are easily understood and intuitive.

foot to foot and toe to toe stance cues

Figure 1. Stance corrections using tactile cues. (A) The "foot to foot" cue. (B) The "toe to toe" cue.

Sufficient spinal extension is another position that is difficult to explain to many of our special needs lifters, particularly in the deadlift. Standard verbal cues rarely have the desired effect. Tactile cues were the answer. Pressure placed on the lumbar region by the coach’s fingers work well here (Figure 2). For some of our lifters we combine this with slight rotational pressure on one of the shoulders to subconsciously signal the correct movement pattern to the lifter.

cueing extension with lumbar pressure

Figure 2.

For special-needs lifters with muscle control issues like cerebral palsy, applying pressure to a muscle that is not doing what it should sometimes helps that muscle contract harder. For example, one of our trainees with cerebral palsy cannot keep the bar on his legs during the deadlift. At first, we placed our legs in front of the bar blocking bar movement and forcing the bar to travel in the correct path. This worked well initially, but was incongruent with the goal of using the most muscle mass in each lift.

We solved this problem by pressing, with some force, on both sides of his back against the latissimus dorsi muscles (Figure 3). Instantly, they contracted. Though we still need to keep our legs in front of the bar, the pressure our legs exert lessens as his lats get stronger. Though the end result resembles a game of Twister, with the coach’s arms and legs sometimes in awkward positions, the lifter now comes closer to the ideal of using the most muscle mass over the longest effective range of motion.

cueing the lats during the pull

Figure 3.

Different levels of intervention are necessary depending on the nature and severity of the cerebral palsy. Our lifter above needs some help pushing his knees out during the squat, though the external force required to keep his knees in line with his toes has diminished as his external rotators strengthen. His press is better; he only needs guidance to the elbows during the descent. The bench requires the coach’s hands on the bar for the entire set.

His experience contrasts with one of our female lifters who also has cerebral palsy. She just requires pressure on her lumbar region during the deadlift and some slight force on her shoulders at the very beginning of the pull to remind her muscles that they need to contract. As soon as the bar breaks off the ground she can hold lumber extension just fine; but without the initial tactile aids, she cannot. She possesses sufficient control of her muscles to correctly perform the squat and the bench (with some upgraded spotting). Presses require strict spotting to prevent backward movement at the top, but she can control the bar otherwise.

The variance in cueing needs among the lifters in our small group demonstrates the necessity for unconventional tactile cues. They help clients who have a more difficult time doing things most of us take for granted. Of course the use of these tactile cues is not ideal in general. But in cases where lifters cannot respond to verbal cues, these techniques allow a special needs lifter to train 90% correctly. This is precisely 100% better than having his physical health deteriorate to suffer all of the horrors that come with weak aging.

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