I’VE BEEN teaching group fitness classes for over a decade – way before it was trendy and cool, and definitely way before “fitpros” were the new It celebrities they are right now. This was back when people thought “spinning” classes meant twirling around in circles for 45 minutes, and when that one old friend of mine so casually commented, “You’re not planning on becoming the ‘exercise girl’ for the rest of your life, are you?”
The industry has changed a lot since I began, but the thing that’s remained at the core of fitness is that it’s rarely ever truly about the fitness part alone. What we do in the gym is practice for what we do out in the world – and fitness advice is life advice disguised in sweat and squat-jumps.
WHENEVER WE’RE working out, we’re shifted into a vulnerable state. Whether we’re doing vinyasas or vying for a new running PR, our breath deepens, our heart starts beating faster, and we’re thrust (or eased gently from a seated cross-legged position) into a state of self-imposed stress. And let me clarify: not all stress is ultimately BAD. It’s what we do within those moments of stress that stick with us. It’s the stress that gets us vulnerable, and the vulnerability that allows us to be open to shifting for better or worse in the long run.
And so if fitness advice is really life advice, then what we say (and how we say it) as leaders in that space matters. A lot.
Because what you hear is what you will internalize, and what you internalize will be the language you use out in the world to speak to others and yourself, way after you’ve gone on with your day.
NEGATIVE CUEING is a term used in fitness that generally describes any sort of phrasing that uses what you don’t want to happen as the main motivator. Think, “don’t arch your back.”
Negative cueing isn’t just saying “Don’t do X,” though. Negative cueing is anything that makes the person listening feel like who and how they are isn’t enough.
Negative cueing can look like…
- It’ll be over soon (implying the current experience is worth skipping over)
- I know you hate me right now (they probably don’t, but you just planted the seed that maybe they should)
- Burn off that happy hour! (equates what you eat to how much you need to exercise, and that exercise should be food-motivated)
- Ladies grab X weight, Men grab X weight (not everyone identifies as a “lady” or “man” and therefore you run the risk of people feeling left out – also this reinforces sexist assumptions; I know many women who can out-lift men ANY day)
- You can do better than that! (um. maybe that IS their best??)
- That’s not good enough, give more! (along the same lines; this might be their best work – but also shames the work they’re doing)
- I know you want to fit into those new jeans / get that summer six-pack/ etc (implies everyone who works out is dissatisfied with how they look – and, moreover, probably should be)
- Don’t give up (implies the person was going to give up at some point)
- You know you can SMILE (omg please don’t force me to smile – give me something to smile about and I will)
- I know you want to quit, but… (no, I actually did not, please don’t underestimate me)
Negative cueing can also look like self-deprecation in order to “connect.” Stuff like sharing with your clients/students/members how much you hate your thighs or how much you ate last night and need to “burn off.” Might feel cute or “down-to-earth” in the moment, but it’s reinforcing a dangerous epidemic we already fall prey to of bonding over negativity.
It doesn’t matter how “inspiring” you are or what cute tweetables you’ve got lined up to sprinkle throughout your class. If you’re not modeling self-acceptance, self-love, and what the journey TOWARD that actually looks like, your words are just words.
IF YOU’RE STILL reading this, are not a fitness professional, and wonder how or why this applies to you…think of all the times we cue negatively in our own lives. We do it to ourselves, and we do it to each other. We think we’re offering advice, being helpful, or inspiring someone else – but the hard truth is, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are if your impact is creating a shame loop in someone else.
Anyone can study the objective facts. Anyone can teach a class or train a client. Literally. Anyone. You can buy the course online. But the way you talk, act, and live is what actually makes a difference in someone’s life in the long run. For better or worse.
Here are some alternatives for the negative cueing above:
Instead of: It’ll be over soon!
Try: Can you give your all to this moment? (implying the current experience is one worth having)
Instead of: I know you hate me right now…
Try: I’m your biggest fan right now (lets them know you’re their ally)
Instead of: Burn off that happy hour!
Try: Literally just not talking about food. Just…don’t do it.
Instead of: Ladies grab X weight, Men grab X weight.
Try: Grab a weight that feels (insert a feeling or a number of reps you’d like them to perform with said weight, so they can gage what they need for themselves). If you don’t know what that is, call me over and I can help you figure it out.
Instead of: You can do better than that!
Try: If you were to give your all, what would that look like? (ask a question and have them come up with the answer themselves!)
Instead of: That’s not good enough, give more!
Try: Can you maintain your work…or even surprise yourself by giving just a little more? (emphasizes the work they’re in as good enough, while giving an option to go farther if they can)
Instead of: I know you want to fit into those new jeans / get that summer six-pack/ etc.
Try: How do you want to feel after this workout is over? (redirects focus to a feeling instead of a look)
Instead of: Don’t give up.
Try: Keep going, you’ve got this.
Instead of: You know you can SMILE…
Try: Not telling people how to react or emote – everyone processes their emotions differently.
Instead of: I know you want to quit, but…
Try: You’re doing so great. (simple as that!)
NOT SURE if your cueing is negative or not? Find a mentor. Ask them to come take your class and keep their ears open for anything that could be improved upon. Not a fitness professional but want to monitor the negative cueing in your own life? Dedicate a week to hyper self-awareness. Maybe even tell a close friend, coworker, roommate, or partner that you want their help in calling out your language.
Oh…and as for that friend who asked if I was going to be “the exercise girl” for the rest of my life? That comment that made me doubt my path, my abilities, and my legitimacy as a professional adult trying to find her way in the world?
I sure hope so.
I sure hope that, in some capacity, I am up on that podium, all mic’d up, with my words out there in the open for everyone to hear. And if not, I hope I’m going to classes, keeping sweat dates with myself, or lacing up my shoes for a long run. Because what we do in the gym is just practice for what we do in life – and I want all the practice I can get.