Confusing things trainers say – The Food Medic

This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; personal trainer and fitness writer – Adam Willis

Okay, it’s confession time

I’m a trainer, and at times I do say some strange and confusing things to help people exercise better.

I’ve also said the 3 confusing things in this article hundreds of times during my early years in the industry. Each time I believed I was saying something that made sense, I mean it did to me, only to find out that the trainer language I was using often didn’t clarify the desired outcome I was after.

I’m sure, like many of my early clients you’ve heard a trainer say, “brace your core”, “neutral spine”, “tuck your tailbone”, only to nod along and try to move your body into a new position or flex a muscle or 2 in the hope that by luck you’ve achieved the desired outcome, only to hear the same cue repeated a few seconds later.

From myself, and the rest of the trainers in the Fitness Industry, I apologise. Through our own naivety we thought we were being helpful and just assumed you’d know what on earth we were on about…especially after saying the same thing 5 times in one set. 

As trainers we should be clearer and specify what we mean exactly when cueing a client, rather than just throwing some blanket trainer-saying out there and assuming it will be understood, and today I plan to do just that with 3 of the most common confusing things trainers say.

Brace your core:

Whether it was for a plank, a squat, a push-up, a deadlift, or any other vast array of exercises, you will almost certainly have heard a trainer say this at some point.

Often the confusion with this cue isn’t what requires doing, or why –  I mean bracing your core to protect your spine makes sense to all of us, it’s how to effectively brace your core that is often most confusing.

  • Do you suck your tummy in and try to make it tight?
  • Do you take a big air in and force it down into your tummy?
  • Do you tense up your abs? 

When a trainer says brace your core, what they’re really trying to get you to do is contract you core musculature so that it feels like you’re expanding in 3-dimensions. It’s not just about tensing those 6-pack muscles. 

A simple way to understand this 3D concept is to put on a lifting belt so that it is slightly loose on you. Then to brace your core, you want to contract your 6-pack muscles, your obliques [those muscles on the side of your torso] and your lower back muscles so that they push outward into the belt creating tension and pressure. 

So, you know bracing your core is important, but do you know if you can brace your core well?

There’s a simple test you can do to check your ability to brace your core.

So, stop what you’re doing. 

Stand up tall and ensure your ribcage is pulled down towards your waistband rather than tilted towards the ceiling and get your thumbs ready.

Test position 1:

  1. take your thumbs and push them into your 6-pack muscles in line with your belly button
  2. take a breath in and brace your core
  3. if your thumbs get pushed backward (away from you) you are bracing that area well

Test position 2:

  1. take your thumbs and push them into your obliques just above the top of the side of your pelvis [you’ll feel where your pelvis ends]
  2. take a breath in and brace your core
  3. if your thumbs get pushed outward you are bracing that area well.

Test position 3:

  1. take your thumbs and push them into your lower back muscles, just above your hips
  2. take a breath in and brace your core
  3. if your thumbs get pushed backward you are bracing that area well [the push back on this one may only be subtle, but if you’re bracing well it will happen].

So, how did you get on?

Could you brace all 3 areas well?

If not, don’t panic, you’re not broken, but you do likely want to practice and work on improving your core bracing and core strength.

The ability to brace your core well is going to keep your spine safe and help you lift more weight in the gym as well.

Neutral spine:

This cue, like brace your core, applies to pretty much any free-weight exercise so is used a whole lot by trainers, so I can almost guarantee you will have heard it, but what does it really mean?

  • Try not to look like a banana or question mark while lifting?

The cue is used to remind you, well, to keep your spine in its “neutral” position and prevent you from lifting with your spine in a flexed, hyperextended, rotated, or laterally flexed position [unless an exercise calls for one of those positions].

To achieve this “neutral” position your pelvis, ribcage and head must all be in alignment. Whether you’re standing, lying, seated, in the start position for a deadlift, at the bottom of a squat or during locomotion like when running, these 3 should all be stacked one on top of the other.

(image source:

Neutral spine is important as it allows proper loading and force distribution through the spine and its supporting tissues and when pelvis, ribcage and head are properly stacked you’re also able to breath and brace correctly. If one of them is out of position you’ll still be able to breathe and brace, however it won’t be as effective and could come with other compensations.

Tuck your tailbone:

Now this one may shock you, as it’s one you do hear trainers saying a lot, however excessive tucking of your tailbone is not a good thing, and you likely don’t need to be doing it.

Trainers will often tell you to tuck your tailbone to help create a “neutral spine”. They want you to achieve this by squeezing your glutes and tilting your pelvis back underneath you. They will often state you need to tuck your tailbone due to having an anterior pelvic tilt, however 85% of males and 75% of females, have some degree of anterior pelvic tilt and that is what is “neutral” and normal for them and causes no ill effects, so any tucking takes them out of a neutral spine and potentially compromises their spinal positioning.

A very subtle tuck, at times, can be effective, depending on the exercise, to ensure the pelvis and ribcage are stacked, however, a big tuck should be avoided. Not only does it take a person out of neutral spine by decreasing their natural lumbar curve, but it also shortens the pelvic floor, can restrict breathing, and decreases glute development.

So, let’s stop with all the tailbone tucking.

As trainers we do say some weird and confusing things in the name of better exercising, but we mean well and aren’t trying to confuse you deliberately.

If you’re working with a trainer and they say something you’re unsure of, or you see a confusing cue on social media, just ask the trainer for more detail on specifically what they’re looking for, and why so that you can better understand and help improve your lifting technique and exercise execution.

Confusing things trainers say was last modified: May 11th, 2022 by Adam Willis

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