What personal trainers really mean when they use these 11 instructions.

Image: iStock.

Who knew you needed to be bilingual to get through a workout?

OK, so you don’t need a Masters in Arabic to attend a spin class or to speak fluent Mandarin to survive Pilates. But start attending fitness classes and you’ll quickly learn they come with a language entirely of their own.

‘PT Speak’ (a name I just invented) is characterised by instructions that sound very motivating and fitness-y, but can be a little… befuddling. Ever been left scratching your head after a trainer or instructor told you to “engage the core”? That’s what I’m talking about.

We asked two personal trainers to translate some of the common phrases that come from the mouths of instructors.

“Engage your core!”

This phrase, along with its twin “activate your core”, is classic PT Speak. Personal trainer and lululemon ambassador Kat Weihen explains that it’s not about sucking in.

“Essentially, we are wanting clients to draw their belly button towards their spine in order to activate their transverse abdominals — the ones that wrap around your torso area like a corset,” she says.

Watch: Sam Wood demonstrates a simple bodyweight circuit you can do at home. (Post continues after video.)

“Push through your heels.”

What am I pushing, exactly…?

“Ensure the weight is in the back of your foot, not through your toes,” explains Fernwood Fitness Melbourne City Personal Trainer Deanna Giuliani.

“Belly into ribs.”

Honestly, this one sounds like something you’d find on the menu of a meat restaurant (“I’ll have the Belly into Ribs with a side salad, thanks!”). However, it’s really just another way of saying “activate your core,” Giuliani explains.

“Drive with/from the hips.”

Bump, grind, swing — we do a lot of things with our hips. So how, exactly, does one ‘drive’ with them?

“Driving from the hips would be referring to ‘pushing them forward’ so as to activate the glutes (your butt muscles),” says Weihen.

“The glutes are our biggest muscle group but are highly underused and under activated as we are often sitting on them all day. If you ‘drive’ or push forward from the hips, we would also cue to squeeze your glutes.” (Post continues after gallery.)

“Soft knees.”

Don’t go getting self-conscious about your knees — this one is actually pretty straightforward. “This is when you have a minor bend in your knee. It is important not to lock your knees during exercise, as soft knees support your back,” Giuliani says.

“Square your shoulders/hips.”

We all know it’s hip to be a square — but the process of squaring your hips is less well understood. Simply, this direction means you need to keep your hips or shoulders level or parallel.


Weihen explains this using the example of a single leg deadlift. “When tipping from the hips to lower your chest to be parallel to the floor, some people may have tight hamstrings, ITBs or calf muscles, causing their hips to twist so that their hips are then on an angle,” she says.

“If we cue them to ‘square their hips we want them to think about keeping both their hip bones point towards the floor.”

“Squeeze your glutes!”

This instruction is all well and good… unless your grasp on anatomy is a bit rusty. Here’s the deal, according to Giuliani: “Squeeze your bum to activate not only your gluteus maximus, but incorporating your gluteus medius and minimus (if you’re lucky).”

Squeeeeeze... (istock)

"Stand in a neutral position."

This is a relatively simple instruction, but there are a few things to be mindful of.

"Feet hip-width apart with weight evenly distributed across both feet. Eye gaze forwards, shoulders back and down, and lifting up tall from the crown of the head," Weihen explains.

“Shoulders over elbows.”

You've probably heard this direction while you were holding (and/or suffering through) a plank. If it left you a bit confused, here's what you're supposed to do, and why. "Shift your body so your shoulders are further [forward] than your elbows during a plank. This will keep your body out of injury," Giuliani says.

Another common plank instruction is "bum down", which benefits you in a similar way. "This will keep your body aligned and activate your core for those toned abs," she adds.

Watch: Now you now how to engage your core, try this core exercise by Paper Tiger. (Post continues after video.)

"Hinge through the hips.”

"If we think of a hinge joint and how it moves, we want replicate this at the hips to perform a hinge movement or the action of tipping forwards," Weihen says.

"This would commonly be used for a Romanian deadlift exercise where our feet are hip width apart and we would 'tip' from the hips as we push our butt back and have our chest become parallel to the floor."

If you're someone who needs a more visual explanation, Weihen has a good one up her sleeve: "Imagine you are looking over the edge of a cliff, and then you want to pull yourself back up."


Yes, this one is easy, but you might be wondering why you're told to breathe at certain points of your class (especially when breathing is something that, you know, you should be doing all the time).

"It’s important to breathe out during the challenging part of an exercise. For example, during a push up — when you push your body away from the floor that would be the best time to breathe out. This will give you more power," Giuliani explains.

Are there any PT Speak phrases that confuse you?