The Mind Muscle Connection
Could it be the Single Most Important Growth Factor?
When your trainer commands you to “focus” on what you are doing, what he or she is really wanting is for you to consciously and deliberately contract the specific muscle (or group of muscles) under attack. Such channeled focus, the very essence of advanced hypertrophic training, is popularly known as the mind/muscle connection and you’ll want to emphasize it in each of your workouts from now on. Here’s why.
The act of fully focusing our mind’s attention on each rep through both the negative and positive phases could be the single most important factor in making a muscle larger and stronger.
In fact, the mere act of thinking about the muscle to be worked has been shown to enhance the recruitment of relevant muscle fibers while limiting the involvement of assisting fibers.
By centering each workout on the kind of conscious and deliberate muscular contraction (a skill that becomes more pronounced with practice) that requires both neuromuscular control (the trained muscular response to a signal from the brain) and proprioception (the sense through which we perceive the position and movement of our body), you’ll maximize your time in the gym by avoiding wasted movement, minimize the risk of injury by exercising more control over the weights, and, most important of all, grow more muscle at a faster rate.
With improved attentional (specifically internal) focus, you’ll experience better movement efficiency, muscle activation, and isolation of the target muscles.
You may have heard about it in the gym or read about it in fitness magazines. The term is thrown around quite a bit, but seldom fully understood. Besides being aware of the fact that “putting your mind in your muscle” will give you greater progress, it’s a great deal more important for you know precisely how to develop this powerful neuromuscular connection and exactly how it may benefit you in the long run. So exactly how might you make a muscle larger and stronger simply by thinking your way to success? Read on to find out.
Developing the Right Focus
Control is another word that’s frequently heard in gyms. Control the weight; control your breathing; control the tempo; control the urge to quit. When it comes to fully engaging a specific muscle, control is more about feeling the muscle working through a full range of motion (during both the squeezing and lengthening phases), visualizing the muscle working to lift the weight (its appearance as it either stretches out or bunches up and at every stage in between) and on enlisting the precise muscles required to lift a weight (pure strength is not used to “lift” the weight; rather, the resistance is carefully guided by the force of muscular contraction alone).
You see it in the gym all the time: people “getting” the weight up by any means necessary. Often, such form will appear to be respectable, like the lifter is exercising some degree of control over the poundage. However, what is most likely being demonstrated is a lifting approach guided by an externally focused mindset. For these people, the outcome of the lift is all important and strength gains are often a major goal. Here, multiple muscles are enlisted (both agonist and antagonist) and isolation to a specific area is, as a consequence, likely minimized.
Then there is a growing contingent of lifters who tackle their lifting with a different goal in mind: the full recruitment of a specific muscle (or group of muscles). For these lifters, the focus is internally directed. Indeed, for those wanting to develop greater neuromuscular efficiency (to put mind into muscle to promote greater hypertrophic adaptations), there must be a shift away from slamming up massive weights at the expense of using the desired muscles to actually do the work.10, 11
Control the weight; control your breathing; control the tempo; control the urge to quit.
An external focus, still an important component of lifting as it can result in improved force production, greater strength gains, and improved athletic performance, requires that a lifter consider the immediate lifting environment and the weight itself, whereas an internal focus involves thinking about the body: specifically the movement of the limbs and how well a muscle is contracting.8, 9, 10, 11
While an external focus may, as mentioned, result in greater force production and more in the way of strength gains, an internal focus is critical to establishing the ability to control muscular contraction while redirecting attention away from assisting muscles (however, it’s important to also note that assistance from stabilizer muscles is important for injury prevention and performance improvements). With an internal focus, a weight is more a way to enhance muscle fiber recruitment and muscular development rather than just a heavy object to be hoisted skyward.
Sharpen the Connection
To better connect mind to muscle, it’s important that an internal focus is emphasized when training for refined muscular development. By directing attention to the working muscles rather than the external environment, the nervous system builds and improves upon the functioning of neural connections specific to muscular contraction.2, 7 Such connections enable the muscles to fire with greater force as specific pathways become more efficient at recruiting the correct muscles at the right times. 5, 6
To build a complete physique, it’s important that all muscles be trained in this fashion. The fine control associated with an internally focused approach to stimulating a specific muscle –
the hallmark of the mind/muscle connection – will be greater in muscles that have been routinely trained with such complete focus in “mind”.
There are a number of specific ways to develop the focus needed to properly isolate and target the recruitment of individual muscles.
Slow and Steady
While high-velocity movements such as those employed during power training protocols have been shown to enhance muscle fiber activation as a result of full motor unit recruitment, the real key to muscle growth optimization is the amount of mechanical tension that can be placed on individual muscle fibers. Such sustained mechanical tension requires slow and controlled contractions (by contrast, the faster the contraction and the greater its velocity, the greater the reduction in muscular hypertrophy).1, 2
Before muscle protein synthesis can work its muscle building magic, the muscles must first be stimulated with massive amounts of mechanical loading (the combined result of the degree of mechanical tension produced by specific groupings of individual muscle fibers). Once such mechanical loading is detected by mechanoreceptors situated on muscle tissue, muscle protein synthesis is signaled and the muscle is thus primed for super-compensation (to become larger and stronger followed an imposed stimulus).1 To enhance the mechanical loading needed to spark growth, it’s important that each rep be slow and steady. The more assisting muscles that are called into play the less tension the targeted muscle fibers will receive.
Slow negatives are a great way to keep maximum tension on the working muscles. Negatives also train the mind to stay focused on the job at hand, thus strengthening the mind/muscle connection through the greater internal focus needed to slowly lower a heavyweight.
At no time should the mind wander. Maintaining a maximum amount of muscular tension requires a high degree of concentrated effort.
By keeping reps slow and controlled, such tension is magnified while the mind is programmed to better guide the resistance through a correct range of motion.
Flexing Between Sets
Besides being an effective way to stimulate muscle growth through controlled muscular contractions (flexing might be considered the purest form of contraction as there is no weight to work against), flexing between sets may put the trainee in touch with the muscles under tension to a greater degree than when utilizing resistance.9
By taking a muscle through the exact same motion used when training, flexing provides a form of feedback that tells you whether the correct muscles are receiving the bulk of the tension (it’s often easier to make this connection without weights). Such feedback can then be used to better target a muscle when it’s time to hit the iron. Ask any competitive bodybuilder and they’ll likely tell you that posing, when done correctly, can be as exhaustive as the training itself.
Flexing a muscle at the proper angle and holding the contraction reinforces the degree of control we may have over that muscle.
This same degree of control can be employed to gain mastery over the weights through greater neural connectivity and a strengthened mind/muscle connection.
Focusing on correct form and really putting the mind into the muscle to feel every centimeter of movement, from full extension to full positive contraction, are two different things. Moving a weight from point A to point B can be done correctly with a modicum of focused attention.
Like riding a bike, once the correct movement patterns are neurologically hardwired it becomes easier and easier to lift a weight safely and efficiently, with minimal concentration.
However, becoming fully conscious of every subtle adjustment required to move a weight through its correct trajectory is a much trickier proposition. By visualizing the muscle under control through a full range of motion (the way it might look and be responding at each stage of the rep) gives that muscle complete focus. In this way, rather than thinking externally (to the weight and surrounding environment) we become more internally directed (to where the muscle becomes the sole focus of our attention). With intra-set visualization, we become more attuned to the subtle nuances of muscular contraction. As such, attention is less likely to deviate to other areas of the body.
Form First Principle
Another established training tenet has it that we should never sacrifice form for weight. There might be no truer principle in all of bodybuilding today. As discussed earlier, there can be little in the way of muscular growth without the initial stimulus of mechanical loading. Without correct form, such loading is not likely to be adequately concentrated on a specific muscle grouping.
Another established training tenet has it that we should never sacrifice form for weight.
And without correct form, the mind has nothing specific to focus upon when seeking to establish a rock-solid connection to the working muscles.
While space prevents me from going into explicit detail on how to properly train each muscle grouping, it’s important to know the following when seeking to develop a mind/muscle connection.
- Keep tension on the right muscles and hold the contraction:
For example, when targeting back, always pull with the back muscles, and not with the arms. This will require leading with the elbows, rotating the scapula and retracting the shoulders until a full contraction is felt throughout the entire back region (or whichever part is specifically being targeted).9 Full tension can be kept on the working muscles by lightening the load (discussed in more detail soon), slowing down the movement and keeping body posture correctly aligned.
Another way to enhance form is to hold a positive contraction for a 2-3 count at the top of the movement, before slowly releasing the weight. As well as increasing training intensity overall, holding the rep and achieving an exaggerated positive contraction provides greater feedback as to whether the target muscle has been fully activated, which will, in turn, tell you whether the correct form has been achieved.
Related to the previous point, a greater focus on muscle contraction can also be encouraged by resting between reps and by rest I mean stopping the set, re-gathering your thoughts, and re-channeling your focus for the next rep while maintaining tension on the working muscles (the muscles must not fully relax).
Most lifters have a habit of rushing through their sets, indiscriminately putting together a sequence of reps without much thought given to the quality of each. As this happens, the body may fall out of position, gripping strength may waver and the mind may become more focused on getting through the set before form is completely compromised rather than ensuring that each rep is of the highest quality. As a result, a connection to the muscle is gradually diminished. To fix this problem, you may wish to periodically re-set between each rep and prepare the body for the next rep, giving each rep the same high level of focus and execution.
- Don’t overextend:
When extending at a joint – for example, whether pressing a weight (benching, shoulder pressing, using machines, cables or free weights) or squatting – there will be a limit as to how far the weight is projected away from the centerline of the body. The main feedback to look for here is a full positive contraction of the target muscle. If tension is lessened, it’s likely that you have overextended at the joint. Such overextension is a great way to remove stress from the muscles and to lessen the mechanical loading and overall intensity inflicted on the muscle (while reducing the possibility of subsequent growth).
- Pay particular attention to the final reps:
During the initial reps of a set, we are usually pretty adept at staying strong and focused on proper form and thus are better able to bolster the mind/muscle connection. It’s the final reps – where fatigue may affect mental functioning and control – where most people tend to falter. So, as a set progresses we must work extra hard to keep our mind on the muscle being worked. Finishing strong and in complete control of the weight will go a long way towards strengthening our ability to focus internally and on the degree to which a muscle is activated.
Despite the very best of intentions, the chances of establishing a formidable mind/muscle connection will be slim at best without the right energizing nutrients circulating when you need them the most. This requires a clean source of training fuel that’ll enable you to focus on the task at hand without the wired feeling that often accompanies the intake of various stimulants, most notably caffeine.
With the stimulant-free IMPACT PUMP, you’ll be primed to lock-in the mindset needed to give each workout complete focus over an extended period.
The tremendous pumps you’ll receive with the combined effectiveness of Citrulline Malate, Agmatine Sulfate, Glycerol Powder, Taurine and N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC) will give you immediate feedback as to whether the correct muscles have been targeted and allow you to zero-in on further maximizing the neurological connection to these areas.
Greater blood supply to the working muscles will also give you more time (and with it, greater training volume) in which to enhance muscle protein synthesis and further refine the correct lifting technique needed to build a strong mind/muscle connection. As well, the powerful two-punch combo of Lion’s Mane Mushroom and Alpha-GPC will provide the nootropic support needed to improve focus, mental alertness, training aggression, and mood, alleviate depression and promote growth of new neurons while also directly improving brain function at the cellular level to improve intercellular communication – all of which will significantly improve one’s ability to strengthen the mind/muscle connection to maximize the effectiveness of each workout.
Cut the Resistance
“Leave your ego at the door” is yet another training stipulation which may result in a superior mind/muscle connection. Many are those lifters who can press mammoth weights but do not have a physique reflective of such lofty poundages. This is because simply lifting a weight is not the same as using a target muscle to move the weight in a controlled and methodical manner.
When quality muscle is the goal, there comes a time when lowering the resistance (the external focus) and emphasizing muscle movement exclusively (the internal focus) must take precedence.
For quality muscle gains, one’s approach to training must be one of quality over quantity.
While progressive resistance will always be the name of the game, total training poundage will equally always come second to proper form and optimal muscle stimulation, remembering that mechanical loading and muscle protein synthesis must be fully achieved before muscle growth can occur. This is not done by indiscriminately throwing around heavy iron.
A Mind for Progressive Size Gains
In the words of the immortal Arnold: ‘Weights are just a means to an end. How well you contract the muscles is what training is all about.”
While it’s believed that greater strength gains (and progressive resistance generally) can more readily be achieved with an external focus, such results will also come with an internal focus. It just might take a little longer. However, quality muscle gains – the reason you’re reading this article – will to a greater extent take place with a slow, methodical and more focused approach to training: the mind/muscle connection in all its glory.3, 11
Beginners may want to start with more of an external focus and gradually become internally directed as, in doing so, the body is encouraged to work more as a complete unit and more basic, foundational strength may in this way be built. However, as gains begin to plateau, the mind/muscle connection takes on a greater level of importance to where the full stimulation and overloading of individual muscles must be prioritized. Use mind power, and the advice outlined above, to steer you in exactly that direction.
- Beardsley, C. What determines mechanical tension during strength training? [Online] https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/what-determines-mechanical-tension-during-strength-training-acdf31b93e18 – retrieved on 17.1.19
- Beardsley, C. Can using the mind-muscle connection enhance hypertrophy? [Online] https://medium.com/@SandCResearch/can-using-the-mind-muscle-connection-enhance-hypertrophy-398de4687bd7 – retrieved on 17.1.19
- Calatayud, J. et al. ( 2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. Eur J Appl Physiol. Mar;116(3):527-33.
- Calatayud, J. et al. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology March, Volume 116, Issue 3, pp 527–53
- Calatayud, J. et al. (2017). Mind-muscle connection training principle: influence of muscle strength and training experience during a pushing movement. European Journal of Applied Physiology July, Volume 117, Issue 7, pp 1445–1452
- Daniels, R. J., et al. (2017). Effect of instructions on EMG during the bench press in trained and untrained males. Human Movement Science Volume 55, October, Pages 182-188
- Halperin, I. et al. (2016). The mind–muscle connection in resistance training: friend or foe? European Journal of Applied Physiology April, Volume 116, Issue 4, pp 863–864
- Marchant, D. C., (2009). Attentional focusing instructions influence force production and muscular activity during isokinetic elbow flexions. J Strength Cond Res. Nov;23(8):2358-66.
- Rusin, J. Developing a mind-muscle connection for maximum hypertrophy. [Online] https://drjohnrusin.com/developing-a-mind-muscle-connection-for-muscle-hypertrophy/ – retrieved on 17.1.19
- Schoenfeld, B. J., et al. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. Eur J Sport Sci. Jun;18(5):705-712.
- Viggiano, M. The Science behind the Mind Muscle Connection. [Online] https://www.aimhumanperformance.com/blog/2018/6/7/the-science-behind-the-mind-muscle-connection – retrieved on 17.1.19