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Working out and putting all your effort into it day in, day out but not seeing the results can be frustrating. You may be wondering and constantly asking yourself what you may be doing wrong. Muscle training, strength training, endless exercise sessions in the gym — you’ve gone through the list and you still can’t figure out what’s missing. One aspect that a lot of individuals don’t seem to consider is the mind-muscle connection.
Simply put, the mind-muscle connection means deliberately contracting your muscles while focusing your thoughts on that movement. In this article, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the mind-muscle connection and how it can help your body, and how you can use it in your exercises. Read on to know more!
What is a Mind-Muscle Connection?
The mind-muscle connection is a psychological aspect that refers to a lifter’s focus on specific muscle contractions during a given exercise. For example, when doing a bicep curl, you put your focus on feeling each and every rep and recruiting specific muscles instead of thinking about how many reps you need to do, what you should eat after your exercise session, and so on.
Putting this mental focus on your exercise can increase the recruitment of muscle fibers as well as make it easier to isolate specific muscles.
Is the Mind-Muscle Connection Real?
The mind-muscle connection might sound like some bro-science since it’s heavily used in the body-building community but make no mistake, it’s a real exercise phenomenon proven by science. Mind-muscle connection research done by the National Library of Medicine used the bench press as an example.
In the study, a trainee performed the bench press while directing focus towards the triceps on some sets and the chest on others. The findings indicate that some muscles may respond better than others. The triceps saw greater activation, while the pectoral muscles did not.
A similar study done in 2017 saw the same findings as that of the research done by the National Library of Medicine. In this research, the triceps saw an increase in activation while there was little effect on the pectorals. This suggests that the mind-muscle connection is optimized when used to increase muscle activation on smaller muscle groups or when doing smaller isolation exercises.
Types of Mind-Muscle Connection and How They Work
The mind-muscle connection is also known as focused attention. There are two different types of focused attention: internal focus and external focus.
Internal focus is one of the principal means to use mind-muscle connections and is the heart of establishing that connection. This means that when you lift, you’re directing your attention to a precise muscle as a means to acquire higher activation. For example, when doing press-ups, you can feel a strain on your arms.
As for external focus, this is when your body relates to the environment during exercise. For instance, on a leg press machine, the external focus is to push the platform away from your body with your feet.
Both types of focus help improve performance but when it comes to mind-muscle connection, in particular, it’s about shifting your focus to the muscles that are vital to your workout. Having a good understanding of the muscle groups you’re targeting during exercise will make focus and concentration easier.
Why is Mind-Muscle Connection Important?
Research shows that just thinking about the muscles moving and working activates your muscle fibers even more than if you performed the exercise without giving it focus and attention. The more you focus on the target muscle while you perform an exercise, the greater your strength and muscle memory gains will be.
When you put your focus and attention on your movements, the neurons without your brain send signals to the muscle fibers to contract. This in turn improves the strength of the muscle contraction and also the quality of your movements.
How Can I Build A Strong Mind-Muscle Connection?
The more that you train your body, the more that you can improve your mind-muscle connection. If you’re ready to incorporate more of your mind into your muscle work, here are some ways on how you can be on your journey to bigger gains at the gym:
Choose One Cue to Connect to Muscle Fibers
When you’re just starting off with developing a mind-muscle connection, one of the best ways to start is cueing. A cue is a tool used by coaches and trainers to help their clients improve movement and performance during exercise. You can use cueing to help improve how your brain connects to the right muscle fibers.
The first cue you will want to work on is the correct setup. This means that the moment you know exactly which muscle group you want to focus on and which exercises are the best to do that, it’s vital to ensure that you’re using the correct muscles, you’re doing the exercise properly, and that you are doing it in a safe manner.
You can start off with a lighter weight or have a shorter duration for that movement. Once you move on to the next part of the exercise, you should be mindful of which muscle is being worked by the movement. With consistency, your brain will be able to develop muscle memory each time you return to the exercise. Taking your time and doing a repetition allows your brain to zone in on the precise muscles being worked, which then results in increasing the connection between each muscle.
Choose the Right Exercises
Choose to perform single-joint exercises if you’re looking to turn your focus inward. According to research, focusing on your chest or other muscles in the upper body during a bench press makes less of a difference than focusing on your triceps. When doing a compound exercise, it might be more effective to focus on smaller areas.
A study also suggested that focusing on external cues when performing compound exercises can be better. You can think “one more rep” during your squat workout or “pull the bar close to the body” while deadlifting can help boost muscle growth.
A mirror can be helpful in watching your muscles working but it may not be available at all times. Visualizing can help you maximize your physique as you work out. Let’s take the biceps as an example. While performing an exercise with your biceps, you can visualize them as mountains that you would see grow with each rep.
You don’t have to create an inherently detailed image in your head; instead, think about the muscles and how they’re actively moving as you complete the rep. Focusing on that image and seeing it in your mind before it happens can help you make it a reality.
Use a Lighter Weight For More Muscle Activation
One of the factors that makes a big difference when it comes to the mind-muscle connection is using a light weight. When you use a heavier load in your exercise, it will be difficult to elicit a higher amount of muscle activation. Additionally, when you lift a heavy weight, the last thing you want to do is go slow or think about your muscles contracting.
Using a lighter weight gives you the ability to focus on your target muscle. It also ensures that you have the proper form during your workout and lowers your risk of injury.
Whether you exercise at home or at the gym, it’s important to flex your muscles between sets. We’re not saying that you should do body-building poses in front of a mirror. Instead, we suggest that you take a few seconds to flex the muscles that you’re working on while you’re recovering.
There is actually a science to back this. Flexing the muscles are also called isometric contractions and in a 2014 study, improvements to muscle thickness in the triceps were found in individuals who flexed from time to time.
Furthermore, a flex forces you to improve the connection between your muscles and brain. For example, flex your triceps after doing a set of press downs. Pause, acknowledge how your muscles feel, look as you subtly contract them, and then begin the next set. The contraction helps reinforce the idea that your triceps are the focus and will keep you connected when you begin that next set.
Increase Time Under Tension
Spending more time under tension during resistance training is a key component to build muscle. The more time you spend under tension during a workout, the stronger and bigger your muscles grow. You can do this by performing reps slower can help improve the connection because you automatically focus on controlling the slowed-down movement.
Another way to spend more time under tension is to pause during peak contraction. For example, you can hold a glute squeeze at the top of a bridge, pause during the flexed position during the curl, or hold at the bottom of a push-up.
Harness the Power of the Brain
Let’s not forget one of the most important aspects in improving focused attention during training or a workout: our brain. Staying mentally connected allows you to get anything done as efficiently and properly as possible. When the brain and the body work closely together, there is an increase in the overall quality of your movement, leading to improved muscles.
The mind-muscle connection is a science-backed phenomenon in exercise that maximizes the bond between the brain and the body, which in turn greatly aids in muscle building. By directly visualizing and paying attention to the movement of the target muscle, you’ll progress faster in your training and you’ll be able to unlock greater power and reap better gains. It may seem difficult at first but with practice and consistency, you’ll see improvements over time.