The Fitness Benefits of Building a Mind-Muscle Connection
Often a workout can be your only chance to completely clear your mind. After spending an entire day thinking about issues at work, school, and your personal life, a solo gym session spent getting through bicep curls and slits — while focusing on Taylor Swift’s latest album — can feel really restorative.
But you may not want to completely shut down your brain. In order to improve your performance and make gains, you will need to pay close attention to how your muscles are. contraction, elongation, and moving throughout your strength training. In other words, you’ll want to build and tap into your mind-muscle connection.
The Mind-Muscle Connection, Explained
You may not realize it, but when you play a sport or physical activity, your mind either focuses on what’s going on in the external environment around you (for example, the songs blaring through the gym speakers, the trees in front of which running) or what is happening in your own body (eg muscle fatigue, your breath, any pain). This focus on oneself, known as internal attentional focus, is where the mind-muscle connection comes into play, primarily during strength-training activities, says Alyssa Olenick, Ph.D., CISSN, CFL1.exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist.
“With weightlifting, you’re trying to get your body to perform very specific actions with a muscle or muscle group or type of movement pattern,” she explains. “So the mind-muscle connection is basically focusing internally on the muscle and/or movement pattern you’re trying to perform.” Say you’re good a bent dumbbell row. Rather than focusing on the tunes coming out of your headphones, you’d pay attention to the feeling of your side muscles lengthening and contracting with each rep. Or when trying a heavy squat, you might think about squeezing your glutes to come out of the bottom of the movement, says Olenick.
The Benefits of Harnessing Your Mind-Muscle Connection
Focusing on how your muscles move as you perform each rep may seem frivolous, but it comes with some notable benefits. Here’s why honing your muscle actions while lifting is worth the mental energy.
Helps you target the right muscles
When you focus on the specific muscles you are using to perform an exercise, you will be better able to target agonist muscle groups (i.e. the muscles that produce the force needed to perform a movement). Take chest press with dumbbells, for example. Focusing on engaging your pectoral muscles (the agonist of this exercise) can help ensure they are stimulated enough to grow and strengthen while preventing other muscle groups (such as the triceps and deltoids , the synergistic muscles that assist the agonist) to take on more of the load, says Olenick.
And research confirms this idea: a small study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that when participants focused on the pectoralis major muscle while doing push-ups, electrical activity within it increased by 9%. (ICYDK, muscles produce electrical signals when they contract, and the greater the electrical activity, the greater the contraction.)
Promotes muscle growth
Channeling your mind-muscle connection could also help you make muscle gains, says Olenick. And this idea has been demonstrated in a study of 30 untrained participants who weightlifted three times a week for eight weeks. At the end of the trial, people who focused on contracting the target muscle during lifting (an internal focus) had greater improvements in muscle thickness – a sign of hypertrophy, i.e. say a growth of muscle cells – in the elbow flexors and quadriceps that people who focus on increasing weight (an external goal) during dumbbell curls and machine leg extensions.
Makes your workouts more effective
If you focus on how your body moves as you tackle an exercise — rather than external factors like how long you spend on each set — your reps will likely be much more efficient. “If you’re following the moves and not really thinking about it, you’re probably not getting the most out of that move,” says Olenick. “You probably don’t have a lot of mechanical tension, which is the main driver of hypertrophy.” The reason: Without any body awareness, chances are you’re skimming over your reps, not working through your full range of motion, and not spending as much time as you should on the eccentric and concentric parts. movement, which reduces time spent under tension. However, internal focus can make you more likely to work through the movement (think: squatting or below parallel rather than at a 60 degree angle) in a slow and controlled manner, which can ultimately contribute to muscle growth, she adds.
Who should focus on their mind-muscle connection
A strong mind-muscle connection can be beneficial for any athlete, but beginners may not need to put all their energy into building it. These people are still learning to move their bodies and perform basic exercises with good form, and focusing on specific muscles and how they work in the body can make strength training overwhelming, says Olenick. “Maybe it’s something they use later, when they’re a little more comfortable,” she adds. “There is a very strong motor learning component to lifting, and at first it all feels a bit awkward. So someone may not even know how to think about the muscle they are moving because they are just trying to figure out how to move.
On the other hand, the mind-muscle connection may not be as helpful if you’re an advanced lifter using heavier loads, says Olenick. “It could distract you from the goal of exerting as much force as possible in a maximum of one rep or at higher percentages of your one rep maximum with your bench, deadlift and Olympic weightlifting type stuff,” she explains. “It might be better to reduce this to an external objective. So, instead of just thinking about your pectoral muscles during a bench press, you might benefit from just thinking about shifting the weight once you get past about 80% of your one-rep max. TL; DR: When the going gets tough, you can focus on anything that allows you to perform your lift safely and efficiently.
How to improve your mind-muscle connection
Feeling totally lost on how to focus on muscle action while Do your reps with good form? Try gently tapping the agonist muscle (and have a friend help you if needed) as you complete the exercise, suggests Olenick. “Palpation can help you think about where the muscle is being used and where you should feel it. [contracting and lengthening],” She adds. During a bent-over row, for example, you can have your training partner tap your lats (the middle side of your back) as you lower your dumbbell toward the floor and lift it to If you’re still having trouble mentally connecting with the muscle, think about the action it’s doing (think: pushing the weight away from your body in a tricep extension, pulling the weight close to you in a row) , she suggests.
Maintaining tension throughout the movement – and taking your time to perform it – can also help you focus on the muscle at play. “You’ll start to feel that muscle a little more than if you were going through the movement very quickly” , explains Olenick. Using cable machines can be beneficial in this case because they provide consistent tension and can help train you to work through your full range of motion at a slow, controlled pace, she says.
And remember, practice makes progress. “Don’t expect to be excellent at [the mind-muscle connection] on day one,” says Olenick. “It might seem a little weird to think about these things, but if you really think about the muscle you’re using and what action it takes, it’s a little easier to start improving.” After all, being able to listen to your body is a skill, and it takes time to understand how it works and moves, she adds.
The Basics on the Importance of the Mind-Muscle Connection
Having a strong mind-muscle connection can help you build muscle, make your workout more efficient, and at the very least, understand your body better. But developing one shouldn’t be your main priority, says Olenick. “It’s like a little bonus point… something to add a little edge to your training,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re make enough volume, choosing the right moves, following a good training plan, eating and doing things to help recovery. These will be the biggest contributors to [hypertorphy for] your training.
If you’ve got those basics covered, though, and you’re typically moving around aimlessly in your workouts, tapping into your mind-muscle connection could be the icing on the cake in your training regimen. “It could be something that really makes a big difference for you,” says Olenick. “This will allow you to take your training up a notch.”
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