The mind is a powerful entity! In fact, every muscle contraction begins with input from your brain, the organ that gives your muscles the command to generate force and contract. Without that input your brain, skeletal muscles won’t contract and the muscle won’t move. Once the brain sends the signal, electrical and chemical events take place that tells the muscle to move. That’s why the brain-muscle connection matters! Without it, your voluntary muscles wouldn’t contract at all.
Muscle contraction against resistance forms the basis for building strength and muscle size. Most people focus on the mechanics of lifting, getting the form right, and details, like tempo. However, as with most endeavors, there’s a mental aspect to lifting too. Studies show that if you lift distractedly, you may get inferior results. In other words, you shouldn’t be planning your grocery list when you’re weight training, not to mention doing so increases the risk of injury.
So, powering up the mind-muscle connection can help maximize strength and hypertrophy gains, but how can you strengthen that essential connection between the mind and muscle?
Slow the Tempo
It’s easier to focus on the mechanics of an exercise if you slow the tempo. A slow tempo helps direct your mind to the movement and helps your mind and body engage with it. Unless you’re doing power training, a slower tempo strengthens the mind-muscle connection the best and it takes the momentum out of the equation. Without momentum, your muscles have to generate force through the full range-of-motion of the exercise and that maximizes muscle fiber recruitment.
Free Yourself from Distractions
You might be tempted to listen to a podcast or watch television when you work out, but that distraction keeps you from establishing a strong mind-muscle connection. How about music? Some studies show music can improve exercise performance, so your favorite tunes playing in the background may be of benefit in certain situations. But what about the type of music? Instrumental background music may have a different effect than music with words. If music has words, it can distract you away from focusing on the movements at hand.
Visualize Performing the Exercise Beforehand
Envisioning a muscle contracting in your mind may strengthen it even if you don’t move it. A study carried out at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine looked at the power of the mind-muscle connection. Researchers immobilized their wrists in casts for 4 weeks. With their wrists immobilized, they asked half of the subjects to envision flexing their wrists. The other half only wore the cast. When they removed the casts, the group who visualized flexing their wrists had twice the strength of those who didn’t visualize wrist flexion. That’s a strong testimonial for the mind-muscle connection! You can even envision yourself doing an exercise when you’re not training to strengthen the mind-muscle connection.
Another time to visualize your upcoming exercises is during the warm-up. Think about the exercises you’ll be doing and which muscles you’ll be working. Mental preparation counts too!
Focus on the Specific Muscles You’re Working
Another hack for boosting the mind-muscle connection is to know what muscles you’re working and focus on them in your mind with laser-like precision. For example, if you’re doing biceps curls, concentrate on those muscles. In one study, researchers measured force generation when subjects bench pressed using various amounts of resistance. When the subjects focused on their chest and triceps muscles, they could lift with more force than when they didn’t. However, this held true for lifts only up to 60% of one-rep max. At least for lighter lifts, visualization has benefits, but when you’re lifting super heavy, it’s harder to focus on anything other than moving the weight against gravity.
Do More Unilateral Movements
When you do unilateral exercises, you’re able to better focus on the muscles you’re working. For the upper body, single-arm biceps curls, triceps extensions, and single-arm rows are an effective way to isolate a movement and focus on the muscles you’re working. For the lower body, single-leg squats and glute bridges using a single leg are options that help you strengthen the mind-muscle connection.
Lighten Up on the Load
Lifting a weight you have to struggle to move is a surefire way to weaken the mind-muscle connection. With heavy weights, the focus shifts to moving the weight at all costs and the extra energy you expend trying to do this is energy you can’t use to focus on the dynamics of the movement. When you lighten up on the weight, you’ll also be able to maximize your range-of-motion on the exercise and that can lead to better form and greater hypertrophy gains. Studies show that if you lift to failure, light weights can build muscle as well as heavy weights. With heavier weights, it’s harder to use a slow tempo too, giving you less opportunity to focus on the muscles you’re working.
Choose the Right Time of Day for Weight Training
Select a time for strength training when you’re the most alert and energized. For some people, that might be in the morning, assuming you’re a morning person. For others, it might be in the late afternoon or early evening. Keep in mind that muscle strength peaks in the late afternoon and early evening, so you may be able to lift heavier or do more volume later in the day. By choosing a time to train when you’re at your sharpest, you can focus more on the movements your muscles are making.
Close Your Eyes
One underappreciated way to strengthen the mind-muscle connection is to close your eyes when you lift. When you remove visual input and distractions the only thing your mind has to focus on is how your muscles are moving. The lack of outside visual input can make your aware of nuances of your technique that you might not be aware of. Be careful though! Your risk of injury is higher too when you lift with your eyes closed.
The Bottom Line
Working on the mechanics of exercises is important but so is strengthening the mind-muscle connection. If that’s an area that can use some work, now’s the time to start! Start by using these eight techniques to help your mind and muscles make a stronger connection.
American Council on Exercise. “The Mind-Muscle Connection”
Calatayud, J. et al. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116, 3, 27-33.
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