When we weight train, we mostly focus on the tangible aspects of training. To build muscle, we progressively increase overload on the muscle by altering a number of variables, including the resistance, number of reps, number of sets, type of exercises we do, the tempo etc. Plus, we have to devote time and energy to getting the proper nutrition to support muscle growth. These are the fundamentals of training, but they don’t address another important aspect of building muscle – the role your brain and nervous system plays. These factors are impacted by motivation and focus, important components of any training program.
There’s an abundance of information on how to weight train as well as how to use appropriate form to maximize strength and hypertrophy gains. You hear less about the mental aspects of training, the role that your mind plays in helping you get stronger and build more muscle definition. Yet, any athletic coach will tell you that what’s going on in your head matters. This applies to any sport, but also to building muscle. In fact, researchers in the fitness field call it “attentional focus” and it’s an important aspect of mastering any motor skill. Attentional focus refers to what you think about or center your mind on when you play a sport or lift weights.
What does go through YOUR brain when you weight train? Do you focus on the muscles you’re working? Or do you concentrate on achieving a particular outcome, like getting your body as close to the floor as possible when you do a push-up? Hopefully, you don’t think about what you’re having for breakfast or lunch after the workout is over! That would be counterproductive.
Types of Attentional Focus: Internal and External Focus
Attentional focus comes in two main varieties – internal and external. Internal is focusing with laser-like precision on the muscles you’re working, the ones you’re trying to make larger and stronger. By using internal focus, you can, based on studies, increase the neural drive to the muscles you’re working. If you use an external focus, you focus on performance-related outcomes, such as achieving a particular goal, rather than on the muscles you’re working. Using an internal or external focus is sometimes referred to as internal or external cueing.
In a nutshell, with internal focusing or cueing, you hone in on muscle mechanics, but with external cueing, the focus shifts to outcomes and external factors, such as the weight you’re moving rather than your muscles. For example, when you squat, if you direct your attention towards the muscles you’re contracting, your attentional focus is internal. However, if you focus on squatting to a certain level, you’re using an external focus.
Which is better? Both forms of focus have benefits. If you’re focusing internally on muscle movements when you do an exercise, you’re minding your form and that’s important for preventing injury. But, for a number of sports, external cueing is a more effective approach for learning new sports-related skills and improving existing ones. That’s because external focus doesn’t constrain your nervous system by forcing you to think about a particular muscle. Instead, your nervous system has the freedom to execute movements automatically on an unconscious level. By shifting the focus toward the outcome of a movement, your nervous system can carry out those movements spontaneously.
You can see how an external focus would be a better tactic with many sports. If you’re learning to play tennis, you will perform better if you focus on getting the ball over the net as opposed to concentrating on the motion of your arm. This, of course, assumes you’ve mastered the basics. If you’ve never played tennis, your nervous system can’t coordinate movements automatically since it’s not familiar with those movement patterns. First, you have to learn how your muscles are supposed to move and your nervous system has to learn how to execute those movements proficiently. This takes some degree of internal focus initially.
Is an external focus better for strength training as well? Few studies have looked at the role attentional focus plays in strength development, but some suggest that an external focus is better. In one study, researchers asked 30 active male participants to do deadlifts and bench press at 85% of their one-rep max using either an internal or external focus. They performed each exercise to failure using both approaches. When using an internal focus, the participants concentrated on the muscles they were working. When lifting with an external focus, they shifted the focus externally to the barbells they were using. The results? The participants were able to complete more reps when they used an external focus. At least during high-resistance strength training, focusing externally may be superior for improving performance.
Yet, there are some drawbacks to an external focus. If you’re goal-focused and concentrate on a pre-determined goal, your form might get sloppy as you’re trying to reach that goal by any means. For example, you might use momentum and still reach your goal. But, in the long run, using poor form doesn’t help you maximize muscle gain and doesn’t help you avoid injury. Plus, studies show focusing internally on a muscle increases activation of that muscle. However, this won’t necessarily improve overall performance.
The Bottom Line
The take-home message? When you’re learning a new sport or trying to improve your performance in a sport or other complex task, an external or performance-oriented focus might be better than focusing on individual muscles. The same holds true for strength training. However, when you’re first learning a particular exercise, it makes more sense to focus internally on your muscles until you learn how they should move and can do the exercise with good form. So, both have their place in training, depending on how advanced you are.
Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. Brad Schoenfeld. Human Kinetics. 2016.
Research Gate. “The Effects of Focus Attention Instructions on Strength Training Performances”
Strength & Conditioning Journal: February 2016 – Volume 38 – Issue 1 – p 1–11.