The Magic of the Mind-Muscle Connection
Many of us go to the gym to lift with a workout plan in mind. We have a rough idea of the exercises we will be performing and the set and rep schemes we will be aiming to hit for each of those exercises. Beyond that though, how much thought do we put into each and every rep? How much focus do we attach to the movement of the weight and its effect on the specific muscle we are trying to work? Are we internally dialled in to the feel of the muscle, its contraction and the stretch or are we simply trying to move the weight from point A to point B as fast as possible to hit our pre-determined rep goal?
Let's take a look at the mind-muscle connection, specifically with regards to training for hypertrophy or muscle growth. The mind-muscle connection is something that bodybuilders have known for decades that's now being backed up by science and something I wish I would have paid more attention to in my early days of lifting. The mind-muscle connection is the strong internal connection between your brain and your muscles. It allows you to consciously squeeze and contract a specific muscle and put deliberate tension on that muscle rather than moving a weight passively with the contraction and stretch of the muscle being merely consequential.
Let's take an example. You head over to the dumbbell rack and grab a pair of 10s to start curling. You want to hit 10-12 reps on this set and you start to curl the weight from point A to point B with full range for motion. You may lose tension at the top or bottom of the exercise but have no regard for this. The only goal is to move the dumbbell from point A to B.
Now you repeat the same set of dumbbell curls but this time you internally focus on the specific muscle you are trying the isolate - the biceps. With each rep you are fully concentrated on the squeeze of the bicep and the tension on the muscle as it stretches and contracts. Your range of motion may or may not be more limited than your original set but it's not important. The most important thing is how the movement of your body with the weight affects the tension on the muscle you are trying to target. The likelihood is the second set will have left your biceps far more pumped than the first and that's due to the magic of the mind-muscle connection!
Now, at this point you may be thinking that a strong bicep contraction is fairly easy to accomplish but what about a muscle that is typically more difficult to connect to such as the lats or hamstrings. The truth is, it takes time. Each day you lift, making a conscious effort to squeeze the muscle you are intending to work will lead to a stronger mind-muscle connection over time.
A great way to activate the muscle you're training from the onset is to start your workout with an exercise you feel a great connection with. Let's say you're working lats and you normally start with a bent over row. The problem is, you have a far better connection to the lats with dumbbell pullovers, so what do you do? You start the workout with dumbbell pullovers to establish that great connection with the lats and light them up from the get go. Now, when you move on to bent over rows you will be feeling the connection to your lats far more than had you started the workout with rows. This approach sets your workout up for success, activating the target muscle from the start and initiating that strong mind-muscle connection that follows through the entire workout.
Another thing to consider is the amount of weight you're lifting and the tempo of you reps, especially if you're learning the mind-muscle connection. Throwing about heavy weights or repping too fast can make it difficult to establish a strong mind-muscle connection. So what can you do? Drop the weight and slow down each and every rep, focusing on the feel of the muscle through each contraction and stretch. Learning these patterns with lighter weight will make it easier to establish the same strong mind-muscle connection with heavier weights later down the line.
Lifting straps can also play their part in building a strong connection to the muscle. While they are often used as a tool to overcome grip weakness when performing heavy compound movements, they can also be used to better isolate a muscle with sub-maximal loads. Reducing grip tension with lifting straps can help form a stronger contraction of the muscle you are aiming to work. Be sure to check out our 'how to use lifting straps guide' which details why, how, and when to use lifting straps to ensure you get the most out of their use.
So what about compound movements like squats and deadlifts I hear you ask. Whilst I believe a full range of motion carries more weight (pun intended) when compared to isolation movements, this isn't to say it's not possible or relevant to focus on mind-muscle connection when performing compound exercises. Again, this is dependent on your goals for that exercise but if training for hypertrophy it can carry great benefits. For example, you want to perform barbell Romanian deadlifts to build the glutes and hamstrings. Many people find it difficult to activate the glutes and hamstrings so putting focus on a mind-muscle connection can reap huge benefits in the overall effectiveness of the exercise when compared to simply moving the barbell from point A to point B through a full range of motion. Initially this would involve dropping the weight, slowing down the rep temp and fully focussing on the strong contraction and stretch of the muscle through the movement pattern.
So why not give it a try? Leave the ego at the door, drop the weight, understand the muscle you are trying to hit with each exercise and internally focus on its contraction and stretch through every rep. Take a step back now to learn the mind muscle connection and take a huge leap forward as each workout from here on builds on the foundations you have laid.