Many of you have probably had someone approach you at some point in a gym to tell you some of his or her “hidden secrets” to seeing continuous progress. Some of these tips might be valuable, but lots of them are probably deeply embedded within the dark hallows of broscience that pervade fitness centers all over the world (broscience is a colloquial term for information tossed around in gyms that has no scientific backing whatsoever). This post is all about the actual “hidden secret” to seeing success in your trips to the gym – the mind-muscle connection.
Before going further, I want to make it clear that you should already have your nutrition and intensity while training where they need to be if you really want to experience the full benefits of the mind-muscle connection. Too many people think that if you focus on one of these aspects, that it’s o.k. to neglect the others. This is completely false because these three fundamentals work synergistically with one another to give you those awesome results.
Go to any gym, and you’ll see that the vast majority of people are throwing up weights that they have no business messing with. Many of these people believe that as long as the weight goes from point A to point B, they have completed a full repetition and are well on their way towards achieving that dream physique of theirs. Well, this simply isn’t true; in fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem with having this approach to lifting is that if you only focus on moving the weight, you’re probably not using great form AND are also relying on your skeletal frame to help provide support and momentum to hoist the weight.
An example of this that many of you can probably relate to is “that one guy” who is always in the gym only doing biceps, curling 60 pound dumbbells, yet his arms still look like sticks because he’s making the biceps curl exercise a full body workout by putting his entire body into it. While that guy may be on the fast track to injury, he sure isn’t getting anywhere with his goal of actually training his biceps. If you want big biceps, you need to be sure that you’re recruiting as many biceps muscle fibers as possible to their maximal output on each repetition of every biceps exercise you do. Going into the gym to perform extremely heavy sets of biceps won’t amount to anything if you’re relying on your front deltoids, glutes, and quads to help you move the weight because you won’t be recruiting as many biceps fibers as you could have had you used a lighter load. The only thing he’s really working out here is his ego because of his obsession with the weight he’s lifting. And sure, almost all of us have fallen into this trap at some point in our training careers (it usually happens in the beginning stages of lifting), but it’s important to realize that when you go into the gym, the first and foremost thing that you’re thinking about should be to establish a strong connection between your mind and the muscle or muscles you’re training that day. If you do this and use proper form, you can make lighter loads feel extremely demanding because you’re using so many of the target muscle’s muscle fibers while performing the exercise.
In developing a strong mind-muscle connection, the first thing you should do is begin thinking about the working out the muscle before you even set foot in the gym. Shortly before your workout, spending five to ten minutes fully concentrating on visualizing the target muscle working, contracting, and growing sets the tone for your mind to connect with your body when you do get to the gym. The old adage, “where the mind goes, the body follows” is around for a reason, and it’s because your mind is the most powerful tool at your disposal.
To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger:
“I never set limits or created mental barriers. You may have read that I imagined my biceps as big as mountain peaks when I did my curling exercises. This visualization process was essential if I was to gain the kind of mass and size I needed to win the Mr. Olympia contest against monsters like Sergio Oliva and Lou Ferrigno.”
Some of you might be thinking, “Well, this isn’t for me…I don’t want extreme mass!” Don’t worry about gaining freakish mass if you practice this principle; all the mind-muscle connection does is help you work out what you’re trying to work out. Your diet will dictate whether or not you gain muscle mass and size, lose fat and retain muscle, or maintain your current body composition.
Next, you need to make sure that when you arrive in the gym, you’ve maintained that focus on exhausting the muscle that you’re working out that day, and as you go through your workout, you need to be cognizant of the muscle at all times, making sure that it’s being fully worked. In order to do this, you should be able to contract the target muscle at will by simply thinking about engaging it. Many of you have probably seen people who can do the “pec dance”, which is a tell-tale sign that the person who can do it has a great mind-muscle connection with their pecs. While this may look like a magic trick, it’s actually pretty simple, and with some practice and persistence, anyone can develop it. Here are some tactics I’ve used with great success for improving my mind-muscle connection that have helped me develop the ability to “dance” many of my muscles at will:
1. If you’re struggling to contract a muscle, take your index and middle finger from either hand and press on the muscle. Then, try to “push” the index and middle finger off of your body by contracting your muscle. This works especially well for developing a strong mind-muscle connection with your chest.
2. Close your eyes while you perform sets. This isn’t always possible depending on what you’re doing (I wouldn’t recommend doing this with any Olympic lifts or standing presses), but for almost any machine exercise or movement that puts you in a very stable position, it can be used with great efficacy. While you do the lift, practice active visualization by thinking about the muscle working as you lift the weight. You’ve probably heard that people who are blind or deaf often have their other senses enhanced, and this principle is true whether or not you have a disability. If you take away your vision while you’re lifting, your brain now has more focus that it can allocate towards your sense of feeling. So when you’re lifting, you’ll be able to feel the muscle significantly more than you could have before. Give this a shot! I close my eyes all the time when I’m lifting, and I’ve really enjoyed the enhanced mind-muscle connection I’ve gotten from it.
3. Get a spotter, and have him or her press on your target muscle or muscles as you perform the exercise. This is basically an application of the first tip I gave, and it can really help you figure out how to properly contract a muscle if you’re struggling to engage it. Also, if you combine this with my second tip, you will be amazed at how well you are able to engage your muscles while you lift! I have found this tactic to have greatly enhanced my rear deltoid development because that’s a muscle group that is very hard to figure out how to contract unless you have someone pushing on them while you perform a rear deltoid movement, such as reverse flyes.
4. When you train your back, envision your arms acting as hooks that are merely connecting the weight to your back. Doing this puts the entire load on your back and allows you to fully engage your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, and erectors. Lots of people often complain of not being able to flex their backs, and the largest reason for this is that when they train their backs, they are mostly relying on their biceps to move the weight. Loosening your grip on back movements greatly aids in putting the stress of the weight onto your back muscles. For an even lighter grip, use straps – with these, your forearm flexing is reduced to virtually zero, and your back muscles are completely isolated, allowing for greater recruitment of muscle fibers in your back.
5. If your form is not PERFECT, then you need to lower the weight so that you can do the exercise with perfect form. This is especially true if you’re trying out a new movement. You need to make sure that your form is perfect before you even think about adding weight. For exercises that you’re just starting out with, I would recommend doing sets of 20 to 25 repetitions to help create muscle memory and get your body accustomed to moving through space in that manner. This will also greatly increase your mind-muscle connection.
6. Fully engage your core on every single lift that you do. Not only will this minimize your risk of injury, it will help you keep perfect form by ensuring that your posture and frame are in their most anatomically stable positioning. Plus, it will also help to develop an awesome midsection because your core will be in constant use!
7. Focus on performing slow, controlled repetitions. A good rule of thumb is to count to 2 on the concentric (on the way up) portion of the exercise, hold for 2 seconds at the top of the movement (making sure to squeeze the target muscle as hard as you can), and count to 2 again on the eccentric (on the way down) portion of the exercise.
8. Use the mirror! Mirrors can help you to make sure that you’re contracting the target muscle. Using mirrors goes hand-in-hand with flexing, which is something that you should be continuously doing throughout the day. When I’m sitting in class, I will often flex various muscle groups because flexing all the time like this helps to increase the strength of the neural pathways from your brain to your muscles, which will allow you to fire your muscles more quickly and with greater fiber recruitment. Doing this will also translate into better workouts because you’ll be ready to fully engage that muscle by getting much better pumps in the gym, which will help you to completely exhaust it and induce a demand for your body to repair, regenerate, and grow it.
Put these tips to use, and see your mind-muscle connections increase for each of your muscles as well as your results in the gym skyrocket!