“What puts you over the top? It is the mind that actually creates the body, it is the mind that really makes you work out.. it is the mind that visualizes what the body ought to look like as the finished product.”
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
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The Mind-Muscle Connection
It's been a utilized body-building theory for decades, but increasing research to determine its validity has made what was previously just a theory, a crucially important aspect of weight lifting results.
The idea behind the mind-muscle connection is simple:
If you consciously and deliberately place your attention on the contraction of the primary muscle you are working, the quality of the contraction is enhanced.
In other words, the more your mind is focused on the muscle being work as it contracts, the greater your gains will be.
How Muscle Movement Works In Your Body
Your brain and nervous system create and improve the quality of the movement of muscle fibers that are put into action most often, and studies have shown that placing mental attention on your muscles as they're contracting literally causes a higher percentage of the muscle fibers that you're aiming to use for the movement to 'activate.'
Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to move.
The more active mental attention your bring to the muscle that's being contracted, the more acetylcholine that's produced, leading to an enhanced quality in the contraction.
So, the more you bring an active attention to the muscle being worked, the contraction in each and every rep, the more acetylcholine that’s produced.
The more acetylcholine that’s produced, the better the contraction, and better the gains.
So focused attention is very, very important.
Think About It Logically
You can’t study when your mind is wandering, right?
You can’t be productive when your thoughts aren’t with what you’re doing.
Working with the body in weightlifting is no different - active attention on what you’re doing is very important.
When we're working out, our attention is usually in one of the following places:
On looking at ourselves in the mirror to see how we look
On our form
On how I'm being perceived by other people in the gym
Whether the weight I'm using is too heavy and I can even complete my set or the next rep
Somewhere else entirely - outside the gym
There's nothing necessarily wrong with not having your attention on the outside, especially if it's on making sure you have proper form (form trumps EVERYTHING - without proper form, you can't get the right primary muscle to contract properly anyways because you're compensating with other muscles).
But bringing your mental attention inwards to your contracting muscles can make an enormous difference in the quality of your workouts.
Mental attention is an important aspect of getting anything done as efficiently and properly as possible.
When your brain and your body are working closely together, there is an increase in the quality of your action.
This seems to be a fact in all aspects of life.
How To Enhance Your Mind-Muscle Connection
It's all about activating the right muscle to complete the movement you're doing.
If you want to do a chest workout, then your chest should be the primary muscle that's firing. If you're using too much of your shoulders and triceps to complete what should be primarily chest movements, then you're not maximizing the output of your chest in an exercise.
It's simple in this way - we want to make sure that the muscle we're working is by far outweighs any supporting muscles that may help complete a movement.
There are a couple of things you can do to work on your mind-muscle connection during your workouts.
Firstly, before you go for heavier sets in an exercise, perform the movement with a really light weight to make sure your form is right, and to really just become aware of the exact movement that makes you feel the best contraction in the muscle you want to work.
For example, straighten your wrists, play around with moving your elbows closer to and away from your body -- do different things to just find the exact movement that makes you FEEL IT THE MOST where you're intending to feel it.
Once you've felt the right muscle contract and you know the movement that leads to the best contraction, use these four words to guide every rep:
The key to improving the mind-muscle connection in your workouts is by emphasizing the resistance portion of each rep you complete.
What I mean is this, let's say you're doing a bench press. You know how it works, you lift the bar off the grips and you press up and down.
On the bench press, the first part of the movement is the push upwards - the non-resistance portion.
You always want to:
FAST: Perform the initial press upwards relatively quickly,
HOLD: Squeeze and hold for .5-1 seconds at the climax of the movement - (at the top when benching when arms are straight out),
SLOW: Resist the bar coming down to really feel the muscle fibers stretching as much as possible (take somewhere from 1-3 seconds to allow the bar to come down)
Repeat the quick push up, hold and squeeze as if you were flexing the muscle as much as you possibly can, and resist on the way down.
Using this slow, resistance-based approach to each rep allows you to keep your mental attention on how your muscle is moving, whether the muscle fibers are stretching, and contracting the chest throughout each part of the movement.
The same approach can be used for each individual exercise, regardless of muscle. Hold and squeeze at the climax, and slow on the resistance.
Short Note On Lifting Heavy
One simple thing I want to quickly touch on is using weights that allow you to keep your attention in the contraction of your muscles.
When you go too heavy, your mind goes directly to whether you can actually complete the set or rep you're doing. In short, using too heavy of a weight hijacks your mental attention.
I'm not saying don't go for heavier, short-rep sets. Go for it once or twice in each exercise, but make sure you have 2-3 sets per exercise where you're using a weight you're comfortable with completing 6, 8, 10, 12, or 15 reps properly and with attention.
I Learned The Hard Way How The Mind-Muscle Connection Can Be 'Turned Off' Completely
I recently suffered a complete tear to my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee. After I had surgery to repair the knee, I didn't use my right leg at all for 4 weeks.
Within this short 4 week period, not only did my entire right leg shrink to about 1/3rd of the size of my normal left leg, but when I started doing physical therapy, I couldn't really flex any of the muscles in my leg.
I'm a pretty big guy - I've been lifting for years and my legs had some real size to them.
But after this four week period, my leg looked like it belonged to my 14 year old body, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't feel the contraction in my leg muscles when I tried to flex them.
Take a second to straighten one of your legs right now and flex your quadriceps muscle. It isn't a difficult thing to do because it's a huge muscle that we all use every single day. You can clearly feel the muscle contract and harden when you flex it.
The pure shrinking of my leg and the inability to flex any of my muscles kind of freaked me out, and when I brought it up to my physical therapist she told me that when a muscle isn't used at all for a period of time, the signals from the brain to the muscle deteriorate, leading to the inability to contract the muscles.
After 3.5 months, the connection seems about 60% of the way back, but certain muscles still haven't really come to life yet!
Paying Attention to the Inner & Outer Environment
Mindfulness is an important aspect of every workout.
Not just for the mind-muscle connection, but also to understand your own internal limits of intensity, for safety, and respect.
Internally, what am I working with?
There’s the struggle to reach my physical limit, which my psychological laziness can pull me from - where I know for a fact I’m not working hard enough because I’m wasting time, taking too long of breaks, etc.
I need to constantly work against this.
There is also the internal consideration about what I look like. I have to keep in mind that how others are perceiving me is useless to the quality of my workout (unless its positive because it helps me work even harder).
Everybody at the gym is there to do their own thing, worried about how they look. Worry about the workout, not what people are thinking about you!
Externally, I find myself in this place, a gym.
I’m not the only one here.
I need to understand that I am in relationship to this place, to the people here, to the equipment.
I need to bring an attitude of respect that will increase the quality of my workout.
A respect for the work I’m doing on my own body - not to waste the time I spend. A respect for the safety of my own body and the other people working out around me. And a respect for the gym itself, the staff, and the equipment.
The main thing is, I have to constantly bring my attention back into the gym when my thoughts slip away.
Focusing and understanding what I’m doing will show me how to improve and increase the intensity of every workout.
Bring the importance of the mind-muscle connection to your attention at the very beginning of every workout and try to remember it throughout each set.
The Weightlifting Gym Buddy Journal
One simple way to remove all excess mental drama of the mind during a workout is to have your complete workout pre-planned so you don't have to do any thinking on the spot.
That's why we created The Weightlifting Gym Buddy Journal - to literally be your A-Z personal trainer for 12 weeks.
It's a complete 12-week personal training program aimed at helping you have the best workouts of your life.
The journal is designed to accompany you to the gym, to help you track your weight/reps for each workout, and to help you compete against yourself every workout.