Have you ever heard people talk about the mind-muscle connection? You probably have but have you ever put much thought into it? Do you understand what it means? Do you understand the benefits of it and its importance when it comes to bodybuilding? I personally had heard of it before, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I ever really put much stock in it. Ever since I made that connection, I’ve noticed a big difference in targeting the right muscles while lifting.
So what is the mind-muscle connection? To me it’s the simple act of concentrating hard on whatever muscle group it is you are working on in a particular lift. Say for instance you are working on the incline dumbbell press. Are you more worried about getting the weight up and doing as many reps as possible or are you worried about really working and feeling it in your chest? When I start thinking hard about working my chest muscles during the lift, I notice a much better contraction and burn in the chest. I feel like I’m using the assistance muscles less and what I’m trying to work more. It’s really amazing the difference I feel just from the simple act of thinking hard about the muscle group I’m trying to target during a lift.
This really came into play when I started doing a lot more constant tension training. When you keep your muscles under constant tension they never get a break during the lift (hence constant tension.) That burning sensation you get hits you deeply in whatever muscle group you are working when you focus intensely on that muscle group and that muscle group only. With constant tension I get that burn about halfway through the set and it increases with each rep. However, with the lighter weight I’m able to continue much longer than it even seems possible most of the time. When I make that mind-muscle connection, it gets pretty intense.
Before I go too much further, let’s talk briefly about why that burning sensation is such a good thing. That burning you get when lifting is lactic acid building up. Contrary to what you sometimes hear, this is not a bad thing. I feel like lactic acid has gotten a bad rap and is largely misunderstood. The more it burns when you are lifting, the more lactic acid is building up in the muscles you are working. When lactic acid is building up, that means growth hormone will be released right behind it to aid in the recovery. I think we all know how important growth hormone is when it comes to bodybuilding. The more it burns, the more lactic acid that is present. So the longer you can remain working while it’s burning, the more likely you are to get results. Lactic acid has also been shown to increase testosterone production, another hormone we certainly want for building muscle.
A recent study at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation found that just thinking about exercise helped maintain muscle strength in a group 30 healthy subjects. In fact they split it into 3 groups. Group 1 imagined exercising their little finger muscle, group 2 imagined exercising their biceps and group 3, the control group, did no imaginary exercises. The study actually found that group 1 increased strength in their little finger by 35%, group 2 increased strength in their biceps by 13.5 percent and group 3 showed no significant change in strength. What they concluded was the mental stimulation helped drive the muscles to a higher activation level and increases in strength.
Obviously imagining exercise is no substitute for actual training, but if just thinking about doing it can help your muscles, imagine what thinking hard about your muscles while training can do. Feel every inch of the range of motion from start to finish. From stretch to contraction and back to stretch again. The connection between your muscles and your nervous system will not only help you feel your muscles better, but also help you recruit more muscle fibers.
Now that I have that cleared up let’s get back to the mind-muscle connection. I don’t want you to think this is some great mind over matter mystery, or that you need to be in some deep mental place. Certainly you need to be focused, but at the same time it’s quite simply keeping your mind on the muscle you are working. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can feel the muscle when you are really concentrating on it. Concentrate on squeezing it hard at peak contraction and keeping control of it on the eccentric portion. The entire time keeping your mind on the targeted muscles. You won’t be able to lift as much weight like this, but if hypertrophy is important to you, as the saying goes, leave your ego at the door.
I personally think the mind-muscle connection can benefit people during back exercises more than any other muscle group. It’s so easy to let your arms do all the work when doing pulling exercises and I also feel like it’s harder to really feel your back working than it is say your chest, at least for me anyway. Do you notice your biceps getting tired before your back does on your back workouts? If so the mind-muscle connection could be of real help to you. If you can think about really squeezing with your back muscles and intentionally relaxing the muscles you aren’t working, you’ll have a better chance at targeting what you came to do. It may sound weird, but if you struggle with feeling your back, think about pushing down with your elbows during pulling exercises. It may help you make that connection.
There are so many people I see out there who do everything they can to get the weight up at all costs. Don’t get me wrong, I think forced reps have a place with certain exercises, but only on lifts where it’s safe and it certainly shouldn’t be all the time. Sure you could stack up the weight, swing, jerk and thrash your way to personal records, but you’re doing so at the risk of not only injury but also less targeted muscle gains. Don’t short change your results. Think about the muscle you are working and don’t let anything else get involved that’s not supposed to. That’s why you need to use less weight, because you are removing the assistance muscles as much as possible.
Getting into the right mental state for lifting is important and establishing a good mind-muscle connection can really help bring our bodies to the next level. There is definitely a big difference between moving the weight from point A to point B and feeling the targeted muscles being worked during that same lift. Make the connection between your mind and your muscles and start lifting your way to greater success! You may be surprised how big of a difference it can really make.