Our beloved pastime of picking up heavy objects and putting them down again is often deemed a purely physical activity.
But as any experienced lifter will know, strength training and bodybuilding require an immense amount of mental application too.
One such mental aspect of effective training is mind-muscle connection.
But what is a mind-muscle connection? Why is a mind-muscle connection important? And how can you best utilise it to reap the benefits and maximise your gains?
Before we dive in....
A caveat before we dive in – mind muscle connection is more beneficial for hypertrophy training.
If strength training or powerlifting, it’s better to focus more on perfect full body movement and external cues rather than a specific target muscle.
What is mind muscle connection?
A mind muscle connection is a conscious and deliberate muscle contraction.
With the bench press, for example, we want our pectoral muscles to predominantly initiate and control each rep.
We are trying to build our chest, therefore we want as much tension as possible on our chest muscles and away from our triceps and deltoids.
Studies have demonstrated that by more consciously initiating and controlling an exercise with a specific muscle we increase overall muscle activation.
This in turn can lead to greater strength and hypertrophic gains.
Why is mind muscle connection important for weight training?
Numerous studies have shown that by focusing more intently on a specific muscle during an exercise, and consciously feeling the muscle work through a full range of motion, we can increase muscle fibre recruitment and activation.
The more fully and effectively we engage our muscles and increase fibre recruitment and activation, the more they’ll grow.
How to improve mind muscle connection
To help you get on the right foot and build this important mental attribute try incorporating the below tips into your workouts.
The results will be a far greater pump in the gym and far greater gains, longer term.
- Leave your pride at the door, form trumps weight! -
OK, we know we say this a lot. But how you lift is much more important than how much you lift.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but lowering the weight can place more healthy stress on the target muscle and produce more gains. Especially when combined with a slower eccentric tempo (the lengthening of a muscle).
Most exercises require both primary and secondary muscles to perform. If hypertrophy is our goal, then the more we can recruit the primary muscle, taking it away from the secondary muscles, the better
An easy to follow example is the bench press.
We include the bench press in our routines as we want to get a bigger, fuller, well-developed chest. The chest muscles (pectorals) are the primary target muscle, but we also have to utilise both our front deltoids (shoulders) and our triceps (arms) to perform the exercise.
When we go heavy on the bench press our form often suffers and we have to incorporate more deltoid and tricep to complete a rep (how many times have you seen people in the gym struggling with a press and their shoulders are way in front of their chest?).
This can potentially result in less stress on the muscle we want to target, the chest.
For example, if you bench 200lbs but have to incorporate excess deltoid and triceps your chest may only contribute 60% to the movement, your chest is only shifting 120lb.
If, however, you dropped the weight to 175lbs and this allowed you to lift with better form, placing more emphasis on your chest and less on your deltoids and triceps, your chest is now shifting 80% of the weight thus is responsible for lifting 140lbs, 20lb more than with the heavier weight.
Similarly with the Military Press. Being honest with yourself, how often does this move turn into a push press where you incorporate a small squat in your legs to get the weight up overhead?
Yes, the push press has its place, but as a separate dedicated move.
If you are looking to build well-sculpted shoulders perform the military press properly.
Lower the weight and concentrate on initiating the move with your deltoids, keeping your hips level and not using your legs to drive the weight up.
For future workouts try lowering the weight a touch and focusing on initiating and controlling each rep with the primary/target muscle.
Think also about squeezing the target muscle at the top of each rep and holding for a second or 2 before lowering.
You may not shift as much weight in the short term, but you will increase the tension on the target muscle and see improved growth.
Plus you will see an increase in strength over the long term and likely blow past your previous PRs but with greatly improved form.
- Use warm up sets to ensure target muscle activation -
Another good cue to ‘feel’ the target muscle and build a strong mind muscle connection is with the use of warm-up sets.
Preparing your body with a few sets that you can lift comfortably helps ensure you are both initiating and controlling a movement with the target muscle. This helps ‘oil the groove’ for your working sets by preparing the target muscle for the work ahead.
For your main lifts complete 1-2 light sets and then gradually increase the weight until you reach your working weight and then complete your programmed sets.
- Flex between sets -
Ok, this one may feel a little showoff-ish, but flexing or tensing the target muscle between sets is another great way to ‘feel’ it and build a stronger mind-muscle connection.
Upon completing a set, contract or tense the target muscle for a count of 10 during your prescribed rest period.
This works especially well with isolation exercises, bicep curls, calf raises, tricep pushdowns, etc.
- Experiment with lifting tempo -
Tempo is the speed at which you perform the various stages of a rep.
It comprises both the concentric phase (the shortening of the muscle) and the eccentric phase (the lengthening of the muscle) as well as the time you pause at the ‘start’ and ‘end’ position of an exercise.
Slowing things down can promote better form and will also increase time under tension which is vital to maximise muscle growth.
It is most beneficial to slow down the eccentric element of a movement, this is usually the lowering stage.
You will also find you are far stronger during this portion of a lift thus can take additional strain.
Try adding a 3-5 second eccentric count on one or more of your exercises.
If done correctly, it will burn…a lot! But, the increased time under tension will pay huge dividends in the long run.
Ensure also that you’re using a full range of motion and try pausing for a full second between each rep.
This removes momentum and helps you get used to initiating moves with the target muscle, which in turn helps build a stronger mind muscle connection.
Mind muscle connection may seem a nebulous concept, but it is really just about being more acutely aware of how you are performing an exercise and trying to maximise the load on the target muscle.
Incorporate our tips into your workouts and feel your mind muscle connection solidify. The results will be a far increased pump in the gym and much improved gains long term.