The mind-muscle connection: How to lift with your head
May 12, 2017
Q: When you need to complete virtually any activity in life, what is the control center that determines, activates, and initiates the response?
A: Your Noggin, Your Mainframe, Your Brain!
When hopping out of bed in the morning, driving your car, or walking to work (although often times this is done on autopilot), all of these functions are activated by your brain. Within your brain, you have the cerebellum that governs muscular control and the cerebrum that determines the choices and patterning of muscular movements. Through neurological connections these areas of your brain work synergistically alongside the rest of your nervous system to cause chemical reactions in your muscle cells, making them contract and ultimately generating muscular movement. All of this happens almost instantaneously and automatically without any thought!
Our brain is an amazing piece of kit and controls almost everything we do on a daily basis, but can we harness its power in the gym to communicate with our muscles to help us grow and get stronger?
What is the mind-muscle connection?
Simply put, the term “mind-muscle connection” is the ability to visualize or be mindful of the muscle you’re training in an exercise. The term was popularized in the 1970’s and 80’s by famous bodybuilders like Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The mind-muscle connection or neuromuscular innervation theory is that by focusing on the specific muscle group(s) you want to activate in an exercise, you will be able to increase the number of neurons firing which in turn increases the number of muscle fibers recruited during each contraction. Greater muscle recruitment leads to greater tension and more metabolic stress, all of which contribute to the main objective of muscle growth.
Bro-science or evidence-based?
Apart from anecdotal evidence, or the visually evident muscle growth achieved by bodybuilders who promote using the mind-muscle connection, is there any scientific evidence for its use, or is it a myth?
A recent study by Calatayud et al. in 2016 revealed that subjects who used ‘internal focus’ (thinking, visualising muscle contraction), after verbal instruction (external focus) to “focus on the chest” or “focus on the triceps” during a bench press, experienced a higher acute muscle activation of the target muscle group, without a reduction in activation of the other . This was found using loads of up to 60% of the subjects 1Rep Max. In this case, bro-science is confirmed by laboratory evidence and the mind-muscle connection definitely contributes to increased muscle growth.
However, the use of internal focuses alone, although positive for bodybuilding with relatively low intensities could possibly stimulate the co-contraction in antagonist muscle groups . This potentially would reduce the performance in multi-joint motor skills or in higher intensity exercises requiring greater force production, making it less applicable to those competing in more power-based activities.
To help mitigate the negative side effects of the co-contraction of antagonists, and force reduction using internal focus alone, the use of external focuses (focusing on the bar movement) more commonly seen in the sporting world as ‘coaching cues’ can be utilized to elicit larger muscular activation even at higher intensities.
For example, the internal focus for the pectoralis major during a bench press could be – “In this set, focus on using your chest”, while the external focus would be “In this set, try to bend the barbell inwards”. The internal focus for the triceps, on the other hand, could be “In this set, focus on using your triceps”, while the external focus would be “In this set, try to pull the bar apart” .
Done correctly, the combination of external and internal foci increases a muscle group’s activation levels during an exercise, which is advantageous for not just hypertrophy with relatively low loads, but also in more demanding physical activities.
Practical implications: Form follows function
Our bodies are designed to adapt to stress, which is how our species survives. If we are put into a new environment, our bodies will adjust within a matter of days or weeks to function in these new conditions. This principle also applies to your training, especially when it comes to muscle activation and learning or relearning movement patterns.
Take for example the novice lifter using a lat pulldown machine for the first time without any guidance. Initially, the movement is completed with a joint-stressing, jerky backward full-body lurch and lean, which is the easiest way the lifter can find to move the load.
This full-body jerk and lean method is going to have very little return in the way of muscle growth or sustainable progression and will most likely lead to injury. The mistake here is focusing solely on the objective of ‘moving the weight’, without any consideration for the muscle groups required to perform the action.
With a lighter weight or regression exercise such as a resistance band pull-down, the use of internal focus “pull with the lat muscles” and an external focus “use you arms as hooks and try to get the top of your shoulders in your back pockets” the lifter can initiate the muscle groups required to stabilise and perform the exercise.
Over time, the correct movement pattern will become ingrained and with the development of the appropriate musculature, the lifter will be able to move heavier weights and gain better results with less risk of injury!
Leave your ego at the door!
The previous section is not only for individuals new to resistance training. The vast majority of regular gym goers are just going through the motions once they enter the gym, lifting heavy weights, with awful form just to boost their egos as opposed to developing and growing their muscles. Remember you're in the gym to develop strength not to demonstrate it! Also please keep in mind that strength training without the full range of movement worsens dysfunctionality!
Poor form generally comes down to the inability of the individual to activate the appropriate muscle groups for an exercise or because they’re lifting with their egos (too heavy a weight). The secondary muscles start to come into use to perform the repetitions, leading to the load being moved to the wrong areas like your soft tissue – this is the fast track to injury!
Using the correct movement patterns activates the correct muscles in the correct sequence and improves your form and performance more quickly. Don’t just look to move the weights, see them as a tool to help you contract the muscles properly.
Tips to establish a mind-muscle connection
Tip #1 – Muscle tapping
The light tapping or poking of the muscle you are working will increase your ability to focus on the muscle and accelerate motor learning. This may require a training partner or spotter for some exercises, for example tapping the clavicle head of the chest when performing incline bench press.
You can try this method on yourself when working unilaterally. For example, when you are performing single arm bicep curls on a low pulley, your free hand can tap the short head (inner peak) of your biceps to improve the mind-muscle connection.
Tip #2 – Warm-up activation
Using a warm up routine such as the R.A.M.P method will help stimulate the muscles required to perform the movement correctly. If you have a weakness or inability to fire a certain muscle group during a lift, use the warm up as an opportunity to fix this problem by introducing some dynamic activation exercises.
One of the most common issues I see amongst gym users is their inability to activate their posterior chain during heavy compound exercises such as the squat and the deadlift.
The use of body weight or resistance band activation exercises like the single leg glute bridge, goblet squat or Nordic hamstring curl can be useful tools to help wake up the muscle groups where you want to feel the contractions during your big lifts
Tip #3 – Flex & pose
Posing or flexing in front of a mirror isn’t only for people in skimpy pants or for attention seekers. The ability to flex individual muscle(s) enhances your ability to form an internal connection with the specific muscle group. Learning how it feels contracted from posing will have a surprising transfer to your ability to establish a mind-muscle connection in your training sessions.
Tip #4 - Slow down
Slow down, and pay close attention to how the muscles feel when you perform an exercise. If you want to learn how to get the activation needed for full recruitment, remove your ego, lighten the load and use a slow controlled tempo. Focus on getting the muscles you want firing with sets of 15-20 reps. If you were working your chest introduce a few light sets of cable chest flies or neutral grip dumbbell presses. Then move onto the main lift and see if you notice a difference in your muscle recruitment.
Have a go at establishing a mind-muscle connection in your next workout; whether it's firing inactive glutes or blowing up your biceps I'm sure that it can help you make great strides towards your fitness goal!
1. Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M.D., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Colado, J.C. and Andersen, L.L., 2016. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European journal of applied physiology, 116(3), pp.527-533.
2. Wulf, G., 2013. Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), pp.77-104.
3. Halperin, I. and Vigotsky, A.D., 2016. The mind–muscle connection in resistance training: friend or foe?. European journal of applied physiology, 116(4), pp.863-864