You’ve been on a consistent training plan for months, you’re consuming all the necessary calories, and your sleep schedule is optimal. Why are you still not gaining muscle? One of the most ignored aspects of training is mind-muscle connection and is also a big reason many fall short when it comes to muscle building.
Learning how the mind and muscles work together is one of the first things people that train should understand. The rest of it, such as the actual exercise or meal plan, should come after.
What Is Mind Muscle Connection
Mind muscle connection is a connection between the mind and the muscle - and it’s as simple and as hard as that. You might already know that the brain controls the muscle and joints but might not know how it actually works.
Let’s break it down.
Physiologically, there is a literal connection between the mind and muscle. When you think about the outside of your brain, you have something called the motor cortex (which is attached to the cortex) that is connected to your neurons, which are what send messages throughout your body. The neurons that are connected to the spinal cord are also tied to various muscles, which is what makes them contract. Therefore, in reality, the mind-muscle connection is not anything new nor is it made up. Your brain tells your muscles how to move depending on the resistance placed upon them.
Every muscle does not have only one connection to the brain, some connections are larger because they recruit more muscle fibers. Muscle form is not uniform, meaning the actual hypertrophy of your bicep does not happen at the same pace on the outer head as it does on the inner head.
It is very important to understand this. Why?
Because it helps you understand that muscle growth does not happen at the same pace and that there are functional compartments within a muscle. You truly do have the capability to craft and shape your muscles the way that you want (ie the notorious bodybuilders). Therefore, The phenomena that play a part in allowing you to focus your attention on a specific muscle is, after all, the mind-muscle connection. The first part is realizing what your intent is with the exercise you are performing, the second part is activating that muscle and feeling it work.
Why Is It So Important
Mind-Muscle Connection can help you get the most out of your workouts.
Working out with less intensity or lighter weight does not mean any less of a workout. Actually, studies have shown that less intensity but more focus on a certain muscle allowed for activation rather than pulling heavyweight with no focus.
What does this mean?
It means that your goal when you lift should not be to increase your weight every day, or even every week. It means you should concentrate on your internal focus and as you practice at it, you will only get better and better and make your lighter days feel heavier.
This connection is also powerful in preventing injury and promoting body symmetry. It’s not uncommon for athletes to feel like one side of their body is stronger than the other, and will often incorporate unilateral exercises to compensate for asymmetry. Using your weaker side by itself during a single-legged deadlift will allow that side to become more activated rather than depending on the other leg. Doing this constantly while focusing on the mind-muscle connection can increase your power and strength on the weaker side.
How To Practice It
You might ask, what do you mean envision my muscle working?
To make it as simple as possible, we mean really focusing on the muscle that you are targeting.
Many of us have the habit of letting our thoughts wander while training and not focusing on what we are really doing. Slanging and clanging heavy weights while training really does you no good if you don’t know how to use them.
While mind-muscle connection sounds easy, for beginners it is a tough phenomenon to grasp. There are a couple of tips we have compiled to help you get started and put it into practice yourself.
Touch the muscle
Sounds simple, but you can always use the “touching” method to try to recruit and focus on the muscle you are working on. This can work really well during unilateral exercises. For example, while performing a one-armed dumbbell curl, you can put the hand of the arm that isn’t working on the forehead of your bicep so as to mentally “isolate” that muscle and ensure it is the one working. Touch is a strong human sense. According to research by Dr. John J. Ratey, small repetitive physical activities can increase the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain in a way that increases our ability to focus and pay attention . This further highlights the notion that a strong correlation exists between our sense of touch and our ability to focus.
A 2009 study done by Snyder and Leech also compared the difference in using touch as an element to increase mind-muscle connection . For example, he had an individual perform a lat pulldown while having another individual put their hands on his lats during the movement. The study found greater activation of the latissimus dorsi when it was being touched rather than when it wasn’t. In other words, next time you’re at the gym, try to practice your activation with a partner or friend by having them using their hands to help you focus on your target muscle.
Close Your Eyes
Another key way to focus our attention on one specific thing, ie a muscle contracting, is by shutting off other senses. An easy and common way to do this is by closing our eyes which can limit a lot of the distractions that our vision can give us, especially when in a busy gym. Closing your eyes during your next set of leg extensions is a simple way to focus on your inner mind and really feel your quadriceps.
Eyes-closed training can also offer motor control benefits because it allows the lifter their posture and alignment to maintain balance. Overall, it requires greater cognitive focus allowing the lifter to perform in better form, producing an overall better athlete. Lift by feel not by sight.
Adding muscle-activation exercises to your warmup is crucial before any lift so as to avoid injury, but also because it can improve the connection to certain muscles. For example, banded air squats or abductioens to prime the glutes for back squats or hip thrusts. Here are some example warm-ups you can do before your lifts:
Back/leg day: Bird dog, goblet squat, lateral lunges, banded lightweight deadlift
Glute&Hamstring day: Banded squats or hip thrusts, walking lunges, glute bridge, hip stretches
Chest Day: Push-up circuit; diamond, wide hand, staggered hand, lightweight barbell press
The Mind Muscle Connection is one of the most important skills for building strength and muscle mass. As with all things in life, the mental aspect is just as important as the physical. Understanding and feeling basic movement patterns are the basics of mind-muscle connection. As long as every action is deliberate and conscious, you are on your way to being a better athlete, competitor, and chasing the physique you’ve been working so hard for.
What do you guys think about the mind-muscle connection? Is this something you incorporate daily, or something new to you? Let us know if you have any questions below.
2] Snyder, B.J and Leech J.R. (2009). The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23 (8), 2204-2209.