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What is mind-muscle connection?

by suhail siddiqui 05 Oct 2023

Gym is a holy place where you worship your body by putting in the effort while performing your workouts. But maybe, in order to feel the burn, you are turning your mind off. If you want the best muscle-building results possible, tuning your brain into your workout might be the most effective way forward, especially if you move in bodybuilding circles. You might have heard about the power of the mind-muscle connection. When lifters refer to the mind-muscle connection, they’re talking about deliberately contracting their muscles while focusing their thoughts on that movement. Instead of letting your mind wander, you’ll be directly visualizing and paying attention to exactly what your muscles are supposed to be doing with each and every rep.

Developing a strong mind-muscle connection is as tough a physical discipline as it is mental. When you’re tuning in that strongly to your workout, there’s no distraction available — it’s just you and the burn. So is cultivating a mind-muscle connection really worth the effort? Read on to find out what this elusive concept can do — and cannot do — for you.

What is the mind-muscle connection?

The mind-muscle connection refers to a lifter’s focus on specific muscle contractions during a given exercise. Performing a biceps curl? You’ll focus on contracting your biceps as hard as you can instead of thinking about how many reps you need to perform, how much weight you’re lifting, or what’s for dinner. Doing a leg extension? Use the same logic. It’s all about concentrating on the concentric (lifting) part of your exercise.
The mind-muscle connection has been linked to an increase in biceps and quadriceps thickness, suggesting that it can help increase hypertrophy. (1) Working to strengthen the connection between your muscles and your mind can also make you stronger and boost overall muscle activation. (2) On top of that, staying focused on what you’re doing will keep you laser-focused on form, which is especially critical when you’re lifting intensely and often.

How does the mind-muscle connection work?

How does the mind-muscle connection actually increase strength and muscle growth? Apparently, it’s all about harnessing the power of your brain to tap into the strength of your muscles.
Focus on contractions
Each of your muscles is made up of muscle fibers that generally contract when your brain signals them to do so. Want to reach across your desk to grab your coffee mug? Your brain tells your arm and hand to do just that, so you do. But once the mug is in your hand, how hard do you squeeze? In general, you’re not going to unleash the full power of your grip strength on your poor coffee mug. Instead, you’ll activate some of your muscle fibers to do only what your body needs to get the job done.

When you’re in the gym, it’s a different story. You want to be contracting your muscles as hard as you can to squeeze the most out of every rep. When you’re thinking about dinner rather than your triceps extensions, you’re likely reaching for your metaphorical coffee mug and not focusing on contracting your muscles as hard as possible. Instead, you might be doing the bare minimum you need to move the weight.

Increase muscle activation

That’s where a finely-tuned mind-muscle connection can come into play. Research suggests that mentally focusing on muscle contractions — even when you’re not physically moving — increases your cortical output (signals from your brain).  This leads to higher levels of muscle activation, which is what you need to maximize your gains. 

This effect is sometimes dependent on how much training experience you have; it seems that the more you train, the more effective the mind-muscle connection can be.  Just like more lifting experience leads to more efficient movement, it seems that a higher training age might lead to more efficient mind-muscle connection and, therefore, greater potential muscle activation.

Mind-muscle connection myths

The mind-muscle connection might sound like a full proof way to become the best lifter in your gym. And while it might help you get closer to your goals, it’s not the end-all-be-all. Here are some mind-muscle connection myths that need to be busted.
Myth: it works the same for everyone
Research suggests: working to develop the mind-muscle connection doesn’t increase everyone’s muscle activation at the same rate — or even at all.  Different methods of training work for different people, so what works for your gym buddy or your favourite bodybuilder might not work for you.
Myth: beginners should focus on the mind-muscle connection
Research suggests: the mind-muscle connection does not necessarily improve the performance or muscle activation of novice lifters. When a beginner is focused on learning an exercise or adjusting to lifting new loads, focusing on an advanced set of cues may actually be distracting or detract from the purpose of the mind-muscle connection. 
Further, it seems that developing an effective mind-muscle connection with smaller muscle groups may become more effective as a person gains more experience with training. As a beginner, it might not help you to focus on your triceps during a push-up as much as it would on your chest. If you do want to try working to develop your mind-muscle connection as a beginner, it might be better to start with larger muscle groups.
Myth: it’s the same for every exercise
Research suggests: what you focus on to cultivate your mind-muscle connection changes depending on what kind of exercise you’re doing and what muscle group you’re targeting. Working with single-joint movements to focus on a smaller muscle group? Focus on the muscle itself for maximum effectiveness.
On the other hand, the mind-muscle connection may be less helpful with big compound movements. Multi-joint moves focused on larger muscles like your quads might have a better outcome when you focus on external factors like completing one solid rep at a time. When you’re squatting, you don’t want to be focusing solely on squeezing your glutes. Instead, try focusing on an external factor, like completing this next rep or moving quickly out of the hole.
Myth: it makes you stronger
Research suggests: Some research has found that focusing on the mind-muscle connection can help improve strength. However, other research shows that the potential mind-muscle connection benefits may disappear when you lift heavy weights (around 80 percent or higher of your one-rep max). 
That might be because when it comes to the heaviest weights, you’re more likely to be performing multi-joint compound moves, for which the mind-muscle connection is just less effective. 

How can you develop a better mind-muscle connection?

You’re ready to integrate more of your mind into your muscle work. Here are some ways to get an even better pump — and be well on your way to bigger gains.
Choose the right exercises.

If you’re looking to turn the focus inward, choose single-joint exercises instead of compound ones. Some research suggests that focusing on your chest during bench pressing makes less of a difference than focusing on your triceps. So, with compound pressing, it might be more effective to focus on smaller muscle groups.
Perhaps even better, when you’re performing compound lifts, research points to focusing on external cues rather than internal ones. Think “bar close to the body” while deadlifting or “one more rep” during that endless squat session instead of focusing on your muscles contracting.
Warm up for each exercise.
Hopefully, you’re warming up before your overall workout. A dynamic warm-up will help get your blood flowing and activate the general muscles you need for your training session. In addition to your general warm-up, you likely have specific warm-ups for your heavy barbell lifts. For example, you may add in a few extra lunges to open up your hips before squatting. Then, you likely perform ramp-up sets to finish getting warm specifically for your heavy sets.
However, you might skip the ramp-up sets for single-joint moves like biceps curls and triceps extensions. When you’re training to develop your mind-muscle connection, warm up for each exercise. That may mean ramp-up sets to get your blood flowing specifically to the part of your body where you’re about to work. It may also mean flexing that muscle area to prepare your mind and body for the pump. Warming up specifically for single-joint moves might take some getting used to, but it’ll help cultivate your mind-muscle connection.
Lift light
Don’t worry too much if you’re trying to train multiple muscles at once. Increasing your focus on the target muscle doesn’t necessarily decrease the activation of other muscles in the lift. 
Focusing on your triceps during the bench press might actually increase your chest activation along with your triceps activation.
Additionally, you’ll want to keep the weight low — between 20 and 60 percent of your one-rep max — rather than slapping on as many plates as possible. Lifting heavier — around 80 percent of your max — can cancel out the potential benefits of focusing on your muscle contractions.
Move slowly
You can’t move slowly when you’re performing a snatch or clean and jerk. But you can move as slowly as you’d like during your leg extensions. The single-joint moves that you’ll use to cultivate your mind-muscle connection are ripe for tempo training, which increases your time under tension. The more time under tension you have, the better you’re able to really feel each rep. And feeling each rep is what your mind-muscle connection is all about.
No mirrors
Instead of focusing on how your muscles look in the mirror, turn away from your reflection. Focus instead on how your muscles feel through the full range of motion. With smaller muscle groups — or more isolated moves for your quads, like leg extensions — concentrate on contracting your muscles to the max for the movement rather than for the appearance of that peak biceps rounding.
That said, if you’re performing a power-based movement or a full-body barbell move like the squat, research suggests that you should focus on external cues like “one rep at a time” instead of how the lift feels. (1)(8) but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to be staring in the mirror during big lifts, either. Looking up during your squat or deadlift can slacken the tension in your back muscles, and you want all of that focused on your lift.
Flex between sets
Developing a strong mind-muscle connection is often about turning away from the mirror — but that’s just during your exercise itself. You might still want to flex between sets. Try out your front double biceps pose between your hammer curls. Flexing tends to help you maximize your connection to your muscles because you have a vested interest in calling every part of your body out to the party.
From there, you’ll likely be able to tell if you’ve been utilizing one part of your muscle less than you should during your set. While posing, it’ll show if you haven’t been sufficiently activating the long head of your triceps during those extensions. During the next set, you’ll be able to increase your range of motion and contract your long head accordingly.

Who should use the mind-muscle connection?

Not everybody benefits in the same way from cultivating the mind-muscle connection. If your primary focus is more on big, power-based compound movements than single-joint accessory moves, mind-muscle connection training might not be as useful. And if you’re a beginner, it just might not be as effective. But other groups of lifters can benefit from focusing on their mind-muscle connection.
It makes sense that experienced bodybuilders would focus on the mind-muscle connection perhaps more than any other type of lifter. As a physique athlete, you want to do everything you can to safely increase your muscle mass. Research suggests that the mind-muscle connection can help increase muscle thickness. 
Cultivating a good mind-muscle connection also lends itself well to other bodybuilding techniques, like lifting slowly with a focus on quality reps. The more tuned in you are with your body and internal cues, the more likely you’ll be able to push each set to failure. That’s another tried-and-true muscle-building method for bodybuilders.
Experienced lifters looking to build muscle.
You probably don’t want to hop on board the mind-muscle connection train as a beginner. When you’re just starting out, you pretty much have to think about external cues regarding how you’re moving so that you can master your form. But once you’ve gained more experience, building a strong mind-muscle connection can help you pack more muscle. (1)
The more experience you have in the gym, the more a solid mind-muscle connection can help you increase your muscle thickness and even, to a certain extent, your strength. (7)(6) Once you’ve mastered your form and are ready to integrate bodybuilding strategies like tempo training and failure into your program, try focusing on those sweet contractions for even more gains.
Get Connected
The gym is often a place we go to disconnect — from work struggles to personal stressors, a lot of lifters look forward to leaving them at the gym door. But just because you’re disconnecting from outside-of-the-gym life doesn’t mean you’ve got to disconnect from your own body.
Instead, try maximizing the bond between your brain and body by developing your mind-muscle connection. It’ll keep you focused on your workout and help you build bigger muscles, too. As long as you’ve already got some training experience under your belt, try concentrating on your contractions during your single-joint lifts.
Your mind and muscles will thank you for the extra focus and gains.

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