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March 01, 2022
Want the easiest way to maximize progressive overload with your hypertrophy training without needing to add any weight to the bar? We will assume so, which is why we’re going to talk to you about how you can use what’s called a mind-muscle connection to maximize your gains in the gym.
The mind-muscle connection phenomenon is one of those “sounds too good to be true” things that are actually true. It’s been used for decades by bodybuilders, and science has now proven it to be a legitimately effective method of training.
That’s why we’re going to tell you precisely what you need to do to maximize this little piece of lifting magic.
In this article, you’ll learn:
Let’s examine how the power of the mind can enhance the power of our muscles.
So what is “a mind-muscle” connection? Quite simply, it’s a training method usually seen in the bodybuilding community that seeks to use directed focus to increase muscle activation. The theory is that if you think about a muscle when you do an exercise, you are going to use greater activation. While it may seem a bit silly at first, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Our brain is the control center for every single contraction that happens in our body. Even if you’re not thinking about your biceps during a bicep curl, your brain definitely is subconsciously.
Imagine if we actively thought about every single muscle when we walked! The point being is that even when we’re not thinking about a muscle that’s contracting, our brains are still sending the required signals as it’s literally the control center for every action. So, in this sense, we always have a mind-muscle connection as it’s required!
This simple concept has gotten sports researchers thinking “since our brain ultimately controls muscle contraction, what if we just think about it?
The mind-muscle connection can sound a little bit like bro-science to some due to its heavy use in the bodybuilding community. However, make no mistake about it; the mind-muscle connection is 100% a real phenomenon that has been proven by science to be an effective means to increase hypertrophy.
One of the best examples of this whole concept is that of “no-load” training. No-load training is a relatively new field of research that aims to see if a trainee can elicit gains in hypertrophy with no load. Basically, this means that a person will produce powerful contractions with their minds while working through an exercise’s full range of motion.
For example, a person might pretend like they’re performing a pull-up by bringing their arms above their heads and then pulling down slowly in the same manner as if they’re actually doing a pull-up. Oftentimes the person will also visualize they are actually pulling on some sort of resistance and yes, it works.
One of the newer studies (again, this is a new area of research) compared the “no-load” training vs. a load of 70% 1RM during elbow flexion exercises. What they found is kind of crazy. While the “no-load” training wasn’t able to produce similar gains in strength, the alterations in muscle growth were nearly identical! This was so striking that the study claimed, “Muscle growth can occur independently of the external load provided sufficient tension is produced by the muscle.”
Now we’re not saying don’t use an external load, we’re just illustrating how powerful our mind actually is!
This begs the question, “if only using your mind can produce similar results to using a load, what would happen if you used a load AND your mind?”
Another study attempted to answer this and used a mind-muscle connection during the bench press. In this study, a trainee performed the bench press while directing focus towards the triceps on some sets and the chest on others. Their findings indicate that some muscles may respond better than others. In this study, while the triceps saw greater activation, the pectorals did not.
A similar study was conducted, and they too came to the same findings; while the triceps saw greater activation, the focus had little effect on the pectorals. This suggests that perhaps the mind-muscle connection is optimized when used to increase the activation of the smaller muscle groups. Or maybe when doing smaller isolation exercises.
However, yet another study again used bench press to test the mind-muscle connection and its effect on the pectoral muscles and triceps. They found that there was significantly greater activation in both the groups of muscles with one caveat; loads of <60% 1RM must be used. While greater activation was seen in the pectorals at 60%1RM, none was seen when the load was bumped up to 80%. This makes sense as since you are starting to use greater loads; your muscles will naturally utilize greater muscle activation, at least in the primary movers.
We can draw two guidelines from the above studies to optimize the mind-muscle connection:
Creating a mind-muscle connection is a simple concept yet is a bit more involved than just thinking about your muscle. There are three primary methods when trying to establish a strong mind-muscle connection. Then within these overarching categories, there are numerous other tips and practices to follow, all of which could be used to create a more muscular muscle contraction.
First, let’s go over the three primary methods:
1. Internal Focus
Internal focus is one of the primary means to use mind-muscle connections and is really at the heart of establishing a mind-muscle connection. This simply means that while you are lifting, you will direct your attention to a specific muscle as a means to acquire higher activation. When we train a muscle by lifting weights, our muscles don’t always need to fire at maximal intensity. In fact, they rarely ever do. In reality, if left to their own devices, a muscle uses the minimum amount of force necessary to get a job done. This makes sense as it would not be very efficient to have all muscle fibers fire maximally for each movement.
In fact, this is the underlying concept of muscle recruitment theory. Our muscles can learn to recruit larger muscle fibers before smaller ones; in other words, our bodies learn to skip smaller muscle fibers when high forces are needed. Point being is that our muscles will not use more muscle activation than necessary.
Internal focus simply means that you focus on a muscle and are instructing it to work harder. It works and is the key to the mind muscle connection.
2. Using Verbal Cues
Verbal cues have often been shown to be an effective method to establish a mind-muscle connection. In fact, several of the studies we mentioned used this method in their studies. Verbal cues can come from either yourself or from a coach or workout buddy. Either way, at the end of the day, its mechanism of action is simply helping to establish that focus needed for an optimal mind-muscle connection. Further, you can (and should!) use vocal cues with the internal focus for optimal focus!
3. Touching The Muscle
Not often talked about, touching a muscle is a great way to establish a mind-muscle connection. Feeling your muscle contract is a terrific way to actually feel your muscles working and pinpoint exactly what you want to happen. Further, this can be used in conjunction with the other two methods. For example, let’s pretend you are doing side crunches. As one hand is reaching down to the side, place your other hand on your obliques. Concentrate on squeezing your obliques while feeling them contract when you come up. This is a great way to add a physical cue and really feel your muscles working.
While the top three went over the basic mechanisms which help establish a mind-muscle connection, here are the best specific practices you can do to create a connection with your mind that will seriously increase the intensity:
1. Watch Yourself Train In A Mirror
Let’s get one thing straight. There is nothing wrong with looking at yourself in the mirror…within reason. We all go to the gym to look better, and looking at what you’ve accomplished is a great motivator, perhaps the best. Now obviously, we need to be considerate of others in the gym but getting a pump and admiring your glorious gains is what gym lightning was made for. Plus, we all do it. And if you say you don’t, you do so, but you’re just lying about it.
Anyways, next time you’re doing some dumbbell work, go stare at yourself in the mirror but specifically look at the muscle you want to isolate with your mind. This method works better if you can actually see it, such as your delts or a bulge in your biceps. Regardless, really look at it to help you concentrate on what you want to work out. Further, as you start getting a pump, you’ll actually see this muscle grow, which only magnifies your ability to establish that mind-muscle connection.
And remember...stare at yourself with no shame!!!! You worked for that!
2. Use Tempo Reps
By their very nature, temp reps force you to slow down for serious time under tension (TUT) and concentrate on the movement regardless of whether you want to or not. Forcing yourself to follow a predetermined time will cause you to think about the muscle so that you are able to control how much it moves. Therefore, once you add in some internal focus, tempo reps will suddenly increase in intensity, even though you already thought they couldn’t get tougher.
Again, using tempo reps forces you to slow down and really think about what you’re doing. At the end of the day, this is really what establishing a mind-muscle connection is all about; training you to be intentional with your movements rather than just knocking out a certain number of reps.
3. Flex Your Muscles Between Sets
Going back to the vanity thing, flexing between sets is another common practice that many trainees can take as conceited. Well, there might be a bit of that by flexing in between sets is an old practice and has even been popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger. That being said, we need to realize that there’s actually a science to back this method up…kind of.
When Arnold and other early bodybuilders talked about flexing in between sets, the rationale was that it would flood the muscle with blood or something of that nature. While this doesn’t really add up, we need to remember that flexing is nothing more than an isometric contraction which is basically what we looked at above with the “no-load” training. Still, another exercise study that specifically used flexing was conducted in 2014 and again found improvements to muscle thickness in the biceps and triceps. Therefore, the case for isometric contractions with no load definitely has been backed by science. Further, we have to keep in mind that we are just wanting to improve our mind-muscle connection and flexing forces us to do that.
That being said, only one study (that we know of) has looked explicitly at flexing in between sets. Unfortunately, the results weren’t great and saw no increase in most of the muscles measured and actually saw a decrease in lower body strength. Not good. However, we should note that they held contractions for 30 seconds in between sets. This is significantly longer than the flexing test in 2014, which used pulses of 4 seconds on and 4 seconds off. Still, we need to keep in mind that we are trying to improve that mind-muscle connection. Therefore, if you want to give this a shot, we would recommend using a much shorter time when flexing in between sets; or possibly even doing a few pulses.
4. Use Light Weight
One of the largest factors in establishing a mind-muscle connection is to use a lighter load. Remember, if you use too heavy of a load, it will be too heavy to elicit higher activation. Further, when you are lifting heavy, the last thing you want to do is go really slow nor think about the contraction. On the other hand, using a lighter weight gives you the ability to really focus on your muscles. At this point, we should mention that most of the benefits coming from the mind-muscle contraction are associated with muscle hypertrophy anyway. While the mind-muscle connection doesn’t seem to be as important for strength, don’t worry, we have an entire article that tells you exactly what to do for strength training. Therefore, use light weight for your hypertrophy work to really optimize the benefits of a mind-muscle connection.
5. Visualize Your Muscle Contracting
Haven’t we already talked about visualizing? Yes, we have, but here, we are literally talking about thinking of your muscle fibers pulling on one another as they shorten to pull the muscle. Visualize your muscles stretching during the eccentric contraction as your muscle fibers are pulled apart. This is a great way to really increase your focus as you’re actually visualizing the muscle work mechanically in response to the load. It’s pretty hard to concentrate more than visualize your muscle cells stretching and morphing.
If you haven’t been using the power of your brain for increased gains then you’ve been missing out. Maybe you thought it was just bro-science or perhaps you just thought it didn’t work. Well, it does. And it’s awesome. Being able to create a mind-muscle connection is 100% and 100% effective as long as you have the right variables down. Again, to sum them up;
Follow those guidelines, and you’ll be harnessing the power of your brain in no time!
Related: Is Muscle Memory Real & How Does It Work?
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