What is the mind-muscle connection?
When I first started training (30 years ago) I knew nothing of this subject.
For me lifting weights consisted of reps and sets.
The most I would engage my mind was to correct my stance/posture, but let’s be honest the massive amounts of testosterone and bravado back then, even that was at times an afterthought.
However, as the years passed and I started to experiment with my training.
I noticed I really liked training chest, arms, shoulders and legs, but my back / lats were a different thing altogether.
It took me years to realise, I was struggling because in the early years I relied on the mirror to engage the muscle, and visual cues (like veins popping) to know I was hitting the muscle.
The back however, I couldn’t see so the connection was not there.
The power of the mind over muscle
Before I go further, I think it is important to mention the mind muscle connection isn’t a bodybuilding phenomenon.
As far back as Buddha, there was an awareness of the power the mind
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.Buddha
The connection between thinking about movement and actual movement was highlighted in the late 1800’s by William James, considered as the father of American psychology.
He showed the act of doing a physical activity and thinking of the activity appear the same within the brain.
One final note on the power of the mind, involved an experiment where people thought themselves skinnier and healthier.
A Harvard psychologist and a group of mostly overweight hotel maids. Despite exceeding the recommended amount of exercise, 67% of the maids did not consider themselves physically active. Langer, the psychologist, predicted that the maid’s viewpoints on their physical activity made it difficult for them to lose weight.
To test her hypothesis, Langer gathered half of the maids, took their physical measurements and explained that they were exceeding the amount of exercise recommended by the surgeon general. The other half received no information
After a month, Langer’s team returned to the hotel for reevaluation. The maids that were evaluated and given information had a decrease in systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio. The other group’s results were insignificant.
Langer attributes these physical (and likely psychological) benefits to a simple change in mind set.
Mind muscle connection – The force is strong.
So how does the above relate the bodybuilding / weight lifting?
Well there is the physical connection whilst your are performing the lift, and of course the mental lift.
When performing a physical lift, I would always recommend the use of mirrors.
Yes, its not just the poser that requires a mirror!
They allow you to see the muscle you are working, they allow you to focus on where the exercise should be hitting.
However, if all you do is rely on the mirror for that connection, you miss the really important part of any session.
Sit back, cause this is where i get a little, woo woo.
The body is AMAZING, no surprise in that statement.
Bodybuilding, allows you to become REALLY connected to the physical aspect of this amazing bag of muscle and skin we temporarily possess.
It requires you listen to the body’s needs, you may be familiar with the following:
“Yo, feed me, i need replenishing”
“Hey, rest, I need to re-build, ready for next time”
“No more reps, I’m maxxed out”
As you progress with lifting weights, you instinctively answer the above.
You eat more because you feel the need to nourish your body.
Rest, not because you are lazy, but because you know your body requires rest to rebuild.
Push through the rep range, because you know you have more in you.
You are connecting in with you body.
As you progress with your strength, you become more and more connected to the muscle as it is working.
Ignore the mirrors, slow down the movement, and concentrate on the muscle you are working.
Feel the move from the very beginning to the end of the move.
That is the mind-muscle connection.
Bicep curls are a great way to start the mind muscle connection.
Get yourself on a preacher bench, pick a weight you can do 12-15 reps and work in the range where the muscle is under constant tension.
At the top of the range tense the muscle for a second and lower the weight, repeat for 3-4 sets.
The beauty of this move is;
- The bicep is in direct line of sight
- The movement removes all but the bicep to perform the exercise
- Easy to adjust to place the weight on the movement on the bicep
Once you have this, you can perform the movement with your eyes closed.
Feel the tension.
Feel the squeeze at the top and be aware of the other muscles whilst performing the move.
But wait, to truly become a jedi master, there is one more thing you can do.
Thinking yourself bigger/stronger!
In an experiment 7 volunteers had to imagine training their calves for no more than 2 hours a week, the volunteers had measurements taken before and after, including how much muscle they recruited when tensing the calve muscle.
The results showed, thought alone improved both their strength, and muscle recruitment, without affecting the size of the muscle.
As you become more connected into your body, the practice of visualising the movement / lift and contraction of the muscle before and during the movement, will not only maximise the session, but make improvements outside the gym.
Don’t just think the movement, REALLY think it, the contraction, the stretch, the blood forced into the muscle, run the entire physical experience through your mind, as though you are actually performing the lift.
These 2 methods will have you fully connected to the mind muscle experience.
Adjust to find the mind muscle connection
I would encourage you to find the exercise that works for you.
This makes the contraction easier when performing the exercise and allows you to visualise the move.
If an exercise isn’t working for you, don’t do it!
Find a variation that REALLY hits the muscle you are training.
That may also mean, slightly adjusting it for your body.
Yes, it’s important to maintain form.
Its important to not stray too far from how the exercise is performed.
But don’t do a exercise that doesnt work for you.
A perfect example of this would be shoulders.
There are a 1000 different shoulder exercises.
But there are also a 1000 different variations on peoples shoulder mobility, flexibility and strength.
You have to work to where you are, and what works for you.
I see this more in the lateral raise than any other movement.
Find the exercise that hits the shoulder and isn’t uncomfortable.
Something else to note is to be conscious of the weight, all too often people choose a heavy weight because the ego takes over.
A great advocate for adjusting shoulder exercises is Ryan Humilston, check out this shoulder video.
It’s also important to consider the weight.
I’ve written about light weighs and the benefits in my post – Grow muscle fast, 5 tips for beginners
Using lighter weights and higher reps in the beginning will not only benefit you in the long run, but REALLY allows you to focus on the move and get the mind muscle connection going!
From isolation to compound movements.
The real benefit of mind muscle connection comes into play with compound movements.
Examples of compound movements are:
- Bent over rows
- Pull ups
- Bench press
Compound movements engage multiple muscles to complete the exercise.
For beginners compound movements can be difficult and often times hard to master, as they over think the movement and have yet to master the mind muscle connection.
Beginners tend to bring into play the entire range of muscle activation at the same time, or do not engage the muscle, thus have poor form when performing the exercise.
Anyone struggling with compound movements need not worry.
Work on the individual muscles using isolation exercises first.
Transitioning over to the full compound movement when a decent level of strength, form and confidence in the movement is achieved.
The dreaded deadlift from zero to hero in 5 weeks
Everyone wants to do the deadlift.
There is something about the movement and lifting some ‘dead’ weight off the floor that makes you feel strong and ready to take on the world.
However, as previously mentioned the movement can be difficult for the beginner, and frustrating when you are new to lifting.
A perfect example is a client of mine.
Someone who has lifted in the past, but had never performed the deadlift.
Week 1 and 2 we worked on strength in the legs, nothing more than leg press and leg extension with a little push pull on the weighted sled.
Week 3 I wanted to see how connected to his body he was, but rather than perform the deadlift straight off, we opted for the stiff leg deadlift.
Simply put, its a less complicated exercise to perform, but perfectly shows the mind muscle connection with the back and legs.
He struggled with performing an exercise that relies on being aware of the legs, straightening the back all whilst lifting the weight and keeping the form.
Over the next few weeks, we had a little work to do.
We performed more back exercises, to tighten the position and bring his awareness to his back when exercising.
We activated the glutes to provide stability, and continue the work of building overall strength.
By week 5 we were performing leg press, leg extensions, and lunges. and the client had doubled the weight for bent over rows.
It was time to attempt a deadlift
I used a raised platform to remove the full range of motion.
Rather than provide a ton of cues and over complicate the movement, I simply position the client in front of the bar and said lift the weight!
The improvement was vast, most notably the back position, in 5 weeks we had gone from no mind muscle connection to a straightened back and really decent lift*
*Please note, for beginners who lift, its important you do not become too critical of your lifts, weight lifting / bodybuilding is a long term sport, improvements happen incrementally over time, even 30 years into this, I find tweaks and improvements!
Yes, its important to get the correct form, but don’t rush, don’t beat yourself up, if your not getting the movement first time around.
If you want to be sure you have the form, or want to improve, I would always recommend filming your lifts, this allows you to critique after.
Injury can kill the mind muscle connection
One final point to note is injury.
I wrote about a neck injury I obtained and the negative impact it had on my mind muscle connection.
It essentially severed the nerve and atrophied the affected muscles within days!
Even 10 years later I suffer from a lack of connection with my left lat.
However, for 8 years I heavily relied upon the mind muscle connection, and I believe without it., my recovery would have taken longer.