I don’t know about you guys, but I use the gym as a distraction from the everyday stressors of life--a way to forget about my responsibilities for one small portion of the day and focus on improving my body and my mind. For this reason, I do my best to not check my phone while I workout…except to write down my weights or take videos of my lifts. I enjoy putting my phone away and focusing on my muscles working instead of social media. And in this blog post, I am going to tell you why you too may also decide to put the phone away and start focusing on your muscles while you lift.
What am I talking about, you ask? Why, the mind-muscle connection of course! The mind-muscle connection is the process of thinking about and focusing directly on the specific muscles you are working as you are using them. This is also referred to as an “internal focus” and differs from an external focus where you would focus on aspects of the environment around you, such as the bar or the actual weights (Schoenfeld & Contreras).
So, what’s so great about the mind-muscle connection? Implementing a mind-muscle connection is beneficial if you are looking to increase muscle hypertrophy (if you want to get bigger). However, an external focus is more beneficial for those looking to maximize production like when going for a one-rep-max (Schoenfeld & Contreras).
Now, you can continue on to me explaining how you can achieve a mind-muscle connection, or you can skip to the end of this post where I provide evidence by explaining all the sciency stuff that I think is super cool, but I know some people aren’t as interested in. The choice is yours!
But first, if you are not going to read the science part, it should be mentioned that the studies show that mind-muscle connection is only beneficial while lifting weights below 80% of your one-rep-max and therefore the following tips should only be implemented when lifting these “lighter” weights (Schoenfeld & Contreras and Calatayud et al.).
Achieving a mind-muscle connection is much simpler than it sounds. All you really have to do is focus directly in on the muscles you are working when you are using them. Personally, I find this is easiest by doing three things: flexing the muscle while I lift, seeing the muscle work, and thinking about the muscle as I lift.
This is pretty self-explanatory; I flex the main muscle that is being worked by the exercise I am doing. However, this is hard to do if you don’t know what muscle or groups of muscles are supposed to be working. That is why it is important to become familiar with the muscles that an exercise work. Many gym machines will show a diagram of the muscle being worked by that machine, which is very helpful, but you can also simply google “muscles being worked by 'x' exercise” and you will also find some very helpful pictures. You will then know exactly what muscle you should be flexing while you are performing that exercise.
Many people make fun of lifters who go to the gym in muscle-tees or stringers or sports bras but there’s a legitimate reason for our madness. By seeing the bare muscles working, contracting and flexing, we can strengthen our mind-muscle connection. The only way to do this is of course is to not wear clothing over the muscle and that is why lifters show up to the gym half-naked. That is also why it is beneficial to perform all of your lifts in front of a mirror if you can. As you lift stare at the muscle you are working and focus on what it is doing.
This is difficult for muscles that you can’t see while you lift such as your hamstrings or lower back. For this I suggest filming yourself from the back as you are doing the lift, then watch the video in between sets. During the next set, play the video over again in your head and imagine your muscles working just as they did in the video.
Another thing I do as I lift is think about what is happening internally inside my muscle. While I am looking at my muscle in the mirror and flexing it as I perform the exercise, I am also thinking about what is occurring inside my body. I imagine the muscle fibers contracting and the blood pumping. For me, this deepens the mind-muscle connection and makes me feel as if I am one with my muscle (I know that sounds dumb, but it's true, I swear)!
Now those are the three things I do to strengthen my mind-muscle connection as I lift, but the internet has a boat load of other suggestions. For example, you could slow down your reps and really focus on how you’re moving, you could flex in between sets, you could have a gym partner touch the muscle you’re working as you lift, or you could use your warm-up set as an opportunity to focus on the muscle (Lockridge).
As you can see, I do a whole lot of visualizing and focusing while I lift and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to do any worrying or stressing and that is what I truly love about lifting. It’s meditative. So, put away your phone the next time you’re in the gym and use that time to really focus in on what you’re doing. Pay attention to your muscles and allow your mind to relax while simultaneously helping yourself get bigger. Who can say no to that?
First off, I want to emphasize again that the studies show pretty clearly that an external focus, where you focus on the environment around you (such as pushing through the floor while squatting) is more beneficial when the goal is to boost performance. This will come in handy for competitive powerlifters or while going for one-rep-maxes (Schoenfeld & Contreras). But this blog post is about the internal focus and how it is beneficial for muscle growth so that is the science I will focus on.
I just explained how to form a mind-muscle connection, but why even bother in the first place? A study done on 18 trained men showed that focusing on either the chest (pectoralis major) or the triceps (triceps bacchii) while performing the bench press resulted in more activation of the specific muscle being focused on. For example, participants who focused on the triceps saw more activation in their triceps than those who focused on their chest or those that did neither. And vice versa, those that focused on their chest saw more activation in their chest than those that focused on their triceps or neither. Interestingly enough, this did not result in any decreased activation in the muscle not being focused on. However, as explained above, this increase in activation did diminish once participants started lifting weights at 80% their one-rep-max (Calatayud et al.).
Many similar studies have been conducted on men and women with other muscles and muscle groups, showing that an internal focus on these muscles while exercising results in increased activation of them. And, while increased muscle activation does not necessarily mean there will be an increase in muscle growth, there are studies that “provide evidence for an association between activation levels and muscle growth” (Schoenfeld & Contreras).
According to an interesting study that was explained very well on houseofhypertrophy.com, biceps can be grown with solely a mind-muscle connection and NO weight at all. The basic idea is that a bicep curl performed with no weight but with a focus on squeezing and contracting the biceps (as I explained I do to form a mind-muscle connection) resulted in similar muscle growth as a normal weighted bicep curl. Again, House of Hypertrophy explains this in much more detail along with some great explanations of why this may happen, but I thought it would be fascinating to mention here. If you could have equal muscle growth by just focusing on squeezing the biceps with no weight imagine if you did that with weight as well!!!
There are so many more interesting studies out there on the connection between the brain and the muscles, but this is already one of my longest blog posts ever, so I think I am going to leave it at that. But I am so interested in this stuff, so if you are too, feel free to reach out to me and I would be more than happy to continue this conversation and share more studies that I found!
House of Hypertrophy. “Biceps Curls With No Weights Can BuildMuscle Optimally?” House of Hypertrophy, 2 Sept. 2021, https://www.houseofhypertrophy.com /biceps-curls-with-no-weight/.
Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Importance of Mind-Muscle Connectionduring Progressive Resistance Training.” European Journal of AppliedPhysiology, vol. 116, no. 3, 23 Dec. 2015, pp. 527–533., https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7.
Lockridge, Roger. “7 Ways to Improve Mind-MuscleConnection.” Muscle & Strength, 13 June 2020, https://www.muscleandstrength.com/ articles/7-ways-to-improve-mind-muscle-connection.
Schoenfeld, Brad J., and Bret Contreras. “Attentional Focus forMaximizing Muscle Development.” Strength & Conditioning Journal,vol. 38, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 27–29.,https://doi.org/10.1519/ ssc.0000000000000190.
A special thank you to all my friends and family who have not only supported me on my journey but have helped along the way. None of this would be possible without them. Remember to take time to appreciate those in your lives!
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