How a Strong Mind-Muscle Connection Can Take Your Workouts to the Next Level

Focusing on how your muscles are operating during your strength-training workouts can help make your movements more effective.

Mind-Muscle Connection
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Oftentimes, a workout can be your one chance to let your mind go totally blank. After spending an entire day thinking about problems at work, at school, and in your personal life, a solo gym session spent powering through biceps curls and lunges — all while zoning out to the latest Taylor Swift album — can feel truly restorative.

But you may not want to shut your brain down completely. In order to level up your performance and make gains, you'll need to pay close attention to how your muscles are contracting, lengthening, and moving throughout your strength-training practice. In other words, you’ll want to build up and tap into your mind-muscle connection.

The Mind-Muscle Connection, Explained

You may not realize it, but while performing any sport or physical activity, your mind either zeros in on what’s occurring in the external environment around you (e.g. the songs blasting through the gym speakers, the trees you jog past while on an outdoor run) or what’s happening within your own body (e.g. muscle fatigue, your breath, any pain). This concentration on your own self, known as an internal attentional focus, is where the mind-muscle connection comes into play, primarily during strength-training activities, says Alyssa Olenick, Ph.D., C.I.S.S.N, C.F.L.1., an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist.

“With lifting, you’re trying to get your body to execute very specific actions with a muscle or muscle group or a type of movement pattern,” she explains. “So the mind-muscle connection is essentially you focusing internally on the muscle and or movement pattern that you're trying to execute.” Say you’re performing a bent-over dumbbell row. Rather than concentrating on the tunes blaring out of your headphones, you’d pay attention to the feeling of your lat muscles lengthening and contracting with each rep. Or when you’re attempting a heavy squat, you might think of squeezing your glutes to rise up out of the bottom of the movement, says Olenick. 

The Benefits of Harnessing Your Mind-Muscle Connection 

Focusing on how your muscles are moving as you complete every rep may seem frivolous, but doing so comes with noteworthy benefits. Here’s why honing in on your muscular actions while lifting is worth the mental energy.

Helps You Target the Correct Muscles

When you focus on the specific muscles you’re using to execute an exercise, you’ll be better able to target the agonist muscle groups (aka the muscles that produce the force required to complete a movement). Take a dumbbell chest press, for example. Concentrating on engaging your pectoral muscles (the agonist for this exercise) can help ensure they are being stimulated enough to grow and strengthen while preventing other muscle groups (such as the triceps and deltoids, synergist muscles that assist the agonist) from taking on more of the load, says Olenick. 

And research backs up this idea: A small study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that when participants focused on the pectoralis major muscle while doing push-ups, electrical activity within it increased by 9 percent. (ICYDK, muscles produce electrical signals when they contract, and the greater the electrical activity, the greater the contraction.)

Promotes Muscle Growth

Channeling your mind-muscle connection could also help you make muscle gains, says Olenick. And this idea was demonstrated in a study of 30 untrained participants who did resistance training three times a week for eight weeks. At the end of the trial, the individuals who focused on contracting the target muscle while lifting (an internal focus) had greater improvements in muscle thickness — a sign of hypertrophy, aka muscle cell growth — within the elbow flexors and quadriceps than the people who focused on getting the weight up (an external focus) during barbell curls and machine leg extensions. 

Makes Your Workouts More Effective

If you concentrate on how your body is moving while you tackle an exercise — rather than external factors such as the amount of time you're spending on each set — your reps will likely be much more effective. “If you're going through the motions and you're not really thinking about it, you're probably not getting the most out of that movement,” says Olenick. “You're probably not having a lot of mechanical tension, which is the main driver of hypertrophy.” The reason: Without any bodily awareness, there’s a good chance you’re flying through your reps, not working through your full range of motion, and not spending as much time on the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement as you should be, reducing the time spent under tension. However, an internal focus can make you more likely to work through the entire movement (think: squatting to or below parallel rather than a 60-degree angle) in a slow and controlled manner, which can ultimately contribute to muscle growth, she adds. 

Who Should Focus On Their Mind-Muscle Connection

A strong mind-muscle connection can be beneficial for any lifter, but beginners may not need to devote all their energy to building it. These folks are still learning how to move their bodies and complete foundational exercises with good form, and focusing on specific muscles and how they’re operating within the body can make strength training feel overwhelming, says Olenick. “It might be something that they utilize later when they are a little bit more comfortable,” she adds. “There is a very strong motor learning component to lifting, and in the beginning, everything kind of feels awkward. So someone might not even know how to even think about the muscle they're moving because they're just trying to figure out how to move.”

On the flip side, the mind-muscle connection may not be as useful if you’re an advanced lifter using heavier loads, says Olenick. “It might distract you from the goal of exerting as much force as possible in a one-rep max or at higher percentages of your one-rep max with your bench, deadlift, and Olympic weightlifting-type stuff,” she explains. “It might be better to bring that back out to an external focus. So instead of thinking about just your pec muscles during a bench press, it might be beneficial for you just to think about moving the weight once you get to above about 80 percent of your one-rep max.” TL;DR: When the going gets tough, it's okay to concentrate on whatever gets you through your lift safely and effectively.

How to Improve Your Mind-Muscle Connection

Feeling totally lost on how to focus on a muscle action while performing your reps with good form? Try gently tapping the agonist muscle (and having a friend help you as needed) as you complete the exercise, suggests Olenick. “Palpating can help you think about where the muscle that’s being used is located and where you should feel it [contracting and lengthening],” she adds. During a bent-over row, for example, you might have your workout buddy tap your lats (the side of your middle back) as you lower your dumbbell toward the floor and lift it back up again. If you’re still struggling to mentally connect with the muscle, think about the action it’s doing (think: pushing the weight away from your body in a triceps extension, pulling the weight close to you in a row), she suggests. 

Maintaining tension throughout the entire movement — and taking your time to perform it — can also help you hone in on the muscle at play. “You'll start to feel that muscle a little bit more than if you're just very rapidly going through the movement,’ says Olenick. Using cable machines can be beneficial in this case, as they offer constant tension and can help you practice working through your entire range of motion at a slow, controlled pace, she says. 

And remember, practice makes progress. “Don't expect you to be great at [the mind-muscle connection] the first day,” says Olenick. “It might feel a little bit weird to think about those things, but if you really think about the muscle that you're using and the action that it's taking, it's a little bit easier to start getting better at that.” After all, being able to listen to your body is a skill, and it takes some time to understand how it operates and moves, she adds. 

The Bottom Line On the Importance of the Mind-Muscle Connection

Having a strong mind-muscle connection can help you build muscle, make your workout more efficient and effective, and, at the very least, better understand your body. But developing one shouldn’t be your main priority, says Olenick. “It’s like a little bonus point…something to add a little bit of an edge to your training,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re doing enough volume, picking the right movements, following a good training plan, and eating and doing things to help recover. Those are going to be the biggest contributors to [hypertorphy for] your training.”

If you have those bases covered, however, and you typically move through your workouts aimlessly, harnessing your mind-muscle connection could be the cherry on top of your training program. “This could be something that really makes a big difference for you,” says Olenick. “It will allow you to bring the level of your training up a notch.”

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