Understanding the Mind Muscle Connection

How to Train Your Brain for Muscle Gain

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 7, 2024

Many people focus solely on lifting heavy weights to build muscle. However, the mind-muscle connection is an often overlooked aspect of muscle building that can significantly enhance your results.

mind muscle connection

The mind-muscle connection is an internal focus to engage a specific muscle during resistance training. By focusing on the targeted muscle, you can effectively activate muscle fibers and get more from your training sessions. 

In this article, I will explore the power of the mind-muscle connection through new research and provide tips for improving mental focus during exercise.

What is the Mind Muscle Connection?

The mind-muscle connection is the ability to consciously activate and engage a specific muscle group during exercise. Shifting your focus internally can potentially enhance muscle activity and lead to better gains.

Internal vs. External Focus

The mind-muscle connection involves an internal focus on the working muscle. Internal cues are mental signals focused inside your body, such as thinking about squeezing your pectoral muscles during a bench press.

Conversely, external cues involve focusing on something outside your body. For example, thinking about pushing the bar away from your body during the bench press.

Both types of focus can be beneficial depending on your experience and training goals. However, internal cues could be crucial to unlocking new progress for experienced lifters.

Controlling Internal Cues

Muscle activation is a biochemical process that starts in the brain. Your muscle receives a signal from a specialized brain cell called a motor neuron, which causes a chemical reaction that rearranges and shortens the muscle fibers before they contract.

Although this process occurs without much thought, your mind plays a more active role when training a single muscle. Learning to control the mental signal results in greater muscle activation, which could lead to more muscle gains.

mind muscle connection motor neuron

This illustration shows the link between mind and muscle.

Mind Muscle Connection Science

Scientists have been studying the effect of mental focus on performance for many years. As with all areas of science, the experiment design can produce mixed results.

Nevertheless, a lot of evidence shows that mental focus can produce results. Here are some recent studies surrounding the mind-muscle connection in resistance training.

  • Calatayud et al. (2016) Researchers concluded that participants increased muscle activity by focusing on the pectoral muscles during bench press. However, the effect diminished with weights exceeding 80% 1RM (one rep max), presumably because the focus shifts from internal cues to external cues.
  • Calatayud et al. (2017) Researchers concluded that participants increased pectoral activation by 9% with concentration during push-ups. They also found a correlation with training experience, suggesting that it takes practice to learn how to control the activation of certain muscle groups.
  • Schoenfeld et al. (2018) Results showed that internal focus strategies led to more significant improvements in muscle strength and hypertrophy than external focus strategies.

It seems that there is some factual basis for the claims that mind-muscle connection can be beneficial. So, should you consider adding it to your training?

mind muscle connection cartoon

How Important Is the Mind-Muscle Connection?

The significance of the mind-muscle connection varies depending on your experience, fitness goals, and training program.

For instance, several studies suggest that external focus is better for motor learning. So, if you’re new to lifting weights, you don’t need to concern yourself with the mind-muscle connection.

External focus is also better for powerlifting or moving as much weight as possible. Similarly, if you do CrossFit, you’re not concerned with activating individual muscles, and the mind-muscle connection isn’t crucial. 

However, the mind-muscle connection plays a vital role in bodybuilding, where the goal is building muscle size through targeted hypertrophy training. This is especially true for experienced lifters whose movement patterns are on autopilot.

It’s important to note that stimulating the correct muscles and applying progressive overload are also keys to muscle growth.

mind muscle connection

Through years of training and internal focus, I’ve built a strong mind-muscle connection. Still, some muscle groups, like the back and triceps, are harder to target. This is when I use the techniques I’m about to share with you.

Tips to Improve Your Mind Muscle Connection

Establishing a better mind-muscle connection is essential to get the most out of your bodybuilding workouts. Here are nine tips to help you build this mental strength and maximize muscle growth:

  1. Remove Distractions: A crowded or chaotic lifting environment can make it harder to focus. Improve your ability to focus by finding your own space, getting off your phone, listening to music, and avoiding interruptions.
  2. Choose the Right Exercises: Single-joint isolation exercises are more effective than compound lifts for focusing on a specific muscle. For example, squeezing your quads is easier with leg extensions than squats.
  3. Use Lighter Weight: Start with weights around 40% of your 1RM to learn the technique and focus on form. As you progress, gradually increase the weight to 60-75% of your 1RM. This will help you maintain the mind-muscle connection and avoid losing it as the weight increases.
  4. Move Slowly: When trying to achieve a mind-muscle connection, focus on maintaining proper form and avoiding swinging or cheating. For example, keep your upper body still when doing bicep curls and concentrate on contracting your bicep.
  5. Feel the Target Muscle: Lightly touching or tapping the target muscle during exercise can help the brain connect to that specific spot. This can be especially helpful for muscle groups you can’t see, like your back. For example, have a spotter tap your lats during pulldowns or use your free hand to touch the back of your arm during tricep extensions.
  6. Verbal Instruction: Have a personal trainer or training partner give you verbal instructions during your set. For example, during a squat, they could tell you to “squeeze your glutes” as you ascend.
  7. Flex Between Sets: Flexing the target muscle between sets can help you maintain the mind-muscle connection and increase intensity. This forces you to focus on the muscle and can help you work it more in the same amount of time.
  8. Visualize the Muscle: Visualization is a powerful tool for building the mind-muscle connection. Whether you imagine your biceps becoming as big as mountains like Arnold Schwarzenegger or visualize the muscle contracting as you train.
  9. Practice Every Workout: Developing a strong mind-muscle connection takes time and practice. Incorporating these techniques into every workout can help you improve your internal focus and achieve better muscle growth.

Incorporating these tips into your workouts allows you to establish a stronger mind-muscle connection and maximize muscle activation. Remember to focus less on how much weight you lift and more on how you lift the weight.

With practice, you can make the mind-muscle connection a strategic part of your training routine. You can actualize what you visualize.

Benefits of a Strong Mind-Muscle Connection

Like any athletic endeavor, honing body awareness takes practice. As a personal trainer and former competitive bodybuilder, I am confident practicing mindful strength training is worth the time invested.

Additionally, moving heavy weight with good form and intention is a great way to reduce the risk of injury. Conversely, mindlessly moving heavy weight from point A to point B without regard to muscle work is a recipe for getting hurt.

Finally, it’s a more strategic way of training the right muscles through each exercise’s full range of motion. You’re actively thinking about what you want to happen, and where your mind goes, your body will follow.

Benefits of Improving Mind-Muscle Connection

  1. Hone body awareness and coordination
  2. Good form reduces the risk of injury
  3. Get better results by working muscles through the full range of motion

Build Your Mind and Body

If you’re striving to build your best body and mind, I know you’ll benefit from these additional helpful resources.

Growth Mindset: New Mindset, New Results

How to Get Motivated to Workout & Win at Life

Setting SMART Fitness Goals That Get Results

References
1) Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training.” European journal of applied physiology 116.3 (2016): 527-533.
2) Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Mind-muscle connection training principle: influence of muscle strength and training experience during a pushing movement.” European journal of applied physiology 117.7 (2017): 1445-1452.
3) Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, et al. “Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.” European journal of sport science 18.5 (2018): 705-712.
4) Suinn, Richard M. “Visualization in sports.” Imagery in sports and physical performance (1994): 23-42.

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By |March 7, 2024|Bodybuilding, Mindset and Motivation|Comments Off on Mind Muscle Connection: 9 Tips to Train Your Brain for Gains
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