Mind Muscle Connection: 5 Tips to Train Your Brain for Gains
Top athletes use the power of their mind to achieve peak performance. Learn how to build your mind muscle connection and train your brain for gains.
Have you hit a plateau in your training? Are you spending several hours a week in the gym but not gaining muscle?
Well, I was in the same place as you once. I lifted hard for years without seeing much progress. That is until I realized muscle gain isn’t about how much weight you lift. It’s about how you lift the weight.
In other words, you have to learn to activate the muscles you want to grow. And to do that you need to build your mind muscle connection.
What is the Mind Muscle Connection?
Moving your muscles may seem like an unconscious process. For example, you don’t always think about activating your bicep to move your arm.
However, muscle activation is actually a biochemical process that starts in the brain. Before your muscle contracts, it gets a signal from a specialized brain cell called a motor neuron. Then a chemical reaction causes the muscle fibers to rearrange and shorten.
Of course, this process can occur without much thought. But your mind plays a more active role when you’re training specific muscles.
Furthermore, learning to control the mental signal results in greater muscle activation. And that activation is what could lead to more muscle gains.
Sound like a bunch of hooey? Well, let’s see what the science says.
Mind Muscle Connection Science
Scientists have studied how the mind effects performance for decades. And there’s no shortage of evidence that mental focus gets results. But how does that apply specifically to bodybuilding?
One study explored whether focusing on specific muscles during exercise selectively activates those muscles. To see the effect they measured muscle electrical activity as participants performed the bench press.
Researchers concluded that participants increased muscle activation by focusing on the pectoral muscles1. Although the effect diminished with weights exceeding 80% 1RM (one rep max). Presumably, because focus shifts to exerting maximum effort.
Similarly, a separate study measured pectoral activation during push-ups. And concluded that participants increased pectoral activation by 9% with concentration2.
By comparison, researchers noted that triceps activation was more difficult to achieve. And that there was a correlation between activating the triceps and years of training experience. Suggesting that it takes practice to learn how to control the activation of certain muscle groups.
Ok, it looks like there is some factual basis for mind muscle claims. But is it something you should consider adding to your training?
How Important is the Mind Muscle Connection?
The importance of the mind muscle connection depends on your goal.
For example, it may not important if you’re a powerlifter. Because your goal is to move as much weight as possible. And external focus proves more beneficial. Or if you do Crossfit, where you’re not concerned about activating individual muscles.
On the other hand, the mind muscle connection comes into play in bodybuilding. Where the goal is to gain lean muscle through targeted training. Because increasing muscle activation helps you isolate and overload a specific muscle.
And it’s important to realize that isolation and overload are what create muscle growth.
5 Tips to Build Your Mind Muscle Connection
Alright, are you ready to start busting out Jedi mind tricks on the weights? Well, slow down, Skywalker. First, you have to learn how to use the Force.
Fortunately, I have 5 tips to help you hone your mind muscle connection. And shorten the learning curve so you can see results sooner.
1. Use Lighter Weight
As you learned, the mind muscle connection diminishes as weight increases. Specifically, studies showed a decline between 60 and 80% of 1RM.
For that reason, I recommend starting out at 40% of your 1RM to learn the technique. Then, build back up to 60 to 75%. So check your ego at the door because it’s like starting all over!
Of course, you can still include some heavier sets to build strength. Just keep it light when your goal is to use mind muscle connection for growth.
Again, focus less on how much weight you lift and more on how you lift the weight.
2. Use Good Form
You can concentrate until your forehead veins pop, but if you don’t use proper form you won’t get a mind muscle connection.
For instance, your bicep isn’t activating much if you swing your whole upper body during a curl. Instead, try to keep everything else still in order to isolate the target muscle.
In addition, you can use specific exercises which make it harder to cheat. Such as the preacher curl for biceps.
Another trick is to lightly touch or tap the target muscle during the exercise. This seems to help the brain connect to a specific spot. I couldn’t find any studies to confirm this, so the evidence is anecdotal.
However, in my experience, it helps for muscle groups you can’t see like your back. As an example, you could have your spotter tap your lats during pulldowns. Or use your free hand to touch your tricep during single arm cable pressdowns.
Also, I use this tactic on the leg press to emphasize my outer quads. And on seated calf raises to activate the gastrocnemius. At the very least it helps you feel that the target muscle is contracting.
No, I’m not talking about having a posedown. Rather, I’m referring to flexing the target muscle in between your sets.
First, flexing an individual muscle forces you to use the mind muscle connection. And second, it’s like a mini drop set. In that it allows you to work the muscle more in the same amount of time. Which, by definition, increases intensity.
Visualization is an incredibly powerful tool. Oftentimes the most successful people have a specific vision of what success looks like.
In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger said he visualized his biceps becoming as big as mountains while he did curls. And there is growing scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of mental imagery and visualization in sports3.
Whether you clearly picture the end result you desire, like Arnold. Or you internally visualize the muscle activating as you train. You will find that you actualize what you visualize.
The mind muscle connection is a biochemical process. And studies show that your mind does increase muscle activation. But it takes practice to hone this connection.
Of course, not everyone needs to improve their mind muscle connection. But if your goal is to grow new muscle as quickly as possible, then it’s worth adding to your toolbox.
Finally, to me, it’s a more strategic way of training. In that you’re actively thinking about what you want to happen. And where your mind goes, your body will follow.
“What you think, you become”
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) Suinn, Richard M. “Visualization in sports.” Imagery in sports and physical performance (1994): 23-42.