So we hear the term ‘muscle mind connection’ over used in the gyms and studios a lot lately! With a wide number of people and PT’s not really knowing what it is and more importantly how to apply it!
It’s been a utilised body-building theory for decades, but increasing research to determine its validity has made what was previously just a theory, a crucially important aspect of weight lifting and body shaping results.
The idea behind the mind-muscle connection is simple:
If you consciously and deliberately place your attention on the contraction of the primary muscle you are working, the quality of the contraction is enhanced.
In other words, the more your mind is focused on the muscle being work as it contracts, the greater your gains will be.
It is important to understand how muscle movement works in your body.
Your brain and central nervous system create and improve the quality of the movement of muscle fibres that are put into action most often, and many studies that I have read have shown that placing mental attention on your muscles as they’re contracting literally causes a higher percentage of the muscle fibres that you’re aiming to use for the movement to ‘activate.’
Here comes the science bit, Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to move.
The more active mental attention your bring to the muscle that’s being contracted, the more acetylcholine neurotransmitter that is produced, leading to an enhanced quality in the contraction.
So, the more you bring an active attention to the muscle being worked, the contraction in each and every rep, the more acetylcholine that’s produced.
The more acetylcholine that’s produced, the better the contraction, and better the gains. Simple as that.
So focused attention is very, very important.
As we age, our bodies and our minds change. They may get weaker, but they may get stronger in certain ways, too. Take the mind, for example, constantly working it out by learning and challenging it through things such as puzzles, games and exams for example, keeps those synapses in tune.
Our muscles need constant tuning and challenge as you age so that you can maintain and even build strength and fitness, which helps to ward off lingering effects from things such as falls or other injuries.
I hear many people say“as you age, what’s the connection between the mind and the body?” Well, as it turns out, there’s a big one. The more you pay attention to the physical strength you’re trying to build, the more in tune your mind will be to what’s happening to all parts of your body, and the greater your ability to keep challenging both of them.
Unfolding the mind-muscle connection
Simply put, the mind-muscle connection is a conscious and deliberate muscle contraction. It’s the ability to focus the tension you create during exercise on a specific muscle or region of muscles in the body, which is the difference between passively and actively moving the weight.
When you focus on using specific muscles to create contractions, the brain calls upon a greater percentage of high muscle fibers to complete the task. This also prevents innervating of muscle fibers not in use. By creating tension in the right muscles, your body is better able to gain strength and size in all the right places.
Internal and external focused attention
Focused attention is how well the brain can concentrate on a specific activity for a given amount of time. This is a large part of cognitive development and works well during resistance training.
Two types of attention are important during exercise, internal focus and external focus. Internal focus is when you concentrate on the specifics of what your body is doing. For example, during a crunch, your mind focuses on contracting the anterior abdominal muscles while flexing the spine.
An external focus is how your body relates to the environment during exercise. On a leg press machine, for instance, the external focus is to push the platform away from your torso with your feet. Though external and internal focus improves performance, evidence has shown that internal focus plays a more integral role in muscle growth and development.
We help clients to improve their mind-muscle connection, by focusing attention on the muscles required to move the weight. During biceps curls, for example, think about how the muscles in the front of the arm contract to move the weight toward your shoulder. (This goes for all strength exercises.)
Choosing one cue at a time
Cueing is a tool used by coaches and trainers to help clients improve movement and performance. You can use cueing on your own to help improve how your brain connects to the right muscle fibres. Pay attention to your form and note what you want to work on.
Once you come up with a few cues, work on one at a time. Take the bench press, for example. You have set up, lowering the bar, and pressing the bar.
The first cue to work on is proper setup. This is positioning your body on the bench, getting tight and braced in the upper body, and removing the bar from the rack safely. Focus your attention on these skills before your brain automatically sets up with proper form. This is so important and has to sometimes be taught many times over.
When this skill is acquired, move on to lower the bar with solid mind-muscle connection on the eccentric movement, (downwards). Building on your skills over time helps improve attention because you focus on movement in segments rather than trying to master everything at one time.
More time under tension
Time under tension during resistance training is a key component for muscle building. The more time under tension you spend during a lift, the stronger and bigger your muscles grow. Time under tension can be increased in various ways.
One way is to pause during peak contraction. For example, you can hold a glute squeeze at the top of a bridge, pause during the flexed position during a bicep curl, or hold at the bottom of a push-up.
Another way and this is the main one we use with new clients is to slow down the eccentric, or downwards portion of the exercise. Adding a 3-second eccentric movement improves your mind-muscle connection because your mind automatically focuses on controlling the slowed down the movement.
Additionally, isometric contractions are another great way to increase time under tension and improve how your brain relates to the muscle. Simple exercises like Planks are a great example of isometric contractions. Loaded carries, isometric chin-ups, and iso-hold squats are a few more ideas.
Turn off distractions
It’s a misconception that humans can multitask and this doesn’t just relate to patting your head while rubbing your belly. It may seem easier to get through your workout if you divert your attention from the pain in your gains.
However, the opposite is true. Turning off distractions, including your mobile phone the television and chatting with friends, allows your brain to focus on the task at hand. Music is a great way to energise your body and get into your workout, but you may be better off leaving the audiobooks and podcasts for the cardio.
Your mind has plenty of ways to connect with your muscles during exercise. Choose one thing to focus on at a time and build this skill as you become more in tune with your body.
If you are newer to exercise, it’s best to start by turning off all distractions. Eccentric contractions are the easiest to learn and a good way to build toned muscle fast. If you’re a gym veteran, focus on concentric and isometric contracts, and build cues into your training in order to tap into your muscle-building potential.
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