There is no better feeling than the satisfaction you experience after having an awesome training session. For myself, this doesn’t have to be about ‘hitting PRs”, but as a bodybuilder, feeling connected to my physique, being in the zone, and getting a massive pump is glorious.
On the contrary, one of the worst feelings is when you can’t get it going. Perhaps, you are excited to train back, but when you use a piece of equipment, you do not feel a strong connection with your posterior musculature and the only thing that fatigues is your biceps. Or, you hit the bench but you don’t get a chest pump and feel your front delts and triceps are doing the majority of the work. If you’ve experienced this before, improving your mind muscle connection should be your new priority. It can drastically improve not only your rate of progress, but your enjoyment while training as well.
Unfortunately, many trainees and even trainers are focused on numbers right away. They want to move more weight, get stronger and beat the log book. They are caught up in volume load (sets x reps x weights).
They are caught up in QUANTITY, not QUALITY!
Let me just leave this here…
I don’t want to get too far off topic, but one of my personal publications (2) demonstrated that there is clearly a difference between external workload (i.e. volume), and internal workload (i.e. muscle activation). I’ll write a totally different article diving deeper on that, but to make one point clear, in this acute study with two different experimental conditions, the subjects ended up producing the same amount of volume (external work), however, their internal work (muscle activation) was significantly greater when utilizing greater exercise variation that manipulated joint angles and trained the muscle through a larger range of motion.
My goal with this article is to help you improve the quality of each and every rep.
Therefore, when you are aiming to track progress (objectively equate how much work you are doing per session in the gym) the work you are doing is worthwhile in the first place!
Before getting into various ways to improve your mind muscle connection, some readers may not believe this concept to be true or of any significance to their training. This term “mind muscle connection” refers to the trainee’s conscious ability to enhance neuromuscular drive in order to activate more motor units/muscle fibers. Theoretically speaking, if you can increase activation of both the total number of motor units, and muscle fibers to optimize your training wouldn’t you want to?
Bret Contreras conducted a pilot study in 2014 which utilized electromyography (EMG) to measure muscle activity in experienced and inexperienced trainees. To briefly summarize this study, subjects performed both upper and lower body exercises with specific identical parameters; load, tempo, and mechanics. However, their intent and focus shifted based on what muscles they wanted to activate the most.
The exercises performed for the lower body were the squat, romanian deadlift, hip thrust, and back extension; intent was altered depending on what muscle group they wanted to activate the most. Examples of this would be performing the squat with a quad dominant focus vs a glute dominant focus, or a RDL with a hamstring emphasized focus vs a glute emphasized focus. The exercises utilized for the upper extremity were push-ups, bench press, chin ups and inverted rows. The same concept was put to play here; when performing the bench press, the trainee would alter their intent to be either chest dominant vs tricep dominant.
Results showed that experienced trainees do have the ability to significantly increase neuromuscular drive via intent. If you have the ability to increase intramuscular tension and shift the load of an external force onto the intended muscles in which your looking to contract. You’ll be able to measure your progress in more detail than just tracking total volume/progressive overload. End results showed that mind-muscle-connections play a significant role in maximizing muscular contractions.
In 2016, world renowned exercise scientist, the godfather of hypertrophy science, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and Brett Contreras collaborated on a paper regarding the importance of having an internal focus to maximize muscle hypertrophy(3). They stated “when attempting to maximize muscle activation, an internal focus of attention would seem to be a better choice. Bodybuilders, physique athletes, and others seeking maximal hypertrophy will conceivably benefit by focusing on the target muscle during an exercise rather than on the outcome or environment. It is likely that the molecular signaling for all 3 primary mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy, namely mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage (6), are increased when the exerciser focuses their attention internally, which could ultimately result in greater muscular development for a given exercise and load.” (3)
Attentional focus, effort, and mind muscle connections are variables that aren’t easy to quantify, but something that should be taken into consideration when evaluating your progress/training regimen.
So now you might be wondering, How can I improve my mind-muscle-connection? Along with making sure that I keep my intensity, focus, and effort high.
Where can you start? Listed below are my five personal recommendations to Enhance Your Mind Muscle Connection to Optimize Hypertrophy
1) Educate yourself on human anatomy and kinesiology.
Improve your comprehension on where the major muscles originate, insert, and which joints they directly act upon. Knowing their primary and secondary functions can drastically improve your technique. Being able to visualize the directions in which the muscle fibers run, can allow you to picture each muscle belly shortening during the concentric contraction, and lengthening during the eccentric.
“Connect the dots!” (Literally and figuratively) … When working a muscle through a range of motion, during the concentric (positive), think about the insertion point getting closer and closer to the origin. As you’re performing the eccentric (negative) think about those two points getting further away from each other!
Educating yourself on anatomy and biomechanics will give you the knowledge on what adjustments you should make to improve upon your exercise execution. If you don’t “feel” the exercise targeting the muscle(s) it’s intended to, you should probably decrease the load and make mental cues to execute it differently.
Having an intrinsic focus and consciously placing your efforts on contracting your muscle is crucial. When performing an exercise, in a moderate rep range (i.e. 8-12 repetitions) you will not need to activate every muscle fiber in order to complete the rep from point A (starting position) to point B (end position), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to. Focus your efforts on contracting your muscle with as much intensity as possible. Going through the motions isn’t what's going to create the physique you’re trying to build; focus on the task at hand and maximize your efforts. If moving the bar from point A to point B is your goal - an extrinsic focus will serve you best; if activating as many motor units as possible is your goal - an intrinsic focus will serve you best.
The great Arnold Schwarzenegger once said "I think the biggest mistake people make is that they go to the gym and just go through the motions; They don't have their mind inside the muscle. There were guys next to me who trained just as long as I did, but they looked like shit because they didn't concentrate. They did the same exercises that I did, but they weren't paying attention. They didn't know why they were training; they weren't inside their biceps. You have to be inside the muscle."
3) Isometrics & Isolation Movements
Something as simple as an isometric contraction can drastically improve your mind-muscle-connection. I’m not saying that isometric contractions themselves are going to provide you with a stimulus large enough to grow; however, if it enables you to increase muscle activation on your progressive resistance exercise, that certainly can lead to novel growth. If you have a hard time “feeling” a particular muscle during an exercise(s), try performing 5-10 reps of 3-5 second isometric contractions before performing the isotonic exercise.
Performing activation exercises (commonly referred to as primers) to start off your training session may be a great technique to improve your performance throughout the training session. Since many people have a hard time feeling their lats, here’s an example of how to activate your lats before getting into your normal resistance training program.
Stand with your back against a wall, with your arms down by your side, depress your shoulder girdle (as if you’re reaching down the side of your leg - punching down towards the floor), and extend at your shoulder joint, forcefully pushing your arm back into the wall, you should feel your lats engage right away, hold this contraction for 3-5 second. Try to get a stronger isometric contraction with each rep.
Another good activation exercise is performing “iso-holds” with low loads in the fully shortened position of isolation exercises. Using the lats as an example again, performing a straight arm cable pull down and holding the contraction at the end portion of the range while trying to increase intramuscular tension for 3-5 seconds can also be used. This can be done with any pure isolation exercise, preferably one that overloads the shortened portion, to help enhance neuromuscular drive. Another example would be performing light cable flys and holding the contraction in the fully shortened position for 3-5 seconds while consciously trying to increase activation. Babault et al. (1) demonstrated that maximal isometric contractions can recruit 5-7% more muscle fibers compared to maximal concentric and eccentric contractions respectively.
Some people may ask, are these “activation exercises” the same thing as pre-exhausting techniques?
My answer is no.
Although both, activation techniques and pre-exhaust training utilize isolation exercises before getting into the compound lifts, I recommend cutting your set short, way before getting close to failure. This technique isn’t meant to cause any peripheral fatigue or muscle damage. The goal here is simply to activate and improve upon your mind muscle connection through neural excitation.
Lastly, if you are a competitive bodybuilder, isometric training and posing go hand in hand. They both can complement each other and should be included in your overall programming.
4) Initiate the movement with the target muscle!
As this key goes hand in hand with intent, a good tip is to initiate both the eccentric and concentric contraction with the muscle you’d like to target. For example, if your aim is to maximize tension on the quadriceps when squatting, it is often recommended that you “break at the knee”. If you want to maximize chest activity in the bench press, it is important to initiate the concentric with the pectoralis muscles firing first. Try flexing the target muscle before even concentrically moving the load.
5) Slow it down!
It is common to see trainees lose tension on the negative (eccentric) portion of the lift. They often let the load control their body mechanics, rather than keeping the muscular contractions in control the load. If you can not control the load you’re working with on the eccentric portion of the lift, then it’s too heavy.
I’m often shocked and even puzzled when I see trainees successfully perform the concentric portion of the lift while being unable to control the eccentric portion of the lift with that same load. Start performing negatives with more control while focusing on keeping the tension where you want it.
So to wrap it up, leave your ego at the door when entering the gym and reevaluate the efficiency of your training time.
In my experience, my clients tend to make exponential progress in the early stages of our relationship by applying these 5 tips I’ve shared with you today. The next time you hit the gym, get ready to experience the pump of your life and connect with your musculature like you never have in the past. I absolutely love the scientific application we use in bodybuilding, but I also try to keep the beauty and artistic side of it alive.
“Anything the mind can conceive and believe; the body can achieve.”
Take the following steps to enhance your mind muscle connection and maximize how many muscle fibers are stimulated throughout each rep.
1) Improve your understanding of anatomy and kinesiology, then “connect the dots”.
2) Intent + Intrinsic Focus - think about what you’re trying to target and be in tune with your inner being.
3) Isometrics + Isoholds - use these tools as muscle activation exercises to start off your training session.
4) Initiate the contraction with the target muscle.
5) Slow it down - don’t let the weight control you, you control the weight.
I hope you enjoyed this article.
For more training information check out my programs and free workouts.
In my training ebooks, I cover some of the topics discussed in this article. I cover anatomy and provide a lot of execution cues and tips to help you better connect with the target muscle. Moreover, I provide reasoning for my exercise selection, sequence and overall programming.
1. Babault, N, Pousson, M, Ballay, Y, and Van Hoecke, J. Activation of human quadriceps femoris during isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions. J Appl Physiol 91: 2628–2634, 2001.
2. Barakat, C, Barroso, R, Alvarez, M, Rauch, J, Miller, N, Bou-Sliman, A, et al. The Effects of Varying Glenohumeral Joint Angle on Acute Volume Load, Muscle Activation, Swelling, and Echo-Intensity on the Biceps Brachii in Resistance-Trained Individuals. Sportscience 7: 204, 2019.
3. Schoenfeld, BJ and Contreras, B. Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development: The Mind-Muscle Connection. Strength & Conditioning Journal 38: 27, 2016.