Whether you're new to the weight room or a seasoned veteran, the goal is the same: to get a quality strength workout. However, gaining muscle and strength isn't just about how much weight you're lifting—there is also a mental aspect involved with each workout and it hinges on your ability to focus on the task at hand without allowing your mind to wander to chores or deadlines waiting for you outside the gym. Commonly referred to as the "mind-muscle connection," research demonstrates that by thinking about the movement of the targeted muscle, you can strengthen it more effectively.
A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that focusing on the triceps or pectoralis muscles during a bench press (using weight up to 60 percent of one-rep max) increased activity in those muscles during the exercise. A study in the European Journal of Sports Science found enhanced elbow flexor and quadricep muscle development when participants focused on contracting the targeted muscle during training rather than considering only the outcome of the lift.
The mind-muscle connection involves the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that activates muscle contraction. The amount of acetylcholine produced determines the quality of the contraction, which impacts muscle development and strength.
Improve Your Mind-Muscle Connection
A new exerciser's primary focus should be on proper technique and breathing through the movement. Once this is mastered, though, there are simple ways to improve the mind-muscle connection in your strength workouts.
- Slow down. Your entire focus should be on the exercise, which is difficult if you're going through the motion too quickly. Aim for two seconds on each part of the exercise, including the lift, pause at the top, release and pause at the bottom before the next repetition.
- Reduce the resistance. If you're too focused on lifting a challenging amount of weight, you won't be able to put all your attention on the working muscle. Decrease the weight to increase the quality of the movement.
- Work only the areas you're targeting. By paying closer attention to which muscles are tensing during an exercise, you might notice that you're unintentionally working the wrong ones. For example, do your neck muscles tense during a shoulder press? Make efforts to consciously relax any muscles not related to the exercise to improve your focus.
- Simplify the exercise. Compound exercises (such as a squat with a biceps curl) are great time-savers because they work multiple muscles at once, but they aren't as helpful to improve the mind-muscle connection. Doing biceps curls in isolation allows you to focus on just the bicep muscle during the exercise.
Do I Have to Exercise in Silence?
Improving your mind-muscle connection doesn't mean you must do your strength workout in total silence. Music is a popular tool to help drown out background noise, allowing you to stay present during the workout. If the music isn't a distraction to you, it might help improve focus.
For many, their workout is the only time of day that they have reserved just for themselves. While the physical benefits of increasing your mind-muscle connection are great, this practice is also a great way to give yourself permission to drown out the background noise, stress or anxiety just for a few moments. Whether you do that in silence or while listening to your favorite tune, it's all about cueing into your body, its needs and your overall well-being.
Think of it this way: It's hard to follow your recipe for dinner when the phone is ringing, you're trying to respond to an email and the dog needs to go outside. By focusing your attention on just one thing, you're able to complete it more effectively, or in this case, work the desired muscle with greater efficiency.