The mind muscle connection is a term that is referred to frequently by lifters, but not always understood. In essence, developing this connection is the key to maximizing the growth of your muscles.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a model of intensity and focus in the gym. He trained with purpose, never wasting a moment. He was also an early advocate of developing the mind muscle connection. When he was going to work on a muscle, he said that he would visualize it first, trying to imagine (and feel) every inch of the range of motion he was about to put it through. By prepping his mind for the work to come, once he started he was able to make sure that he stimulated the muscle with all of the intended focus. That focus paid off in a big way: with greater muscle fiber recruitment.
A team of researchers instructed a group of subjects to perform two sets of lat pulldowns (an exercise emphasis the latissimus dorsi, the large wing-shaped muscles of the back). They gave them only enough instruction so that they knew how to perform the movement. Without cues or much guidance, the subjects performed their sets.
Several minutes later, after resting, they would perform additional sets. However, there was a change this time. The researchers told them exactly how to perform the movement so that it would primarily work the back. Because the trainees were inexperienced, they had been working the movement with their arms, using far more biceps than is desirable on an exercise that is designed to build the back musculature. The subjects had just received a lesson in using the mind muscle connection.
An EMG test showed that the sets performed while using the MMC recruited far more muscle fibers in the lats than the first two sets had. The subjects had learned how to focus their mind on the muscles and the results were indisputable.
When you perform a lift, you probably think about where you’re feeling the stimulus. If asked to pinpoint exactly where it burned and fatigued, you would be able to point to those muscles. However, it is also possible that you would be feeling it in muscles that weren’t the intended target, like the subjects in the experiment discussed above.
Here’s how to think about it: when you lift, think about where you’re feeling the work, but then shift gears and think about where you should be feeling it. This may require you to learn more about your body and muscles than you currently know, and that’s great.
If you’re bench pressing and you feel the strain in your triceps more than your chest, you will know that an adjustment needs to be made. That’s not where you should be feeling it, at least primarily (unless you’re going for a close grip bench press). If you’re performing calf raises and your Achilles tendon is the only thing that feels like it’s working, you will know that you have developed the mind muscle connection between your brain and your calves.
One of the easiest ways to develop the mind muscle connection is to focus, initially, on the eccentric portion of a lift. The eccentric is when you are lowering the weight, or returning it to the starting point of the lift. For instance, if you perform a dumbbell curl, the curl itself is the concentric movement. Lowering it is the eccentric.
Many lifters have a tendency to let gravity handle the eccentric. Letting momentum guide the weight down gives you a chance to “rest,” and you miss out on a chance to pay attention, not to mention increased work to the muscle. However, a slow, controlled eccentric is often the skeleton key that teaches someone what a working muscle should feel like.
Developing a mind muscle connection takes time, but you will get better at it with each practice session. To that end, you have two assignments for your next workout. First, as Arnold recommended, think about the muscles you’re going to use before you start a set. Visualize what they will feel like, and then try to replicate that sensation in every rep.
Second, while using lighter weights, really pay attention while you’re in the eccentric portion of a lift. It will teach you what the mind muscle connection feels like. Once you know, you’ll be able to generate it during all portions of a lift. A strong mental link between mind and body will make sure that your hard work gets you the results you deserve.