If you’ve ever heard of the bodybuilding term “mind-muscle connection”, or (MMC), you’ve heard of muscle activation. This is the practice of learning how to feel a muscle while working it in order to achieve better results.
The brain controls all movement. Before a muscle can contract, the brain must send a message to the muscle ordering it to do so, communicating via a released neurotransmitter known as Acetylcholine. The message travels along the synapses—the brain’s information-delivery pathways—and then, after all that, the muscle contracts.
Obviously, everything that happens between the command to contract a muscle and the eventual (although it feels instantaneous) contraction of the muscle itself is involuntary. It is possible, however, to improve the communication that flows from the brain to the muscle. When the connection between the two is at its most efficient, the greatest amount of muscle fibers will be recruited. With practice, you can actually use your brain to tell your body to use more muscle, and therefore, to build more muscle.
Consider that when someone goes to the gym for the first time, they may not know how to flex certain muscles. They may not even have any muscles to flex yet. For instance, the triceps muscles – the three-headed muscles on the back of the arm – are often what people think of when they want to tone their arms. Yet, they may not know that the function of the triceps is to straighten the elbow. Only by experimenting with different elbow-straightening movements like triceps pushdowns or kickbacks can they begin to understand what it feels like when the muscle is working.
Once they can spot the feeling of the muscle working, then and only then can they begin to practice muscle activation on that specific muscle group. The triceps were only one example. Muscle activation can (and should) be practiced in every muscle. Think of it in terms of goals: the goal is to stimulate the muscles and make them grow, not just, in the case of the triceps, to straighten and unstraighten the elbow rapidly for a prescribed number of reps.
Imagine that you are about to perform a set of bench presses in order to work your pectoral muscles. Of course, the pecs aren’t the only muscle involved in a bench press. The front deltoids shoulder some of the load, as do the triceps. If you perform the movement without focus, your pecs might perform a lower percentage of the work than you would want, despite the fact that you chose a pectoral-intensive exercise.
If you put 200 pounds on the bar, ideally you will lift 100% of that weight with your chest. However, without proper muscle activation and focus, it’s possible that you could lift 50% with your chest, 25% with your triceps, and 25% with your deltoids. This is an over-simplification for the sake of the example, but the idea is clear. A 2016 study for the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that, by directing mental focus to the triceps during a bench press, up to 50% of the load was removed from the pectoral muscles. Therefore, the MMC is not an abstract concept. Numbers don’t lie.
Muscle activation is not about rushing through a set to make it end, it’s about slowing down enough to focus so that you can make the set matter. In a 2004 study for Neuropsychologia, it was found that increased mental focus, directed towards the working muscles, resulted in much greater output and intensity. There is little point in performing a movement without a goal.
Here’s how to do it. The next time you perform an exercise, go into it with no preconceived ideas about reps and sets. Your only goal will be to feel the muscles involved in the movement. For this experiment, use bodyweight squats.
Explore different squatting tempos. Vary the width of your stance. For one set, put your heels together. For another, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. During each squat, focus. Pay attention to what is happening in your legs, in your lower back, and in your glutes. When you find a speed and stance that makes you feel the work happening in the relevant muscles, stick with it. That is where your greatest muscular development will come from.
These ideas and cues can work with any exercise. During dumbbell flyes, when you levae the bottom portion of the movement, think about wrapping your arms around a tree and squeezing, activating the pectorals. During biceps curls, flex your biceps at the top of the movement, really squeezing so that you teach yourself how it should feel and set yourself up for greater muscle recruitment. Avoid excessive momentum in any exercises where moving the weight at a greater speed takes the tension off of the muscles, thereby reducing the connection between the mind and the body. Explore every exercise and you will always be able to find the tempo and cues that work best for you.
The more you practice muscle activation, the more it will become a habit. Once you know how to zero in on any working muscle, it will become second nature. If you are going to devote yourself to countless days of physical exertion, you owe yourself maximum results. This is the surest way to ensure that your time will never be wasted when you go to the gym.