For decades, bodybuilders across the globe have touted the importance of the mind-muscle connection -- a physiological connection between mind and muscle that when tapped into can produce jaw-dropping results.
But, is the mind-muscle connection just another entry in the annals of bro science or can it actually enhance muscle growth?
What is the Mind Muscle Connection?
Simply put, the mind-muscle connection refers to the conscious and deliberate contraction of a specific muscle group (or groups) while it is under tension.
In other words, you’re “setting your intention” such that you focus not so much on lifting the weight from point A to point B, but you focus on contracting the individual muscle fibers has hard as possible during the concentric (lifting) phase of the lift, “squeezing” at the top, and then “resisting” the weight down by slowly expanding (lengthening) the muscle fibers until the weight is at its starting position.
The simplest example of this is the bicep curl.
Typically, when you curl a dumbbell, you’re primary focus is on flexing the elbow so that the dumbbell is curled up to your shoulder and then it’s lowered to the bottom. However, when performing the dumbbell curl with a robust mind-muscle connection, you’re not focused so much on moving the weight, but contracting the individual fibers in your biceps as hard and intensely as possible. Then, slowly unloading the muscle fibers as you extend the elbow and lengthen the fibers of the biceps.
In theory, utilizing such an approach on every single repetition should result in greater motor unit recruitment in the working muscle and ultimately better muscle growth.
But, is any of this true, or should we really only be focused on lifting and lowering the weight, nary a concern for this “mind-muscle connection” nonsense?
Well, score one for the gym bros, because they’re right on this one!
Numerous studies have shown that when individuals are instructed to focus on recruiting a particular muscle group prior to performing an exercise, a larger percentage of that muscle’s fibers are recruited.[1,2,3,4,5]
Perhaps more interestingly is the fact that these studies also found that there was less activation of auxiliary muscle fibers during the exercise. In other words, when using the mind-muscle connection you get more tension on the target muscles and less activation of the surrounding, supporting musculature, which benefits hypertrophy.
Based on these findings, it would appear that the mind-muscle connection could help a lifter build more muscle faster. But it wasn’t until recently that the lifting community actually had proof that the mind-muscle connection actually enhanced muscle growth.
Research by “the hypertrophy doc” Brad Schoenfeld and “the glute guy” Bret Contreras found that when test subjects were given internal cueing (e.g. “squeeze the muscle”) they experienced greater muscle growth than those who were simply instructed to lift the weight up and lower it.
Now, a caveat worth mentioning here is that the utility of the mind-muscle connection largely depends on your goals. If you’re interested purely in muscle growth, feeling the working muscle is pretty important and can certainly enhance your gains.
However, if you’re interested in strength or explosiveness, trainers and coaches have found that external cues (moving your body in relation to space) yields better results.
For example, if you want to power clean better, don’t think about contracting your glutes, calves, abs, and upper back. Think about propelling your body away from the floor and towards the ceiling.
Now, let’s discuss how to achieve a solid mind-muscle connection.
How to Achieve the Mind-Muscle Connection
Use Slower Lifting Tempos
One of the quickest and easiest ways to work on building a stronger mind-muscle connection is to take longer to lift and lower the weights. Instead of following a 1-0-1-0 lifting tempo where you take one second to raise the weight, no pause at the top, one second to lower the weight, and then immediately start in on your next repetition, slow things down a bit and really “milk” each rep for all it has.
Try using a 3-1-3-1 lifting tempo where you take three seconds to raise the weight, pause that the point of peak contraction and really “squeeze” the living daylights out of the working muscle, lower it over a count of three, and then pause at the bottom for a second before beginning the next rep.
By doing this, you’ll definitely have to use a lighter weight than normal, but what you trade in weight on the bar, you make up for in establishing a stronger mind-muscle connection.
Another way to help dial in the mind-muscle connection is through the use of isometric contractions at various points during an exercise.
Taking these concentrated “pauses” in the mid-range of an exercise is especially helpful for those “hard to feel” muscles like the side delts, lats, and hamstrings. As an added bonus, utilizing isometrics also helps increase time under tension, which benefits muscle growth!
The mind-muscle connection is founded on your ability to establish a link between mind and body. As such, part of establishing a strong mind-muscle connection is making sure that you’re actually focused on what you’re doing while training.
For example, if you’re trying to create a stronger contraction in your pecs during bench pressing, actually focus on squeezing the pecs together as hard as possible in order to push the weight up. Don’t let your mind wander to what exercise is next, what you’re having for dinner, or what your friends are doing. To establish the mind-muscle connection, you have to live in the moment and relish each repetition for all it has to offer.
The mind-muscle connection is real, and it can actually enhance your results from training. For beginners, it may not always be easy to feel the specific muscle group that they’re trying to hit. However, with practice, patience, and the tips we’ve outlined, you too can build a better mind-muscle connection and be on your way to more productive workouts!
- Schoenfeld, B., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science(Vol. 18). https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Andersen, L. L. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(3), 527–533. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Colado, J. C., & Andersen, L. L. (2017). Mind-muscle connection training principle: influence of muscle strength and training experience during a pushing movement. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 117(7), 1445–1452. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-017-3637-6
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Colado, J., & Andersen, L. L. (2018). Attentional Focus and Grip Width Influences on Bench Press Resistance Training. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 125(2), 265–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031512517747773
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Colado, J. C., & Andersen, L. L. (2018). Influence of different attentional focus on EMG amplitude and contraction duration during the bench press at different speeds. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(10), 1162–1166. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2017.1363403