When we think of weight training, the first thing that comes to mind is the physical process of lifting weights. However, there are mental elements too. We have to think about what we are doing and how we are doing it, this is where the mind-muscle connection comes into play. First though, what exactly is it?
So, what is it? Basically, every single movement you perform in the gym and every muscle you engage is ultimately controlled by your brain. To get the maximum benefit from training, put your mind into it and think about it with motive. During an exercise, for example, you have to focus on the muscular tension generated in that particular area using your brain. This is the mind-muscle connection, or in scientific terms the neuromuscular connection.
Let’s say you are training your biceps, you get to the top of the movement, lower the weight and repeat. Simple. But now, think about contracting the muscle through that movement, when you get to the top, visualise your bicep and actively squeeze the muscle. Think about tensing up the muscle as much as possible and it feels like a whole different ball game! Actively engage the muscles and contract hard. This is a conscious decision to contract the muscle fibres as opposed to thinking about doing the movement and letting the contractions happen passively.. this is essentially what mind-muscle connection is all about.
So in summary, giving mental focus to the movement at hand and consciously contracting the muscle with purpose.
How does it work? Essentially, when you pick up a weight and go to use your muscles, a signal is sent via your brain to your muscle telling it to contract. Without getting too technical, a chemical is released and this binds to receptors of your muscle fibres, once the signal is received, contraction takes place.
The faster this happens, the more muscle fibres are recruited. The more recruited, the better the contraction and in turn the better the workout and overall training effect.
Why is it important? Let's take your compound movements, for example, the squat, bench press, deadlift etc. the main muscles you intend on working and ultimately growing/getting stronger are called primary muscles and secondary muscles will support them.
For the easiest explanation let's say right now, you are performing a barbell bench press, which is to build strength and size in your chest. Now, the chest is the primary muscle and your triceps and shoulders help during this movement (secondary muscle).
To get the most out of your chest, you want maximum contraction in this muscle whilst limiting the involvement of your secondary muscles (shoulders and triceps).
So now, if you implement mind-muscle connection and really focus on contracting your chest and putting effort into each and every rep and thought. You will get the most out of the exercise and get better overall chest development. The same goes for other areas, other exercises and other muscles when you apply the same principle. Great, how can I work on and improve this connection? WARM-UP SETS The first and best way is to warm up by going through the movement with lighter weight. Focusing on technique and the engagement of your desired muscle using the principles outlined above. This goes for compound movements (the big heavy lifts) and accessory work (working on weaker areas, smaller individual muscle groups).
Work initially on stretching the muscle and contracting the muscle fibres. When you then get into your working sets with heavier load, you will likely perform better and best utilise mind-muscle connection.
VISUALISE Sure, you may have a mirror available where you can potentially see your muscle working. But, try and visualise the area in your head, even think about how it is specifically working from inside. Now that may seem odd, but just give it a go. That feeling you get, the ‘pump’, the build-up of lactic acid etc. visualise it, why it is happening, where it is happening and how you can make the most of it based on your goals.
Even starting to pre-empt the lift in your mind before you lift can help you more so than if you don’t, it can make a big difference once you start lifting and working your muscle/s.
DO NOT JUST LIFT THE WEIGHT, TAKE YOUR TIME, TRAIN THE MUSCLE. At times you can get caught up in lifting big weights or going for personal bests. Yes, there is a time and a place for that. However, think about training the muscle at hand NOT about how much you can lift on that day. You work up to those top weights and if it feels good, go for it. But if you're not feeling the muscle properly working then drop a few kilos and work on the quality of the contractions.
But if you want to work your muscle properly, don’t move from A to B with no purpose. Think what do I need to engage, what do I need to contract and what muscle am I actually wanting to maximise from getting to point B. Once that's established, then take your body through the movement.
Time can help here too, perform reps slowly and don’t erratically move between each point. Control the weight, don't let it control you!
So, my challenge for you upon reading this blog is to try and practice and implement what you have read in this post the next time you step foot in the gym. You will thank yourself for it and you are also maximising the hard effort you put into each and every session!
See you in the studio! Coach Dyl