Just going through the motions won't maximize muscle growth. Here are 5 keys to improving your mind-muscle connection.

There's no better feeling than the satisfaction you experience after an awesome training session. You know, that workout in which you get a massive pump, feel connected with your physique, and are "in the zone."

On the flipside, one of the worst feelings is when you can't get it going. You hit the bench, but you don't get a chest pump—but your front delts and triceps do. You're geared up to train back, but you can't "feel" a strong connection with your posterior musculature, and the one thing that seems to fatigue is your biceps.

If you've experienced these feelings before, improving your mind-muscle connection should be your new number-one priority. It can drastically improve not only your rate of progress, but your enjoyment while training as well.

Reading The Research

This term "mind-muscle connection" refers to your conscious ability to enhance neuromuscular drive to activate more motor units and muscle fibers. Skeptics might be inclined to believe this concept isn't of any real value to their training. Theoretically, however, if you could increase activation of both motor units and muscle fibers, you'd optimize your training.

So what's the evidence to support it?

Bret Contreras, PhD, CSCS, conducted a pilot study in 2014 that utilized electromyography (EMG) to measure muscle activity in experienced and inexperienced trainees. Subjects performed both upper- and lower-body exercises with specific, identical parameters: load, tempo, and mechanics. However, their intent and focus shifted based on what muscles they wanted to activate the most.

The exercises performed for the lower body were the squat, Romanian deadlift, hip thrust, and back extension; intent was altered depending on what muscle group they wanted to activate the most. Examples of this would be performing the squat with a quad-dominant focus or a glute-dominant focus, or an RDL with a hamstring-emphasized focus versus a glute-emphasized focus.

The upper-body exercises were the push-up, bench press, chin-up, and inverted row. The same concept was put into play here: When performing the bench press, the trainee would alter his intent to be either chest- or triceps-dominant.

Results showed that experienced trainees do have the ability to significantly increase neuromuscular drive via intent. That is, the mind-muscle connection plays a significant role in maximizing muscular contractions. So, rather than measuring your progress by tracking total volume and progressive overload, start paying attention to how your mind-muscle connection improves.

Focus, effort, and mind-muscle connections aren't variables that are easy to quantify, but are worthy of consideration when evaluating your progress. Let's take a look at a few ways you can improve your mind-muscle connection for superior results.

1. Educate Yourself In Human Anatomy And Kinesiology

 The more you know, the more potential you have to grow! Improve your knowledge of where the major muscles originate and insert, as well as the joints they directly act upon. Knowing their primary and secondary functions can drastically improve your technique and even exercise programming. For example, the primary function of the hamstrings is knee flexion, which explains why leg-curl variations work so well. But a secondary function of the hamstrings is hip extension, and that's most commonly trained with deadlift variations, such as the RDL.

If you want to train a muscle from all angles and stimulate each fiber, you need to train all of that muscle's actions. Using the hamstrings again as an example, simply turning your toes in or out will rotate the hip joints and transfer the majority of the tension to the semtendinosus/semimembranosus fibers or the biceps femoris, respectively.

With applied knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology, you'll be able to fine-tune your training to maximize tension where you want it. You can manipulate multiple variables and program exercises that overload every portion of the range of motion for each muscle. For example, dumbbell flyes for chest provide a great amount of tension (overload) in the extended portion of the ROM but basically no tension at all in the peak-contracted position. Conversely, a pec-deck machine can overload the chest in the fully shortened position.

Having a good understanding of anatomy will enable you to visualize the directions muscle fibers run, allowing you to picture each muscle belly shortening during the concentric contraction and lengthening during the eccentric.

Next, connect the dots. Educating yourself on anatomy and biomechanics will help you understand what adjustments you should make to improve exercise execution. If you don't "feel" the exercise targeting the intended muscle or muscles, you should most likely decrease the load.

2. Know Your Intent

In the classic bodybuilding film "Pumping Iron," Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "The biggest mistake people make is that they go to the gym and just go through the motions; they don't have their mind inside the muscle. There were guys next to me who trained just as long as I did, but they looked like shit because they didn't concentrate. They did the same exercises that I did, but they weren't paying attention. They didn't know why they were training; they weren't inside their biceps. You have to be inside the muscle."

It's crucial to have an intrinsic focus and consciously place your efforts on contracting your muscle. When performing an exercise in a moderate rep range (i.e., 8-12 repetitions), you won't activate every muscle fiber early in the set to complete the movement. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Focus your efforts on contracting your muscle with as much intensity as possible. Simply going through the motions isn't enough; focus on the task at hand, and maximize your efforts.

Instead of externally focusing on moving the bar from point A to point B, focus internally on activating as many muscle fibers as possible.

3. Perform Isometric And Isolation Movements

Something as simple as an isometric contraction can drastically improve your mind-muscle-connection. (An isometric contraction is one in which the muscle does not shorten, like pushing against a sturdy wall.) An isometric may enable you to increase muscle activation on a given movement, which can lead to novel growth. If you have a hard time "feeling" a particular muscle during an exercise or exercises, try performing 5-10 reps of 3- to 5-second isometrics before going back to the initial movement.

Performing isometric contractions to start off your training session may be a useful technique to improve your performance throughout your training session. Since many people have a hard time "feeling" their lats, for example, here's a method to activate your lats before getting into your normal workout. Stand with your back against a wall and your arms down by your sides. Depress your shoulder girdle (as if you're reaching down the sides of your legs) and forcefully push your hands back into the wall. You should feel your lats engage right away. Hold this contraction for 3-5 seconds, and repeat for reps. Try to get a stronger isometric contraction with each rep.

Isometrically holding the peak contraction can enhance the neuromuscular drive.

Another good activation exercise is performing "iso-holds" with low loads in the fully shortened position (peak contraction) of single-joint exercises. Using the lats again as an example, perform a straight-arm lat pull-down and hold the contraction at the end portion of the range of motion while consciously trying to increase the intramuscular tension for 3-5 seconds, repeating for reps. This can be done with any pure isolation exercise, preferably one that overloads the shortened portion, to help enhance neuromuscular drive.

Another example is to perform light cable cross-overs and holding the contraction in the fully shortened position for 3-5 seconds while consciously trying to increase activation. A 2001 study demonstrated that a maximal isometric contraction can recruit 5-7 percent more muscle fibers compared to maximal concentric and eccentric contractions, respectively.[1]

You may be wondering if these "activation exercises" are the same as pre-exhaust techniques, but they're not. Although both use isolation exercises before getting into the compound lifts, I recommend cutting your set short, way before you get close to failure. This technique isn't meant to cause any peripheral fatigue or muscle damage. The goal here is simply to "activate" and improve upon your mind-muscle connection through neural excitation.

If you're a competitive bodybuilder, isometric training and posing go hand in hand. They complement each other and should be included in your overall programming.

4. Initiate The Movement With The Target Muscle

Initiate both the eccentric and concentric contractions by focusing on the muscle you'd like to target. For example, if your aim is to maximize tension on the quadriceps when squatting, it's often recommended that you "break at the knee" initially.

If you want to maximize chest activity on the bench press, think of initiating the concentric with the pectoralis muscles firing first. Focus on flexing the target muscle before even concentrically moving the load.

5. Slow It Down

It's not uncommon to see trainees lose tension on the negative (eccentric) portion of a lift. They often let the load control their body mechanics rather than allowing the eccentric muscular contractions to maintain control of the load. If you can't control the load you're working with on the eccentric portion of the lift, then it's too heavy.

Start paying attention to not just what you lift, but how you lower it as well. 

It often baffles me how trainees can successfully perform the concentric portion of the lift while being unable to control the eccentric portion of the lift, even with that same load! Start performing your negatives with more control while focusing on keeping tension where you want it.

Leave your ego at the door when entering the gym and re-evaluate the efficiency of your training time. In my experience, my clients tend to make expeditious progress in the early stages of our relationship by applying these five tips I've shared with you here.

The next time you hit the gym, get ready to experience the pump of your life and connect with your musculature like you've never done before!

  1. Babault, N., Pousson, M., Ballay, Y., & Van Hoecke, J. (2001). Activation of human quadriceps femoris during isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions. Journal of Applied Physiology, 91(6), 2628-2634.

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