Mind-Muscle Connection For Maximising Your Gainz?

Key points:

  • The concept of mindfulness refers to “being consciously aware of the present moment”.  It focuses on the quality of movement rather than just lifting heavier weights each day.
  • Practicing full range of motion along with great form during any exercise is the key.
  • It is essential that you focus on a particular movement, preferably isolated ones, like say single leg glute bridges, till the point of tension and fatigue.
  • Increased muscle activation can be seen only where the subject is lifting in slow tempos. However, that’s not the case with explosive lifting.
  • Mental training results in improved muscle strength along with enhancing the cortical output signal.
  • Increased release of acetylcholine results in enhanced muscle contraction quality.

Whenever we start working on a routine or a program, we have several tasks going on in our head. While it is a great asset if you can multi-task, especially when working in time-bound corporate projects, it is not the same case with your body.

It is very important to be focussed on not just the output and final results, but to actually learn something through the entire process. This is where the concept of mindfulness steps in. Simply put, mindfulness means to be “consciously aware of the present moment”.

In fitness space, this term fits in very well. It refers to the inclination of one’s focus on the quality of movement rather than just lifting heavier weights each day. Adding kilos with each set would definitely enhance your strength and surely indicate progress but not in a wholesome way. Practicing full range of motion along with great form during any exercise is the key.

Another very important factor is the full activation of muscles. While exercising, people often complain that certain muscles aren’t really growing the way they expected them to. A major reason for that is lack of activation of the concerned muscle area. For this purpose, it is essential that you focus on a particular movement, preferably isolated ones, like say single leg glute bridges. Here, you can devote your entire concentration on that one muscle/group of muscles that are being used, till the point of tension and fatigue.

This technique of employing internal cues (focus on one part of the body) has been validated through several research studies which claim that “internal cues consistently lead to increased muscle activation compared to no cues or external cues”. This was challenged by a review article of a study published in MASS, wherein bench press was chosen as the exercise. By using Electromyography (EMG), the results showed that increased muscle activation could be seen only in cases where the subject was lifting in slow tempos. In case of explosive lifting, the internal cues failed to activate the triceps and pecs.

In addition to this, there is another interesting explanation provided by a study done by Brad Schoenfeld, an internationally renowned fitness expert. Taking this hypothesis forward he conducted a longitudinal study with two groups of untrained subjects who were randomly assigned to look at internal or external cues. Engaging in single joint exercises, the former were instructed to squeeze the muscles while latter was supposed to increase their weights constantly. Findings indicated that one could witness superior gains through biceps hypertrophy. In contrast, thigh or quad hypertrophy did not see similar results through internal focus of attention. Brad suggested that since the upper body is used for fine motor skills like writing, picking things, holding things etc., people tend to focus more on arm muscles than lower body which is generally employed in gross motor skills like walking and running.

Moreover, this has been proven not just in the field of physical exercises. A comparative research has shown that mental training results in improved muscle strength along with enhancing the cortical output signal. The cerebral cortex is that part of the brain which receives neurological signals as sensory input which then controls muscles contractions and movements through the cortical output. Due to this, the muscle reaches a higher activation level and consequentially, strength gain. What’s important to note here is that this research was conducted on simple activities like little finger abductor and elbow flexor muscles, rather than any heavy form of physical activity.

And since this world revolves around science, there’s a little scientific fact to it too. Every time you workout and try to give all your mental concentration on that muscle contraction, Acetylcholine is released. It is a neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to move. So the equation is simple-

Increased Mental Attention   ->.  Acetylcholine production increases = Enhanced muscle contraction quality

The studies, evidence and theory sounds a little hard to understand at times. For this reason, here are two practical tips that can help you achieve that mind-muscle connection:

  • Lift Slowly – Start by lifting concentrically for 2 seconds. Then pause for 1 second and eccentrically lift it down to the position where you started it from, counting till 3. This will keep a check that you don’t exhaust your muscle too early.
  • Keep your eyes closed if it is difficult to activate a particular muscle – This is really beneficial as it avoid any distractions and helps you concentrate on that muscle where you are experiencing tension and contraction.

However, despite so much evidence available, more often than not, we tend to focus our attention on the external cues i.e. the performance outcome rather than the internal focus of attention. The right kind of knowledge and guidance can show tremendous progress and give satisfying results.

References:

1. Anonymous.(2019). “The Mind Muscle Connection is Backed By Science-Here’s How It Works. Habitnest. Retrieved August 25, 2020. https://habitnest.com/blogs/habit-nest-blog/the-mind-muscle-connection-is-backed-by-science-heres-how-it-works

2.  Deen, J. (2020). “The Mind-Muscle Connection: Mindfulness and Strength, Intensity, and Muscle Growth”. Retrieved August 24, 2020. https://legionathletics.com/mind-muscle-connection/

3. Nuckols, G. (2020). “Internal Cues Don’t Affect Muscle Activation with Explosive Lifting”. Stronger by Science. Retrieved August 24, 2020. https://www.strongerbyscience.com/internal-cues/?fbclid=IwAR3qFx3Ug_NmWrEdOIeJycampfUlgBm2tVkACIMLukphukrEMx3pSk3r1hs

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