by Josh Hodnick
We’ve all been guilty of slipping into auto pilot at the gym. You know those training sessions where your mind is so preoccupied with so many other things that you have no idea whether you just completed your third or fourth set of squats. The mental slumps can last a few days or a few years. You can probably recall that you were focused, mentally energized, and mindful of everything you did in the gym when you were making progress. Also, you will notice that time the time periods where you are mentally disengaged at the gym, progress slows or stops completely. This is no coincidence.
A focus on mind-muscle connection was popular during 70’s bodybuilding with Arnold, Frank Zane, and Mike Mentzer. Today, the gym atmosphere is much different than it was then. The gym today has become a crowded area filled with a bunch of distracted people. Gym goers are usually either zoned into one of the many TV’s hanging on the wall, or they are preoccupied with taking selfies, videos, or scrolling through social media. Most believe that they can go into the gym and throw around heavy weights and get the most out of their training without having to totally dedicate their focus to the process. They are wrong and they are selling themselves short by not implementing their mind-muscle connection.
Every task that is completed in the gym starts with the mind, and this can be explained through simple anatomy. The brain is connected to your spinal cord, which branches out through all the nerves in the body. These nerves are attached to your muscles which respond to the signals they receive directly from the brain. Actions of the muscle are always in response to instructions issued by the mind. Any injury or disruption of the signal from the brain has a direct effect on the muscle. This is apparent in neuromuscular diseases and in conditions where there may be nerve damage. This leads the muscle to atrophy and there becomes an inability for the muscle to function normally. Strength, endurance, and mobility decreases when a muscle is not properly connected to the brain.
Every type of training is about teaching your mind to control your muscles. While most view exercise as just physical training, its very much a mental practice. Its the practice of using the mind to use the muscles in the most productive way. Everything you want to accomplish from training comes down to how you use your muscles and everything about using your muscles comes down to how your mind can use them. Simply, a muscle does whatever the mind tells it to do. So it all begins with training the mind.
There is a neurotransmitter in our bodies that stimulates skeletal muscle called acetylcholine. When stimulated, acetylcholine initiates processes that control muscle contraction. It also plays a role in our ability to pay attention, memory storage, and recall. The more acetylcholine that is available, the more attentive our minds can be, and more muscle fibers will be stimulated, leading to those fibers being used, broken down, and rebuilt.
Many bodybuilders believe in the mind-muscle connection; activating a muscle mentally. Others believe that if an exercise is done with good form, the muscles do their job automatically. Often I hear people complain that a certain muscle just wont grow, while other muscle groups seem to be growing just fine. This is usually due to one of two things. Its either genetics or their inability to activate the muscle correctly. It takes more than using good form and moving a weight from point A to point B in order to fully activate the muscle. Activating any particular muscle takes practice and paying close attention.
To form a mind-muscle connection there needs to be mindfulness during training. Being mindful is being consciously aware of the present moment. This means paying attention to what you’re doing and blocking everything else out. During a set of bench press for example, you should be aware of everything happening during the movement, in particular, the fatigue, tension, and quality of contraction. Social media, e-mail, your phone, and anything else should take a backseat. If you can learn to focus solely on the muscle being trained while blocking everything else out, you’ve successfully practiced being mindful and made a mind-muscle connection.
Another way to incorporate a mind-muscle connection is through visualization. Dr. Srinivasan Pillay of the Harvard Medical School in the book titled Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders writes that recent studies have shown that we use the same part of the brain to visualize an action as we do when we perform that action. In your mind, visualize the muscle filling with blood as you lift a dumbbell during a curl and then visualize the blood leaving the muscle as you return to the starting position. Arnold did this and many athletes use this act of visualization to act out a play in their mind.
While some bodybuilders have believed in the mind-muscle connection for decades you may not be sold on the concept. You may need some science proving how vital the mind-muscle connection is for growth in order for you to ditch the phone and other distractions during your training sessions. Well, the science is there. New research by Bret Contreras, CSCS, and Brad Schoenfel, PhD, CSCS, suggests that to maximize muscle growth, an internal strategy of focusing on the muscle being trained would in fact increase activation of the target muscle. Contreras was able to conclude that advanced lifters are quite capable of steering neuromuscular drive to and away from muscles, and the mind-muscle connection would meaningfully impact hypertrophic gains.
In Western society the physical and mental side to everything is often separated. In the gym, many will flip on auto-pilot and train with their focus on everything but the task immediately at hand. This is the wrong way to go about things if the intention is to progressively increase muscle and strength. Being completely mindful while training a particular muscle will without a doubt increase muscle activation, leading to more muscle fibers being broken down and rebuilt. Ditch all the distractions, implement the mind-muscle connection, and Think Yourself Big!