Hey Angels & Alphas!
Nowadays, everyone in the fitness community is talking about the mind-muscle connection.
From a historical perspective, many legendary bodybuilders and strength athletes praise the implementation of a “mind-muscle connection” in their training.
By mind-muscle connection, they mean focusing their attention on the muscle that they’re working out during any given set.
Even though this seems like it would be really hard to investigate in research, the reported effects of the mind-muscle connection have baffled scientists for decades.
Today, we’re going to look into this phenomenon and find out how it relates to better fitness performance and greater hypertrophy.
Let’s get right into it!
How do we define the “mind-muscle connection”?
We can say that our mind-muscle connection is the transference of our attentional focus onto the activity we’re performing.
To this day, two major types of attentional focus have been identified – internal and external.
The external relates to focusing your attention on parts of the environment.
The internal involves thinking about the body, such as the contraction of the working muscle or the movement of a shoulder blade around a shoulder joint.
What researchers have found is that when you employ an external focus of attention, during a physical movement, you can achieve higher maximum force production, better performance on endurance tests, and more reps in tests of muscle endurance. (Source 1, Source 2)
Not only that, but using an external focus of attention has also been related to higher gains in motor learning over extended training periods.
What about internal focus?
Well, in contrast, researchers have found that using an internal focus of attention leads to improved muscle activation. Another research that examined the mind-muscle connection of individuals during traditional strength training with light loads also backed this fact.
Moreover, an internal focus of attention leads to greater gains in muscle size over the long-term.
Researchers usually explain this finding in relation to the better muscle activation achieved by internal focus points.
Why does the internal focus of attention enhance muscle activation?
When you’re strength training, muscle activation is affected predominantly by motor unit recruitment. (Although it can also be influenced by motor unit firing frequency, among other factors.)
When muscle activation is higher, this means that a higher amount of motor units has been recruited to lift the weight or carry out the exercise.
When your central nervous system identifies that the existing levels of force production are not enough to carry out this task, additional motor units are recruited.
We already know that an external focus of attention grants us better performance in athletic movements. That being said, it’s unlikely that an internal focus of attention will help us do that because more motor units are recruited when an increase in movement speed is present.
Consequently, when you’re not fatigued, an internal focus point leads to increased motor unit recruitment. This is due to the need to produce a larger agonist muscle force at the same speed of movement.
Nobody really knows exactly why there’s a need to produce greater agonist muscle force when you’re using an internal focus of attention.
However, there are three possible explanations for the increased agonist muscle force.
- 1. Altered synergist muscle force.
- 2. The activation of agonist muscle regions that are not usually present in this movement.
- 3. An increased antagonist muscle force.
An increase in antagonist muscle force always requires the agonist muscle to produce more power. Changes in the synergist muscle force will also need the agonist muscle to exert more force. In both these cases, this happens in order to achieve the same joint torque.
Activating muscle regions that are not usually activated to perform a specific movement seems very inefficient. They don’t contribute to force production in any real way.
This might seem *super* complicated, but I promise it’s not.
Ultimately, since it’s probably not possible to change the amount of synchronized motor units required for an exercise, the increased agonist muscle activation happens because of one of these three factors.
How does the mind-muscle connection enhance muscle growth?
So far, we know that an internal focus of attention increases muscle activation. We understand that this is likely to lead to increased agonist muscle force in a given exercise.
But how does this translate to more muscle growth?
There are a couple of explanations here, based on the variety of mechanisms by which muscle activation is increased with that internal focus point.
First, regional muscle activation.
After your strength training, muscle growth does not occur evenly in all parts of the muscle. There are (at least) two reasons for this.
Firstly, it happens because muscle fibers increase in either length or diameter.
Secondly, it happens when a functional region of the muscle is activated in order to perform a specific movement. This requires force production at specific muscle lengths.
When we perform movements with an external focus point, we only produce muscle force in regions that are structured to contribute to that movement.
However, when we perform a movement with an internal focus point, we produce more force in the regions that do not particularly contribute to that movement.
This means better total muscle activation. It means higher overall muscle activation without the need to really increase the external force applied to the muscle.
Second, increased antagonist muscle activation.
During jumping, throwing, or other athletic movements, antagonist muscle activation is usually greater with an internal focus of attention.
However, hypertrophy can only occur when the muscle fibers of high-threshold motor units experience high levels of mechanical loading.
This means that it doesn’t really matter why these muscle fibers produce force. It could be as a response to an external load, or to antagonist muscle activation. The same rules apply.
(This is the same reason why we can produce high levels of muscle activation by merely flexing our muscle.)
Ultimately, this means that the differences in the level of antagonist muscle activation (between an internal and external focus point) are not responsible for the greater hypertrophy that occurs when you’re using an internal focus point.
Which leaves us with number three…
Third, altered synergist muscle activation.
It shouldn’t really matter whether the high-threshold motor units produce greater force in response to altered synergist activation when compared to antagonist muscle activation.
This is why training with machines and free weights generally involves the same amount of agonist muscle activation and causes similar amounts of muscle growth (given that the exercise is similar.)
Even though unstable conditions require more contribution from synergist muscles (in order to stabilize the joint), the resulting hypertrophy is not that different.
What does all of this really mean for the trainee?
In practice, using the internal focus of attention may be helpful for the lifters who are training for hypertrophy.
If you’re stepping into the gym for the first time, an internal focus of attention will be helpful during certain exercises. It will help you make sure that the exercise is correctly targeting your desired muscle group.
What researchers *do* know is that, when they asked people to focus on a specific muscle group when training it, this resulted in greater activation of those muscle groups.
If you’re an intermediate/advanced lifter, the internal focus of attention might be problematic to your progressive overload. Unlike beginners, advanced lifters cannot increase the number of reps or weight they perform on an exercise from one workout to the next. Using this internal focus of attention will likely mean that fewer reps will be performed on each set.
For the advanced lifters among you, you can even go as far as attempting to *stop* the internal focus of attention toward the end of a set in order to reach a higher number of performed reps. Even though it’s tempting, don’t do this. It will only lead you to think that you’re achieving progressive overload, when in reality, you’re not.
If you’ve been in the gym for a couple of years, and you’re able to employ the exact same focus of attention on every rep of every set, an internal focus of attention will help you. However, this is highly unlikely to be achieved, as it takes an enormous amount of time and patience to master.
Your mind-muscle connection is defined as an internal focus of attention. This means directing your attention to the muscle you’re training on every exercise.
This internal focus of attention will likely increase the amount of force you can put out due to either (1) increased antagonist muscle force, (2) altered synergist muscle forces, or (3) the activation of additional regions of the agonist muscle that you’re usually not utilizing in that exercise.
However, it’s likely that only the third option contributes to greater hypertrophy.
If you’re a beginner lifter or someone training for hypertrophy, try to utilize the mind-muscle connection as much as possible. Other than that, learn about it and forget about it, as it will only distract you and add another variable that you need to constantly micromanage.