I used to dismiss the mind-muscle connection as gym mythology, but science shows there’s something to it. Here’s how to apply it to increase gains and decrease injury risk.
What is it?
The mind-muscle connection is about using muscles instead of moving weight.
It’s the process of mentally focusing on a specific muscle or muscle group in order to increase activation during an exercise. It shifts the emphasis from moving a load (external focus) to contracting and working a muscle (internal focus).
To illustrate, consider a bench press for chest. You’d normally think of moving the weight from your sternum to the lockout position. Using the mind-muscle connection, instead you’d focus on flexing and squeezing the pecs.
Why not just lift?
At face value the mind-muscle connection seems unnecessary. If you push or pull some weight in a given plane, what other outcome is there than the right muscles doing the work?
But the body is built for efficiency, and will opt for the easiest, least energy-demanding path. This means:
- Naturally strong muscles may take more work than intended. For example, shoulders and triceps taking stress off the pecs while bench pressing.
- You may be strongest with joints in bad alignment, increasing chance of injury. Exaggerated knee valgus during a squat, for instance, or a rounded back dead lift.
When to use the mind-muscle connection
There are two main applications for the mind-muscle connection. First is in learning how to do an exercise. Concentrating on flexing the appropriate muscles helps train appropriate form.
Second, we can use it to increase muscle growth. Maximizing activation of a muscle maximizes the work it does, thus its stimulation, in turn yielding more gains.
There are other indirect benefits too. Such a focus on individual muscles often results in having to use less weight. That means less systemic fatigue and better recovery, which is imperative for hypertrophy. Also less joint stress, which means less chance of injury and time off the gym.
When to avoid the mind-muscle connection
Interestingly, the internal focus of the mind-muscle connection isn’t good for performance. If you’re trying to lift the most weight you can, you’re better off thinking about moving the weight (or another helpful cue, such as trying to push your legs through the floor when deadlifting).
It’s not surprising if you think about it. The mind-muscle connection interferes with automaticity. Imagine consciously trying to activate every single muscle involved in just walking—you’d never get anywhere.
The mind-muscle connection took a long time to click with me, but it changed my workouts a lot. Having to use less weight in the gym feels counterproductive at first, but it’s worth it for more growth, fewer joint issues, and improved recovery.