The Power and Science Behind the Mind-Muscle Connection
What if there was one thing you could change that would make all of your workouts more effective? Today on the blog, we’re sharing research that can help you get more from your workouts. Because let’s face it; we all have a limited amount of time to workout, why not make it really count?!
Turns out, there is actual science behind the whole “mind-muscle connection.”
An article in the March 2018 European Journal of Sports Science summarized the findings of a research team who set out to determine if what we focus on when we workout can change our muscles. The researchers observed and measured two groups of participants while they performed resistance training exercises for 8 weeks. One group was cued to focus on the outcome of the lift while the other group was cued to focus on contracting the target muscle during the exercise. The first group was called the EXTERNAL focus group and the second group was called the INTERNAL focus group. Several interesting discoveries were found at the end of the 8 week period.
The participants in the INTERNAL focus group showed greater increases in elbow flexion strength (aka the bicep curl) versus the EXTERNAL focus group. By focusing on the bicep muscle instead of just lifting the weight, the INTERNAL group improved their strength by 16.2% while the EXTERNAL group improved by only 2.6%. Interestingly, this internal focus benefit did not carry over when the participants were exercising their lower body. Those in the EXTERNAL focus group improved their quadriceps strength (aka the leg/knee extension) by 20.4% versus the INTERNAL focus group who only improved their strength by 10.1%. The researchers hypothesized the reason for this difference was because humans use their upper body for more fine motor tasks while the lower body is used instead for gross power output. This may equal a reduced ability to develop a mind-muscle connection with the lower body muscles.
In addition to strength changes, the researchers also looked at muscle thickness, aka muscle hypertrophy. The INTERNAL focus group showed superior hypertrophic increases in their biceps (12.4%) versus the EXTERNAL focus group whose biceps only grew by 6.9%. The lower body thickness showed no real differences between the two groups.
So what does all this research mean for you and your workout?
1. If your goal is to improve you strength, you will build more strength if you take an internal focus, especially in your upper body.
2. If your goal is hypertrophy, or to get bigger, more defined muscles, an internal focus will lead to better gains.
So how do you create this internal focus when you exercise?
While you are performing an exercise, you focus your mind on “squeezing” the muscle that is doing the work. Your undivided attention is on contracting the muscle during both the lifting and lowering phase of every repetition. Conversely, you are NOT focusing on getting the weight up or moving the weight through space. This would be an external focus.
Additionally of note, the researchers found that when it came to the lower body, strength improved more for the EXTERNAL focus group instead of the INTERNAL focus group. However, previous studies have shown that individuals with resistance training experience are successfully able to see the strength and hypertrophy benefits when taking an internal focus. The researchers believe the lack of previous strength training in this study was what contributed to the EXTERNAL focus group seeing bigger strength gains. They believe that with more training on how to concentrate and squeeze the lower body muscles, an internal focus will create more strength and hypertrophy, just like the upper body.
What does this mean for you when training lower body?
If you are new to strength training, it may be more beneficial in the beginning to focus on just lifting and lowering the weight; an external focus. However, as you gain strength, you’ll want to slowly begin to focus more sets and reps on squeezing those lower body muscles.
Give this internal focus a try on your next workout. You may be surprised at how much more difficult your workout feels! Additionally of note, brain researchers are also discovering that the combination of high levels of concentration combined with physical activity is the recipe for maintaining healthy neurons in the brain AND creating new ones! By changing your focus during your workouts, you have the power to improve your muscular strength, muscular hypertrophy, and keep your brain healthier.
If you have questions on how to establish this internal focus, seek out a reputable personal trainer (especially those trained through the Resistance Training Specialist Program) or a Muscle Activation Techniques Specialist in your area who can teach you.
Schoenfeld, Brad & Vigotsky, Andrew & Contreras, Bret & Golden, Sheona & Alto, Andrew & Larson, Rachel & Winkelman, Nick & Paoli, Antonio. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science. 1-8. 10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020.
Doidge, Norman. The Brain that Changes Itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2010.