Where’s Your Head? ~ The Mind-Muscle Connection

While many of us are familiar with the mental health improvements and increase in serotonin and endorphins provided by physically working out, the idea that the focus of our mind during our workout improves our bodies’ physical response to the workout is less frequently discussed.

You’ve likely heard of the concept “mind over matter”. The theories around the mind-muscle connection are similar.  The idea is that we can impact the response of our body (matter) by focusing our mental attention. There are two thoughts on the mind-muscle connection.

The first and most prominent idea is that focusing your mind on a particular muscle while activating that muscle to perform a lift (such as a bicep curl) will recruit more muscle fibers to participate in the lift and thus increase muscle hypertrophy (hypertrophy is the increase in size and definition of muscles through growth in the size of its component cells).  The types of muscle contractions we do in strength training are initiated in our brain. The brain sends a signal to the muscle to move via chemical neurotransmitters. The mental focus upon the specific muscle you are working supports that muscle in recruiting more of it’s specific muscle fibers to do more of the work than the adjacent stabilizing muscles. For example when doing a bench press, the major muscle is the pectoralis major while the stabilizers include the triceps and deltoids. Therefore if you want to get stronger and grow larger muscles, you want to focus your brain upon the specific muscle being used to complete the lift/movement.  

The second idea is that mental focus upon the actual movement of the resistance apparatus (such as a barbell) or the outcome of the lift maximizes your performance. It is suggested that this external focus allows automatic biomechanical control processes to operate thus removing the extra demand and potential mechanical inefficiency of conscious muscular control. In this concept, there is an  increase in muscle performance and efficiency. This idea is routinely seen in athletes who visualize themselves completing the task before them – think Lindsey Vonn before a downhill race. She is routinely seen alongside the starting gate; eyes closed, swaying her body and arms as she imagines herself going through gates.

Tips to improve your Mind-Muscle Connection:

  • On your way to the gym or during your warm-up, focus upon your goal – losing weight, getting stronger, being fit for a competition or staying healthy so you can enjoy your grandkids – whatever it is, remind yourself of the fundamental intention and see yourself achieving it.
  • Let go of the day, turn off the cell phone, consider not listening to music
  • Plan your workout – think through what you are going to do and what you want to accomplish during your workout
  • Do a few warm-up sets with less weight and focus upon feeling the target muscle through the entire movement
  • Concentrate on the quality of each repetition – assure meticulous form
  • Slow down – perform your repetitions in a controlled conscious manner, giving attention to both the concentric contraction (pulling or pushing) AND the eccentric contraction (resisting the downward or opposing force of letting the resistance mechanism go back to the starting position)
  • Engage the support of a Personal Trainer who helps you accomplish all of the above during your session

As with all other aspects of life, your mind is a powerful tool to support you in reaching your training and wellness goals…don’t forget to use it!

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