If you have ever worked out with a personal trainer or taken an exercise class before, the instructor or trainer may have told you to engage a certain muscle group when performing an exercise.
For example, when performing a back squat, your trainer may have said, “Engage your core or abs to support your spine.”
The notion of engaging a certain muscle group relies upon the principle of the mind muscle connection, or the ability to use the brain to enhance and control muscle contractions. But, is the mind-muscle connection real?
In this exercise guide, we will discuss what the mind muscle connection refers to, whether there is evidence to suggest that there is a mind to muscle connection, and how to use the principles of the muscle mind connection in your training to optimize your gains in strength.
We will cover:
- What Is the Mind Muscle Connection?
- Does the Mind Muscle Connection Work?
- How Do You Improve the Mind Muscle Connection?
Let’s jump in!
What Is the Mind Muscle Connection?
The mind muscle connection refers to the idea that we can deliberately or consciously contract or engage certain muscle groups by focusing on these muscle groups in our brain and then “turning on“ the muscles using the brain.
One reason why the brain-muscle connection seems to work is that studies have found that muscle activation increases when you mentally focus on engaging a muscle group.
Basically, by thinking about your muscles just before and as you begin to physically move the joint, the neuromuscular activity is heightened.
This means that more of the motor neurons that control the muscle fibers for that muscle are engaged because your brain helps “turn on“ cortical activity to the muscle and activate more motor units.Note that motor units are what control the muscle fibers that contract in a muscle (a motor unit consists of the motor neuron coming from the brain or spinal cord plus all of the particular muscle fibers in the muscle that neuron innervates).
When you have more motor neurons firing at the same time or activated simultaneously, a greater percentage of the muscle fibers in the muscle are contracting simultaneously.
This improved neuromuscular coordination and greater muscle fiber activation leads to stronger muscle contractions.
The stronger your muscle contractions, the more force you can produce, allowing you to lift more weight and thus get stronger and build muscle that much faster.
Does the Mind Muscle Connection Work?
There is a tendency to think of the muscle mind connection as woo-woo science, such that the brain will control muscle contractions, and mentally focusing on engaging a muscle isn’t really going to impact your gains or training in any appreciable way.
However, there is evidence to suggest real benefits of training the mind-muscle connection.
For example, studies have found that a hypertrophy benefit of the mind-muscle connection can be seen by greater increases in the thickness of the biceps and quadriceps when training with the mind muscle connection.
Working on your mind muscle connection can also improve muscle activation, which can potentially make certain strength exercises more effective and improve performance because you can recruit synergistic muscles and/or stabilizer muscles to allow you to lift more weight.
In this way, mind muscle connection training may make you stronger and reduce the risk of injuries.
To this end, if you are working on the mind muscle connection in a workout, by nature, you have to be focused on the exercise at hand, consciously thinking through every rep of every set and staying focused and present.
This, too, can decrease the risk of injury because you will not be distracted and will ensure you are truly engaged in what you are doing, such that you are thinking about proper form and lifting mechanics.
You will then be less likely to trip or get distracted and enjoy yourself while also using all the muscles that you should be using for an exercise in the proper way.
Plus, strengthening the connection between your brain and muscles means that your focus in the workout is indeed on your workout, helping you get the most out of yourself in the gym.
Rather than allowing your brain to wander, you are focused and present, so you aren’t just “going through the motions” of each exercise; you are trying your best.
The result? Faster gains in the gym!
How Do You Improve the Mind Muscle Connection?
It does seem evident that using the mind muscle connection can potentially allow you to improve your exercise technique and form and potentially maximize your gains in the gym.
But, how do you actually enhance the mind to muscle connection or ensure that you are using the mind muscle connection in workouts?
In other words, do you have to train the mind-muscle connection, or does it occur automatically?
To some degree, the mind to muscle connection or communication will occur somewhat automatically.
However, if you want to increase the communication between your brain and muscles or enhance your neuromuscular coordination, kinesthetic awareness, and mind-muscle patterning, you have to deliberately focus on all of your reps when performing an exercise.
Here are some tips for how to improve the muscle-mind connection for workouts:
#1: Focus On Your Workout
When you are trying to improve your mind muscle connection in training, you need to be mentally present and focused in your workout rather than allowing your mind to wander and your brain to operate on “autopilot.”
Once you have mastered the technique for a given exercise, motor programming in your brain will allow you to perform the movement pattern without necessarily needing to think through every single step as you needed to when first learning the exercise.
For example, when you first learn how to perform a squat, you have to consciously think about the spacing of your feet, keeping your back straight and core tight, the angle of your knees, keeping your knees behind your toes by sitting your hips back, how and when to breathe while squatting, etc.
After you have been squatting in workouts for a couple of weeks, much of this mental energy diminishes because you develop “muscle memory“ or learned motor programs that allow the body to carry out the squat movement pattern without actually having to think through every single step to perform a squat.
Instead, you can listen to a podcast, audiobook, or your favorite music or even have a conversation with a friend rather than thinking through how to move your body as you squat.
Although this can afford a nice “mental vacation“ and make workouts far less mentally taxing, if you want to improve the mind muscle connection, you have to forget about tuning into music or podcasts and instead remain tuned into your body.
You need to think through every step of the exercise, deliberately focusing on engaging each muscle group involved in every step of performing a squat.
#2: Use Visualization
While you are trying to engage specific muscle groups by using your brain and strengthening the neuromuscular connection for an exercise, visualize that specific muscle group contracting in the way that you want it to.
For example, if you are performing a biceps curl, visually try to picture your biceps muscle contracting and lifting the dumbbell up while you perform the movement.
Studies have even found that even when you’re not physically moving, you can increase the cortical outputs or signals from your brain to your muscles by mentally focusing on that muscle and visualizing contracting or engaging the muscle just with your brain.
#3: Slow Down
Deliberately slowing down the tempo or speed of movement for each rep can help you build the brain muscle connection because you have more time under tension for each rep.
Focus on each little change in joint angle and try to visualize engaging all of the various regions of muscle fibers in your muscle while you perform the exercise.
#3: Don’t Use Mirrors
Fitness trainers often tell beginners to make use of mirrors to provide visual cues when they are learning how to perform an exercise.
While there are benefits of observing your exercise form with a mirror, when you are trying to improve the mind muscle connection, remove the visual input from mirrors so that you can just focus on how it feels to activate and move a muscle in your brain.
#5: Choose Isolation Exercises
The brain-muscle connection is important for any exercise, but when you are first trying to learn how to use your brain to control your muscles in workouts, it helps to focus on an isolation exercise where you are really just activating one or two major muscle groups.
For example, start with biceps curls or a leg extension on a weight machine rather than a compound exercise like a thruster or a deadlift where there are multiple steps, joints, and muscle groups to be thinking about and activating in a coordinated fashion.
As you get more familiar with using your brain to consciously think about your muscles before and during contractions in your workouts, you can progress to practicing your mind muscle connection skills on more complex exercises.
#6: Start With Lighter Loads
Most strength coaches and personal trainers recommend using lighter loads when you are trying to work on your attentional focus in a workout to strengthen your mind muscle communication and coordination.
This will allow you to have more “mental space“ to actually think about your technique and muscle fiber recruitment and activation rather than having to sync most of your effort into such an intense exertion to lift the weight.
As with progressing from isolation to complex exercises with mind-muscle training, as you get more accustomed to mentally controlling muscle contractions during an exercise, you can scale up the relative loads you are using.
For more mental techniques and mental training tips for athletes, check out our guide to the benefits of meditation for athletes here.