How To Turn On Your Mind-Muscle Connection
I always start each session with a series of movements designed to raise my client’s heart rates, increase mobility and flexibility in troublesome areas and wake up the entire body.
I want my client to feel like every part of their body is connected and functioning before we even pick up a weight.
I always give a weird warning about halfway through that makes me sound like a pony-tailed guru wanna-be who discovered meditation 3 months ago and has a subscription to a kombucha delivery service.
“Now I want you to go slow and concentrate on feeling every muscle working for the next movement. Don’t think of this like an exercise, think of it as a way to connect your mind to your body.”
Sounds weird for a Personal Trainer who largely focuses on strength development, right?
Actually it is, but weird is good most of time. This weirdness is necessary since we live in a society that is largely disconnected from their bodies.
We think of our brain and our body as two completely different things. We view our bodies as something separate from our consciousness.
We're taught to view our bodies the same way we view a car. If a car part is broken you only need to get that specific part replaced or repaired.
If your car is spewing black smog you get the muffler checked out. Once they replace that you’re good to go.
We carry that line of thinking over to our bodies.
If your elbow hurts you get your doctor to give you a pill to mask the symptoms, or you concentrate only on repairing that elbow.
It works for your car, it should work for your body, right?
Our bodies don’t work like that.
Each of your limbs, joints, muscles and tendons are dependant and affected by every other limb, joint, muscle and tendon in your body.
That’s why it’s so important to focus on creating a connection between your mind and your body at the beginning of each workout.
Turning this mind-muscle connection on will enable you to build more muscle, move better and function at a higher physical level. Once you can signal and feel each muscle contracting you will enable your body to recruit more muscle fibers into each movement.
Movement always begins in the brain. Actually everything begins in the brain, but you hopefully knew that.
In order for a muscle to contract your brain must send a chemical signal across your synapses to initiate movement. Once this neurotransmitter chemical reaches the receptors on your muscle fibers the movement begins and the needed muscle contracts.
Strengthening this connection will allow you to recruit more muscles into any given lift, movement or exercise.
During any lift there are primary movers and secondary movers. The primary movers are the main muscles being targeted by the lift.
When you perform a row you are using your back. However your biceps are also involved. Your back is the primary mover, your biceps are the secondary mover.
Once you establish a strong Mind Muscle Connection you will be able to better recruit these secondary movers and increase the efficiency or intensity of your lift. If there are more muscles active you will be stronger.
So what’s the best way to improve your Mind Muscle Connection?
The most important time to establish it is during the warm up.
I realize this requires you to actually warm up, and to that I say “You should have been doing this all along, bonehead.”
Your warmup should elevate your heart rate, and prime your body for the movements and exercises you are going to perform during your workout. Use this time wisely and efficiently to positively impact your workout.
I highly recommend using resistance bands. If you are about to perform a lower body workout use mini-bands below your knees or on your ankles to perform 3 sets of slow tempo squats and lateral band walks. This will force you to concentrate on activating your gluteus medius (side butt) and other small but important secondary movers in your hips and posterior core.
A few sets of bodyweight hip thrusts or glute bridges will work wonders for establishing the connection between your mind and your butt. That sounds like it could be a lyric in a Nikki Minaj song.
If you are about to have an upper body workout use a regular or looped resistance band to perform a few sets of shoulder dislocators, band pull aparts, no moneys and band x pull aparts.
This will “wake up” your connection to your rear delts, lower-trapezius, rhomboids and a few other small muscle groups around your scapula and rib cage. Throw in a couple push ups between each movement to ensure that everything is firing as one.
If you need to wake up your lats simply hang from a pull up bar, with your palms facing forward. Hang for 30 seconds then start to pull your shoulder blades down (pull your shoulders away from your ears), release and repeat at least 10 times. Once you’ve finished that rest for a few seconds then hop right back up. This time you’re doing to pull your shoulder blades down, but also lift your chest towards the ceiling.
There is also a way to establish and perfect this connection during your workout.
You just need to lower the weight.
I know some people might stop reading right here.
Muscle growth is not entirely dependant on how heavy your weights are.
Recent studies have shown that muscle recruitment and full range of motion is just as important as ridiculously heavy weight when it comes to hypertrophy. A weight that you can lift in the 6-8 rep range with perfect form and range of motion will be just effective as a crushingly heavy weight you can barely lift once.
When you perform a lift you should concentrate on feeling every involved muscle stretching, the contracting. At least for the first couple of reps. Once you’ve established the Mind Muscle Connection during a workout it will not go away.
The other two ways are much easier on your ego.
Perform extra warm up sets of your primary exercise with a lower weight or perform each exercise much slower. I am a big, big proponent of the latter.
The next time you’re at the gym and have to do an exercise that “feels weird” or “doesn’t click” with you perform it at a 3x3 tempo. That means take 3 seconds to lift the weight, pause at the top of the moment for a breath, and lower the weight at a 3 second tempo.
The longer time under tension will both force your muscle to work harder, but it will force your mind to control the muscle. I use this strategy on both myself and clients who either need a kick in the ass or have a struggling muscle they want to bring up.
It’s also just a nice challenge to keep things interesting.
Your mind is really, really important. It often gets said that people go to the gym or exercise to “turn their mind off” but really they are just using their powers of concentration on something else.
Establishing a strong connection between your mind and your body will make your workout much more efficient and enjoyable.
During your warm up take your time, breathe deeply and slowly move all your attention to your movement. Use movements that mimic the main lifts you are going to perform that day.
During the first few sets of your actual workout go slow, and use slightly lighter weights than you normally would. Use that same slow, almost meditative breathing pattern and concentrate on contracting and flexing the muscles needed during that exercise.
All of this sounds science-y (not scientific) and difficult but really it's just a call for you to focus more intently during your workouts. Don't allow the difficulty of exercise to turn your brain off, or go to a "happy place". Focus intently on the work at hand, and you will reap your just rewards.
Take the time to implement at least one of these strategies over the next week and let me know how much better you feel.