The “mind-muscle connection” is a somewhat bro-sciency way to describe the connection one feels to the muscles as they contract during exercise. However obscure this may sound, I can attest that this is a very real phenomenon, as well as trainable skill.
The true purpose of exercise is to deeply and effectively fatigue or “work” the target muscles. Some exercises work large groups of muscles simultaneously, like a squat, and some work smaller muscles more directly, like a biceps curl. Using progressively heavier weights during an exercise is the best way to create muscular tension and externally force your muscles to contract against a weight. For beginners to exercise, this is a useful way to progress. However, once the weights start to drastically increase the risk starts to outweigh the benefits. If your focus is continually external in nature, such as, “how much weight can I lift”, you will eventually run into an injury due to the fact that you are pushing your structural limits.
By focusing on certain muscles and willfully contracting them, you can accelerate the process of fatiguing the target muscles. This type of training requires an internal focus, and a mature mindset toward exercise. The externally focused mindset to exercise is geared towards sport, achievement of some kind, or showing off. While there is nothing inherently wrong with training in this way, it does present increased risk to the body. The question remains, would you even bother if no one was watching? Externally focused goals, can for some, mean increased confidence and mental strength which transfers to other areas of life, which can be beneficial. However, you need to know why you are training and what you want to gain from your invested time.
If you choose the internal path, focus on challenging muscular contraction first. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- If you are not familiar with anatomy, it’s ok, start simply by palpation (touching) the muscles you want to contract. Pushing into them with your finger not only allows you to feel which muscles you are working, it also gives the muscles a solid surface from which to push against, improving awareness. For example, keep an index finger on your glutes when you do hip thrusts to feel them contracting.
- Attempt holding the end-ranges of an exercise for a few seconds to activate the muscle as you move. For example, in a biceps curl hold the top position and squeeze your biceps there for 3 seconds, then, as you lower and hit the bottom, allow it to stretch for a few seconds before slowly reversing the direction.
- Try using static contractions. Doing a wall-sit can be a great way to really feel your quads working. Focus on contracting your quads and don’t squirm away or move to avoid using them.
- Target individual muscle groups during big, compound movements. For example, during a squat, pause at the bottom for a few seconds, focus on squeezing your glutes in this position, and then slowly rise up as you contract your glutes hard.
These are just a few tips to get you started feeling the muscles work. I recommend everybody incorporate at least some of these techniques into their routine, you will get better results, and keep your joints healthy in the process.