In the research, this mind-muscle connection is referred to as “attentional focus”. This is the practice of directing our attention to the muscle or group of muscles we wish to activate during a particular exercise. For example, during a cable-pull through, we want to target the posterior chain. This primarily includes the glutes and hamstrings, similar to a deadlift. If we’re using our mind-muscle connection, we think about cues such as “squeeze the glutes” or “twisting your heels together and into the floor” to turn on those muscles.
The need for attentional focus during strength training has long been debated in the health and fitness world. On one side, there are those who believe that the practice of focusing on the activation of individual muscles produces greater results. On the other hand, it is believed the muscles will automatically do the job if an exercise is performed with seemingly correct form, making it unnecessary to direct additional attention toward contracting the muscles.
What does the research say?
It depends on the activity! If you’re completing a performance-based task, such as kicking a soccer ball or testing a one-repetition maximum squat, it’s best to focus your attention externally. Using the squat as an example, an external focus would be thinking about pushing the ground away from you as hard as possible to move the weight up, into the standing position.
However, if you’re looking to maximize muscle recruitment, an internal focus is the way to go and the mind-muscle connect is a fact, not fiction. Supported by research, it has been shown how solely focusing on the movement (a squat) and activation of a specific muscle (the glutes) will enhance muscle recruitment. This leads to greater muscle hypertrophy, or growth, over time.
The bottom line: be intentional with your exercise. Not only in the selection and planning of your workouts, but with your concentration during activity. Focus on the muscle you’re trying to work. Instead of training mindlessly, distracted by incoming texts or alerts, train mindfully by inwardly focusing attention to perform each exercise with purpose. Not only will you enhance the quality of your training session, but taking a step away from distractions will also clear your mind and mentally refresh you for the rest of the day.
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