When it comes to achieving your fitness goals, it’s not just about lifting weights or going through the motions of a workout routine. The true key to unlocking your full potential in the gym lies in establishing a powerful connection between your mind and muscles. This phenomenon, known as the mind-muscle connection, is a fundamental aspect of effective and transformative training. Whether you’re a seasoned fitness enthusiast or just beginning your fitness journey, understanding and applying the principles of the mind-muscle connection can take your workouts to the next level.
Before jumping in, we need to discuss when and how it would be appropriate to use mind muscle connection with resistance training. For this discussion, it’s important to discuss an internal focus versus an external focus. An internal focus (IF) is when an individual focuses on a specific body part while performing a movement. An example would be focusing on using the triceps when locking out a bench press. An external focus (EF) will refer to an individual focusing on the effects of the movement. An example would be punching the bar through the ceiling with the bench press.
There is a large amount of research that compares internal and external focus conditions. From this, we can conclude that experience level, goal, exercise, and intensity should first be considered (hang in there while we go through these).
External Focus is associated with superior performance and learning when compared to Internal Focus. Growing evidence shows that EF may lead to greater motor automaticity, or the ability to perform skilled tasks without the need for executive control. This may be the reason for enhanced learning and performance (Choker et al., 2017). However, this technique may not be the best fit for new lifters who are learning a skill that is high in complexity or organization.
Nadzalan et al. (2016) also supports the claim that performance significantly improves when using an external focus compared to an internal focus. In this study, 30 male participants performed both bench press and deadlift exercises to muscular failure. They were to either focus on the movement (IF) or barbell (EF). Results showed that participants performed significantly more reps with EF when compared to IF for both exercises. There is also evidence stating that sometimes an IF can elicit both agonist and antagonist muscle contraction (leading to co-contractions, yikes!) which may be why we see the decrease in performance sometimes (Halperin & Vigotsky, 2016).
The same can be said for various sport performances, including sprinting (Porter et al., 2015). Here, similar results were found suggesting an EF allows for enhanced performance. It’s important to state that this study included volunteers with no prior sprint training, which aligns with the notion that using an EF is optimal for a learning environment. However, aside from this study, there are numerous findings of previous research that demonstrate sprinting performance can be improved with an EF.
Aside from a variety of sport performances, we should also consider the intensity being used during each exercise. This reminds me of a study that examined whether focusing on using specific muscles during bench press can selectively activate these muscles (Calatayud et al., 2016). These participants used an internal focus to perform the bench press focusing on either using the pectoralis major and triceps brachii, for various intensities. In both muscles, focusing on using the respective muscles increased muscle activity at relative loads between 20 and 60 %, but not at 80 % of 1RM. This research suggests that an IF may hinder performance with higher intensities and loads. So it may be reasonable to favor an EF when higher intensities are prescribed.
While this may seem like a lot, don’t be discouraged! Because there is also some evidence that points to an IF eliciting larger EMG amplitudes during some exercises, which could be beneficial under certain circumstances — like hypertrophy (Halperin & Vigotsky, 2016). So yes, certain exercises like bicep curls, and isometric maximal voluntary contractions with elbow extensions, brought changes in muscle thickness for elbow flexors when participants used an IF (Schoenfeld et al., 2018). However, EF was found to be more effective for isometric knee extension (although not statistically significant).
In short, consider using an external focus under the following conditions for optimal performance:
- If the lifting intensity is >85%
- When performing compound or complex movements (squat, bench press, deadlifts, cleans, etc)
- Your goal is for maximal strength or a performance based goal as opposed to hypertrophy
- When the individual is inexperienced with that particular lift (less than 6 weeks experience)
Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Colado, J. C., & Andersen, L. L. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(3), 527–533. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7
Choker, C. E. Attention, Arousal and Visual Search. Motor Control Learning and Control for Practitioners (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge; 2018: 56-59.
Halperin, I., & Vigotsky, A. D. (2016). The mind-muscle connection in resistance training: friend or foe? European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(4), 863–864. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-016-3341-y
Nadzalan, A., Lee, J. L. F., & Mohamad, N. I. (2016). The Effects of Focus Attention Instructions on Strength Training Performances. International Journal of Humanities and Management Sciences, 3. 418-423.
Porter, J. M., Wu, W. F. W., Crossley, R. M., Knopp, S. W., & Campbell, O. C. (2015). Adopting an external focus of attention improves sprinting performance in low-skilled sprinters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(4), 947–953. https://doi.org/10.1097/JSC.0000000000000229
Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., Winkelman, N., & Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science: EJSS: Official Journal of the European College of Sport Science, 18(5), 705–712. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020