Why You Need To Build A Better Mind-Muscle Connection And How You Can Do It



Bodybuilders have long preached the importance of developing a “mind muscle connection” when training.

You’re told to visualize the target muscle working and consciously direct neural drive during a given exercise.

It might sound a bit too broscience for your liking, but thankfully broscientists have some real science to hang their hat on now, with a review of the scientific literature by researchers Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras finding a direct link between establishing a strong mind-muscle connection and muscle activation.

Direct from the review: “When the goal is to maximize hypertrophy, indirect evidence suggests that an internal focus may be the best approach…..when attempting to maximize muscle activation, an internal focus of attention would seem to be a better choice.” 

Take note, however, if you’re a competitive athlete. Schoenfeld and Contreras suggest doing just the opposite – focusing externally in practice and games, rather than internal. External focus is required to jump high or for distance, power through a heavy 1 rep max, ensure accuracy with that pass or shot, or elude a defender, regardless of sport.

But if you’re an Average Joe just looking to look and perform better (let’s be honest – that’s the majority of men), bodybuilding style training using a mind-muscle connection may be the best option for you.

Word of Caution: The effectiveness of MMC is reduced when training at higher loads, and if you’re like most gym goers, you’re probably training too heavy as it is, using enough body English to rival your dance moves after one too many Jagger Bombs at the club.

Time to Smarten Up

Train the muscles properly, not your joints.  Sets with moderate weights, done in a controlled fashion, are tough. It’s easier to just hoist up some dumbbells with no tension and heave.

Thankfully, the mind-muscle connection helps you hone in on the muscle you intend to grow with each exercise.

So how do you establish a mind-muscle connection, especially in those stubborn muscle groups that refuse to grow?

Find the exercise that feels best for you unique biomechanics and hammer away at it until it becomes second nature. MMC certainly comes with experience – gym rats develop the skill over time – but some exercises setup better than others.

Here are a few exercises to try for those stubborn muscle groups. Again, this is a highly individualized thing, but dropping the weight and focusing on intent over ego will help you establish it.

Mid-Back (Rhomboids)

Exercise – Chest supported Barbell Rows on an incline bench, i.e. Marriage Rows, because you can’t cheat on them. Setting a bench to 30 degrees, position the body so your chin is fixed against the top of the bench, and the chest and torso are resting. Drive with the elbows and pull front to back, squeezing at the top range of motion. Feel free to substitute kettlebells or dumbbells.

These take the momentum out of conventional rows, forcing you to isolate the mid back.

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Lats

Exercise – Stiff arm Lat Pulldowns. Lats can be notoriously difficult for people to feel, especially in those arm/shoulder dominant types. But by locking your arms in a straight position, your lats are forced to activate throughout the full range of motion to bring the bar down to your waist. When pulling down, drive the elbows tight to your sides.


Triceps

Exercise – Tricep Pushdowns, with a 3 second negative. This is something I picked up from John Meadows. Too often those who complain of elbow pain with tricep exercises are going too heavy and not warming up the area with low load movements such as rope pushdowns. Don’t start with heavy sets of skullcrushers! Unless you like feeling it more in the joint of the elbow than the muscle…

Check your ego at the door and perform these with perfect form – adding a bit of weight each set.

Biceps

Exercise – Dumbbell curls with 3 second negative. Much like triceps, most trainees go too heavy with sloppy form when training biceps. If you brag about how heavy you’re curling, you’re doing it wrong.

Setup on an incline bench with a set of dumbbells you can rep safely and in control, and lower the dumbbells for a 3-count on each and every rep.

Chest

Exercise Hex Press. This is a good chest exercise for those shoulder dominant guys and gals who can’t “feel” their pecs contract. The trick is to squeeze the dumbbells together (literally pushing them through one another). This keeps your chest fully contracted through the range of motion.

Here’s an equally good one for chest incorporating a resistance band:

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Calves

Exercise –  Standing Calf Raises with bodyweight drop set. Add a band for resistance so there’s no cheating at the top. Rise up on the toes as high as you can, pressing through the big toe.

If you cannot feel them fully contracting and stretching on every single rep, you’re doing it wrong. Only use a weight that allows you to feel the muscle working. Finish off the set with repeated bodyweight dorsiflexion (as many reps as you can do). Hat tip to John Meadows again for this one.

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Hamstrings

Exercise –  Lying Hamstring Curl. Hamstrings are often neglected and hard to establish a mind-muscle connection when trained. Most trainees have a tendency to be quad dominant and they take over in conventional compound leg exercises.

Establish a mind-muscle connection for your hamstrings with this exercise.

Hook your calves from the knee down underneath the pads on a seated pulldown machine, facing away from the weight stack. Point your toes out (so your feet are parallel to the floor).

If you don’t feel them working on this, you’ll fall on your face. Good motivator.

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In Summary

Ultimately, when attempting to build muscle above all else, a mind-muscle connection should be a priority in your programming.

Contreras and Schoenfeld suggest it’s likely the molecular signaling for all three primary mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy, mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage are increased when you focus on the mind-muscle connection internally, which could and should ultimately result in greater muscular development (translation: get swole).

Mitch Calvert is a certified trainer and fat-loss coach. He discovered his love for fitness 14 years ago at 240 lbs – and now works men who have weight to lose and confidence to gain. He hosts Mansformation Challenges for guys looking to get over the fat-loss hump.