Mind-Muscle Connection: Fact or Bogus?

Bodybuilders have been preaching about the benefits of developing a strong mind-muscle connection for at least a few decades. They claim that focusing one’s attention on the target muscle during an exercise can lead to higher levels of activity within that muscle and, in turn, better muscular development.

Today, current research supports this idea, though there are some caveats for performance-driven athletes: if your goal is to move as much weight as possible, a mind-muscle connection may not actually help much.

In this article, you’ll get the full scoop on what exactly the mind-muscle connection is, when and how to use it, and what the practical applications are for powerlifters and other strength athletes.

Internal vs. External Focus of Attention

Mind-muscle connection (MMC) is the better-known term for what researchers call an internal focus of attention. That is, during resistance training, the lifter’s attention is directed toward the body and its movements. An example would be “squeezing the glutes” at the top of a hip thrust, while focusing on actively contracting those same muscle fibers.

The alternative, coined an external focus of attention, means using the environment for cues. An example would be “pushing the floor away” during a deadlift. This strategy is generally reserved for lifting heavier loads (think 75% 1RM and above) in the most mechanically efficient (or accurate) way possible.

It’s also not just reserved for lifting, but many sports such as swimming and throwing darts.

Internal Cues for Better Growth

Schoenfeld et al. (1) cite that internal cues may lead to an increased activation of the target muscle, which tends to be the primary mover in any given exercise, while reducing the contribution of assisting musculature in the lift.

An example would be targeting the glutes via hip thrusts (in which the glutes are the primary mover) while minimizing the hamstrings’ (secondary mover) assistance to the lift. 

While true muscle isolation is practically impossible, we can, to some extent, affect how much contribution a muscle has during a lift by consciously shifting our focus to it.

A strong internal focus of attention starts at the neuromuscular junction, that is, the physical connection between your neurons and the muscle it innervates. When a signal from a neuron stimulates a muscle to contract, it does so by recruiting the smallest fibers within the muscle first. This is known as the size principle.

The deliberate act of thinking about your muscles doing their job results in a greater number of muscle fibers being recruited. Researchers hypothesize that this, in turn, can lead to greater mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage, all of which are hypothesized to be the primary drivers of muscle hypertrophy.

How to Develop a Mind-Muscle Connection

Developing a strong MMC can be as simple as paying attention to the muscle being used and actively focusing on the contractions being produced. These include both concentric (lifting) and eccentric (lowering) muscle actions.

Here are some tips that may help you better put this into practice:

1. Choose weights that are between 30-65% of your 1RM.

Training for aesthetics is a whole different ball game than training for maximal strength.

When the goal is to look good naked, it almost doesn’t matter how much weight you’re lifting, so long as what you’re lifting is heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth. As a rule of thumb, weights that fall in the 30-65% of 1RM range tend to be best suited for controlled, hypertrophy-focused training.

It’s worth noting that, while very light weights can contribute to muscle growth, it’ll likely take much more training volume to get there. Training for hypertrophy requires at least some reptitions that are performed at a proximity to failure – that is, your maximum capacity, so make sure you don’t go too light.

2. Slow it down

Lifting at a slower tempo allows you to better control the eccentric-phase of the lift, which is known to promote greater levels of muscle damage (and thus, lead to increases in both muscle mass and strength).

It also gives you the opportunity to “feel out” each contraction a bit better than if you were haphazardly swinging the weights around.

3. Don’t neglect warm-up sets

Use your warm-up sets to increase blood flow, reinforce good technique and ‘feel’ the muscle working through the entire range of motion. This is best accomplished with light weights so as to keep fatigue at bay prior to working sets.

4. Train with your eyes closed

Keeping your eyes closed during slow, deliberate movements may greatly improve your MMC by allowing you to become more in-tune with what’s happening within your body. 

What About Training for Strength?

At low enough intensities, an internal focus is great for achieving high levels of activation within a muscle.

But, as the weights get closer to one’s 1RM (at about 75% and above), using internal cues might not be ideal. In fact, it may actually hinder your strength performance.

One of the caveats of the mind-muscle connection is that, in order for it to be effective, weights must be light enough to allow for controlled, deliberate movement. This, of course, isn’t a big deal if you’re training for aesthetics or body composition, but poses a question for performance-driven athletes such as powerlifters and weightlifters:

Should you focus on the muscle being used during a lift when attempting, say, a one-rep max?

Research tells us that, when the goal is performance-based, an external focus of attention may be more appropriate. These cues improve motor control while reducing the amount of muscular ‘effort’ needed, thus making the lift as economic and mechanically efficient as it can be.(2)

If building strength is your thing, you should instead focus on external feedback such as the movement of the barbell and the position of your body in relation to it.

Which Cues Should I Use for Strength?

Assuming a basic level of proficiency with the movement being performed, you should select cues that address gaps in your technique.

While some cues are more universal, such as “keeping the bar close to the body” during a deadlift, others may need a little more context.

As an example, ‘sitting back’ with the hips in a back squat will mostly work for those with a more hip-dominant squat. For those who squat with a more upright posture, thinking of ‘sitting down in between the legs’ may be better suited.

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose to use internal or external cues for your own training depends largely on whether your goals are hypertrophy-focused or performance-driven.

In either case, there are merits to both methods, but it’s important to remember that context is key when choosing the best tool for the job.

To your strength,

Coach B.

References

1. Schoenfeld, B. J., & Contreras, B. (2016). Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 27-29. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000190

2. David L. Neumann. (2019) A Systematic Review of Attentional Focus Strategies in WeightliftingFrontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2019.00007

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About The Author

Barbara M.

Since 2013, Barbara has helped women of various backgrounds find their rythm in the fitness world.

She helps clients get stronger, gain muscle and train sustainably by using a research-based approach to training and program design.

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