If you want to push yourself further and enjoy some more intensive workouts, then looking into new training techniques and exercises is only one part of the equation. Just as important is to consider the mental aspect of the game and to make sure that you're thinking about well thinking when you're lifting weights.
The 'mind muscle connection' is one of those concepts in bodybuilding that many people hail as a secret 'key' to unlocking your full potential for muscle growth/weight loss. Like every other training concept from occlusion training to HITT, it has fans who absolutely swear by it and others who remain sceptical.
The truth is that while this concept isn't going to turn you into Mr Olympia overnight and certainly isn't essential to making some basic muscle gains, it is an important piece in the weightlifting puzzle nonetheless that can help you to bust your plateaus and get the very most out of your workouts. If you're a pro looking to find that 'edge' then this might just be that missing piece you've been looking for.
What Is the Mind Muscle Connection?
As the name suggests, the 'mind muscle connection' describes a synergy between your brain and your muscles meaning that you're much more aware of how your muscles are functioning, much more focussed on the movements you're making, and strongly in tune with how effective your workouts are.
Now this term is somewhat arbitrary unfortunately and can be used to describe a number of different things depending on who you're talking to. However it's perhaps most useful to think of it as how much control you're putting into the movements. Are you just blasting out repetition after repetition, letting the weights bounce wildly around, or are you feeling each muscle's involvement in the movement and actively controlling the speed and position of the weight?
Why It's Important
Some weightlifters and bodybuilders are lead to believe that they need to lift incredibly heavy weights with no regard to technique, control or anything else. While this can be useful for building pure explosive power though, it's generally not the best way to work out. Not only will this be liable to cause injury, but it will also mean that you're easily able to 'cheat' by not quite working the muscle involved. While it's not something we often give much thought (this being the inherent problem), it's all too easy for us to use other muscles, momentum or other factors to lift a weight.
For instance then, you might perform leg extensions and not realise that you are actually using momentum to extend them and perhaps handling some of the curl motion with your ankles or your hamstrings rather than the quads that should be doing the movement.
Likewise if you're doing a bench press and you're not thinking actively about your pecs and their involvement in the exercise, then you can find you end up working harder on one side than the other for instance and this can then in turn result in one side getting much stronger than the other side a problem which becomes a vicious circle as you find that you use that more developed side more in each subsequent exercise.
When you focus on your muscles as they work conversely, you can actually feel exactly how much each part of your body is working, where you are lacking, and where you need to put in more effort. If you are aware of your situation on the bench but you are 'feeling' how much work each pec is doing, then as you go you can start to work harder with the side that's lagging and even out the balance. Similarly you can identify that perhaps the whole muscle group you're targeting isn't getting enough work and can then increase the weight or somehow make it more difficult for yourself. I even used the mind muscle connection recently in order to overcome a bad knee I'd been suffering with by identifying precisely which movements set it off, I was able to slightly change the way I performed squats and other leg exercises, which helped me to build back the muscle to support the joint without causing too much discomfort in the meantime.
There is even some evidence to suggest that concentrating hard on a particular muscle group can help improve the intensity in that area even helping to encourage more blood flow and nutrients to that part of the body so that it gets a better workout without your even having to put in any extra effort. This is one of the things that Arnold Schwarzenegger credits as being integral to his success during his reign as Mr Olympia.
How to Engage Your Mind Muscle Connection
So how do you tap into the power of your mind in the gym and ensure that you're properly focussed on what you're doing? It's easy in principle, but when you get in there you'll find it's all too hard for your mind to wander, or for you to find yourself unsure of exactly what you're meant to be concentrating on.
One strategy that some bodybuilders use to encourage and strengthen this connection is to use something called 'posing' which is essentially just a slightly toned down version of what it sounds like. Here you will gently contract the muscles you intend to use just prior to working them, and that way you will a) direct some blood flow and oxygen that way and b) consciously feel what working those muscles should feel like. You can then similarly tense those same muscles once you start. You may look a little strange doing a pec dance in front of the rack, but ultimately you'll get a better workout so who cares?
You should also make sure that you aren't distracted by anything that could ruin your focus. An example is listening to podcasts while they might be entertaining and while they might allow for some handy multitasking, they also mean you aren't paying attention to what you're doing and you'll end up just 'going through the motions' as a result. Listening to music is okay so long as it enhances your workouts rather than distracts from them, but anything with a narrative should be avoided.
Another important tip is to slow down the speed of your exercises. This way you'll get more time to carefully control the exercise rather than just throwing yourself into it with one big boost of power. Gradually push or pull through the exercise and you'll have more time to feel how much each part of each muscle is working. Training slower also increases your time under tension which results in more tears and thus more muscle growth, so overall you might just find that slowing things down and paying more attention can make all the difference for your muscle gains.