Mindfulness Prescriptions; The Mind-to-Muscle Connection (Volume III)
As I continue to pursue the idea of the “mindfulness prescription”, I want to draw some attention to its origin. I’ve always been a strong advocate for the “mind to muscle” connection, but when I first heard of this concept, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Initially, it sounded like a “buzz-phrase”: trendy, fashionable, and meaningless. However, additional research, along with my general interest in mental health and wellness, stimulated the idea to further “bridge the gap” and draw awareness to the power of this connection. So, what does “mind to muscle” truly mean? Researchers popularly deem this concept by using the term “attentional focus” specifically pertaining to exercise. In other words, by drawing your attention to the muscle you are using while you perform an exercise, you can increase your output. Now, you may be thinking “mind to muscle” has no jurisdiction over your performance in the gym, and even if it does, it’s just too much effort to be consciously present during an intense bout of exercise. But, I am here to assure you that this concept is indeed true, tried and tested. In fact, it may be easier than you anticipate.
In an article published by the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, defines a couple key concepts that I want us to become familiar with prior to diving deeper into the research. “Mind to muscle” research revolves around two specific modes of focus derived from both internal and external cues. Schoenfeld states, “in the squat an internal focus could be to ‘squeeze your glutes as you ascend’ whereas an external focus could be to ‘drive the floor away from your body.’” In terms of weightlifting, this is summarized perfectly. An internal cue would reference attention towards the specific muscles that we are using for a particular exercise. In contrast, an external cue would draw our attention away from the body and towards the environment to complete the lift. Interestingly enough, both internal and external cues have unique benefits depending on the activity at hand and the intensity that it is being performed at.
Research performed by Benjamin Snyder and Wesley Fry may provide us with some valuable information to help us grasp this idea. In this study, a group of DIII football players performed 3 sets of a bench press at both 50% and 80% of their one repetition max (1RM). Participants were given an internal cue to focus on a specific muscle while muscle fiber recruitment (muscle activation) was measured using electromyography (EMG). When given internal cues to focus on the pectoralis major and triceps brachii at the 50% 1RM intensity, EMG results showed a 22% and 26% muscle activation increase, respectively. When given the opposite cue (focus on pectoralis major rather than triceps brachii, or vice versa), the muscle not in focus consistently returned to baseline activation. This suggests that there is specificity regarding the focal point and muscle activation. When researchers increased the participants’ load to 80% 1RM, they observed different results. When given cues to focus solely on the pectoralis major, researchers noticed the EMG increase in both the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid. To me, this suggests less specificity between the focal point and muscle activation at higher intensities. Afterwards, when participants were cued to focus on the triceps brachii, the EMG noted no difference in muscle activation. This research may suggest that internal cues are effective at lower intensities (50% 1RM), but as the load is increased (80% 1RM), may be less effective.
In another study, researchers focused their attention towards young and healthy women practicing extension movements at the hip. Using relatively similar means to the previous study, women were either given no cues or internal cues when performing a prone hip extension. EMG technology measured muscle activation of the medial hamstring, lateral hamstring, and gluteus maximus. In the “no-cues” group, the medial hamstring, lateral hamstring, and gluteus maximus were activated systematically in that order. In contrast, the “internal cues” group showed simultaneous activation of all 3 muscles when cued to engage the glutes during the movement. This group also saw a decrease in medial and lateral hamstring activation while presenting a significant increase in gluteus maximus activation. The research suggests that internal cues can have benefits regarding the onset of specific muscle activation during a movement in addition to increasing the intensity of muscle fiber recruitment.
Last but not least, I want to address the power of using external cues. Although this antagonizes the idea of using the “mind to muscle” connection, there is validity to using external cues during certain situations. A review conducted by Gabriele Wulf out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas suggests that external cues are overwhelmingly more effective for competitive sport athletes. This data pertains to movements that are associated with that specific sport. In my eyes, as a previous competitive athlete, this makes sense. If I plan to run a route as a wide receiver on the football field, I would prefer to focus on my environment rather than my body during the play. Where are the defenders located on the field? Where do I plan to end up after running my route? How do I intend on getting there? When catching the ball, if I were to focus on contracting the musculature within my hands rather than watching the ball, I may drop the pass or be unable to elude a defender coming across the field. To rationalize further, when the environment around you plays a role in the outcome of your performance, you naturally need to give it more of your attention. In this case, external cues are more effective than internal cues. Assuming you aren’t exercising at a youthful playground with unpredictable children, you should be safe to focus on internal cues while lifting weights.
Now, let’s organize this information. In my eyes, the “mind to muscle” approach comes in a stepwise format including preparation, action, and reflection stages. Initially, we psychologically prepare ourselves for a particular movement through visualizing and anticipating an outcome. The preparation stage also has its own physiological benefits as we will see (increased blood flow, muscle fiber recruitment, etc…). Once we’re prepared for the movement, we send our body into action to perform it with precision while paying close attention to the “details” and listening to our body. Finally, reflecting upon our ability to maintain this focus will only allow us to process the results and identify areas of improvement for the future (in general, I believe reflection is a necessary stepping stone for nearly everything we do in life, but that’s a conversation for another time).
So, when entering the preparation stage, be intentional in regards to muscle activation. Take some time prior to your set to identify the muscle target you are going to be contracting, and practice using it prior to lifting any weight. Let me offer you a bicep curl as an example. It may sound ridiculous, but flex your biceps prior to your curls. Feel your biceps contract with your fingers, and practice this contraction through a full range of motion. Observe and be vigilant of the way that it feels when you use the biceps. Action! When you pick up the weights to perform the exercise, focus on the muscle moving (it helps if you actually look at it, or watch yourself in the mirror – at first). When you have completed the movement, pay attention to how well you were able to focus. If you got distracted from your target muscle, what could you have done differently?
As previously mentioned, in addition to creating the “mind to muscle” linkage, your body can reap additional physiological benefits from this practice. Let’s continue on with our curls analogy, shall we. The biceps are much more than two large muscles that extend across the top of your arm. They consist of hundreds of thousands of muscle fibers, some of which activate during your curls, and some of which do not. When your brain identifies that a muscle is going to perform a specific action, it can send additional signals to activate more of those fibers, in turn, allowing you to lift more weight, do more repetitions, or get a better “pump.” In addition, contracting the target muscles prior to your lift recruits your circulatory system to flush blood into the tissues that are about to be used. This is of massive benefit to your body as well!
As with all mindful activities, practice over time to recognize improvement. I am a strong advocate for the “mind to muscle” connection, and believe that every gym goer should make a conscious effort towards this practice. Not only will you optimize your performance in the weight room, but you will become more interoceptive with your body which has countless amounts of benefits as well. Be attentive. Your mind and body want to communicate with each other. It is your job to be the translator.
Benz, Adam, et al. “Coaching Instructions and Cues for Enhancing Sprint Performance.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 38.1 (2016): 1-11.
- Wulf, Gabriele. “Attentional Focus and Motor Learning: A Review of 15 Years.” University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2012, gwulf.faculty.unlv.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Wulf_AF_review_2013.pdf.
- Schoenfeld, Brad J. “Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development: The… : Strength & Conditioning Journal.” LWW, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2016, journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2016/02000/attentional_focus_for_maximizing_muscle.4.aspx#O3-4-6.
- Snyder BJ, Fry WR. Effect of verbal instruction on muscle activity during the bench press exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Sep;26(9):2394-400. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823f8d11. PMID: 22076100.
- Lewis CL, Sahrmann SA. Muscle activation and movement patterns during prone hip extension exercise in women. J Athl Train. 2009 May-Jun;44(3):238-48. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-44.3.238. PMID: 19478835; PMCID: PMC2681207.