The Mind-Muscle Connection

It’s one of those terms that sounds like gym mythology, and for about a decade the most consideration I gave it was an eye roll.

But over time as minor injuries occurred and certain muscles refused to do their share, I began to wonder if there might be something to it.

Old anatomy drawing

Definition

The “mind-muscle connection” means mentally focusing on specific muscles during exercise in order to increase the work they do, often also with the intention of decreasing the activity of other muscles. It’s most relevant to muscle growth as opposed to performance (thinking about individual muscles working can actually be detrimental to performance, interestingly).

Just Lift It, Bro!

With a basic understanding of physiology and gravity, the mind-muscle connection intuitively seems unnecessary. Take an exercise, align your body, then push or pull—what other outcome is there but for the right muscles to work?

But intuition is often wrong. The body is built for efficiency, and will naturally opt for the easiest path in the moment. Strong muscles take more work, joints may be loaded in bad alignment, and chances of injury increase. Evolution didn’t gift us with an innate ability to do a back squat or bench press with perfect form.

Eating My Humble Pie

It was the bench press that sparked my rethinking. My shoulders took most of the work during any pressing. This always lead to two unwanted outcomes—my chest got too little work (and a subsequent lack of growth), and I had niggling shoulder joint problems.

Mind in the Muscle

It took a decade, but I finally explored the mind-muscle idea. I’ll continue with the chest example, but it applies to everything.

Using the mind-muscle approach can be explained simply: it’s about using muscles instead of moving weight. So in a bench press, the goal changes from shifting weight off the sternum to activating and working the pectoral muscles. The bar path is the same, but the effects are different. The load emphasis is shifted from deltoids, triceps, and shoulder joints, and redistributed to the pecs.

Easy to Say

Using the mind-muscle concept was humbling. It required unlearning motor patterns, and going back to extremely light weight. I still can’t use as much weight as I used to.

But as strong as I’d like to be, I’m not a powerlifter. Strengthening and growing muscles (instead of movements) is the priority, and I’m happy to trade off a bit of gross weight to more effectively accomplish the goal. The clichéd old gym advice to leave your ego at the door definitely applies here.

The mind-muscle connection took a long time to click with me, but my workouts have radically changed as a result. It’s excellent for focusing training stress on stubborn muscles, but has had the added benefit of cleaning up joint issues. I think it’s the best way to train, especially if training longevity and joint health are important to you.

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