You probably know your brain controls your muscles and joints. But in science, there’s actually a name for that phenomenon: the mind-muscle connection.
“The mind-muscle connection is a person’s ability to focus on engaging an individual muscle, almost like ‘flexing’ without actually making any large body movements,” explains Alan Snyder, DPT, owner of Breakaway Physical Therapy.
Think about it: Can you contract your pectoral muscles individually? “Many people have the strength to perform a bench press or pushups, but lack of mind-muscle connection to contract one at a time in a standing position,” Snyder explains.
Turns out, improving and utilizing your mind-muscle connection might be the key to getting more from your workouts. Here’s why, and how to put it to work.
WHY IS THE MIND-MUSCLE CONNECTION SO IMPORTANT?
First and foremost, a strong mind-muscle connection means you’re less likely to get injured. No injuries means a better chance of seeing results from your workouts, since you won’t be sidelined. “When you don’t have good mind-muscle connection, you lack body awareness or proprioception,” explains Grayson Wickham, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Movement Vault. “The more aware you are of your body, and how to move your body, the less likely you are to get injured.”
But what’s really cool about the mind-muscle connection is it can also maximize the benefit you get from your workouts — especially strength-training workouts. “By improving the efficiency of the mind-muscle connection, you can make sure the right muscles are firing during workouts and get better results,” says Carol Ferkovic Mack, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance. That means you’ll be using your glutes and hamstrings for deadlifts — rather than your quads, and your lats and biceps for chinups — rather than your upper back muscles.
Even better, the mind-muscle connection can start to work without you actually moving a muscle. “Not only can you actively focus on a muscle and get it to contract, but research has also shown just the mere thought of contracting a muscle can cause a few muscle fibers to activate,” Snyder explains. So truly, muscle movement and strength starts in the brain.
By the way, it’s not just while lifting weights that you’ll see a benefit from a strong mind-muscle connection. “It has advantages for anything you do with your body, including playing with your kids, yard work, shoveling the snow, lifting weights and cardio exercises,” Wickham notes. “You will increase performance and decrease injury risk anytime you can connect with your body better.”
FIVE WAYS TO UTILIZE THE MIND-MUSCLE CONNECTION
- Clear your head before your workouts. Do your best to increase your focus before you hit the gym. “When you’re thinking about your to-do list and every other thing in your life, you will not be able to connect with your body, and therefore connect with a specific muscle that you would like to recruit maximally,” Wickam says. Whether you do a short meditation before workouts or simply take a few deep breaths, it’s worth trying to have a moment of calm before utilizing this connection.
- Warm up properly. Adding muscle-activation exercises to your warmup can be helpful in increasing your connection to specific muscles, Mack says. For example, try bridges, banded air squats or stepups to prime the glutes for weighted squats.
- Visualize the muscles you’re using. “Picture these muscles if you can,” Wickham recommends. “If you don’t know where they’re located, Google them to give yourself a reference.”
- Try “negative” exercises. The negative or eccentric phase of an exercise refers to the part where muscles are being stretched before they contract — so the lowering portion of a deadlift, pushup or squat, for example. “The eccentric phase places a higher demand on the nervous system,” Mack explains. This means you may be able to connect to the prime muscles used more readily. Go easy at first though, she warns: “Eccentric exercise is also associated with delayed onset muscle soreness.”
- Use your hands. “You can also use tapping methods on a specific muscle to help you feel and recruit that muscle,” Wickham says. “To do this, you simply want to tap on an area of your body or muscle with light-to-moderate pressure at a fast tempo.”