When you’re hitting the weight room, or unracking the barbell, are you doing it with intention? Are you focused on what you are about to do, or are you thinking about dinner tonight? Or that big project you haven’t started yet? That biceps pose pic you’re about to share on Instagram? Focusing on the task at hand doesn’t only apply to the things you do at work and home. Having a mental connection with your workout improves strength, technique, and muscle growth (aka hypertrophy or “getting the pump”). There are two major types of training focus:
- External cueing (a specified outcome)
- Internal cueing (mentally engaging the muscles)
We apply both of these mind-muscle connections to produce the most work for the muscle and maximize benefits. Sometimes it is better to focus on one type over the other, but more experienced training individuals can still utilize both. A good trainer will recognize which situations call for one type over the other.
Turns Out, Bodybuilders Were Right!
Often we hear of the mind-muscle connection as a so-called “bro science”. Some will argue that good form will still build the same regardless of the intention. However, the more research that’s done, the more we understand this is not the case. Since we are talking matters of the mind, the more body awareness we develop, the more we can selectively put in work the way we want. Bodybuilders and athletes are some of the most aware (in my experience) of their internal connections. Pros like Steph Curry celebrate a basket before the ball even gets to the rim. Visualization applies to everything we do, no matter what type of athlete, or what level, we are at. It is something we can continue to get better at too, if we choose to focus on the right task at the right time.
What do I mean by concentration? I mean focusing totally on the business at hand and commanding your body to do exactly what you want it to do.
My personal example is training the Lat Pull-Down exercise, or doing a pull-up. Often, we forget how important the latissimus muscle (that big, broad back muscle on swimmers and bodybuilders) is. Some people end up overworking the forearms and biceps without engaging the lat first. Although the exercise outcome could be considered accomplished, the person isn’t getting as much of a benefit to the back musculature as they should. I will still say external cues like “pull the shoulder blade into your back pocket.” But what does that really mean to an inexperienced individual? So I will often place my hand where the lat attaches to the upper arm and shoulder, telling them to focus on “pulling down from this muscle in the shoulder first”.
All of a sudden clients FEEL their back working more. Technique instantly improves, and we are targeting the correct muscles now. Of course other things like core bracing and breathing come into play as well. The most important part is the client understands what they are actually doing, so that they are able to execute the movement better!
Internal Focus on Building Muscle
Let’s examine a different example of internal mind-muscle connection cueing. Take, for example, the concentric, or active pushing motion, of a barbell or dumbbell bench press. There are certain external cues that we utilize as therapists or trainers:
- “push the elbows closer together as you go up”
- “try to bend the bar apart”
These are still great for building proper technique, but what if we told people to mentally engage the muscles they are using as well? In a study published by Calatayud, et. al., researchers examined mind-muscle connection utilizing the bench press exercise. They told the lifters to focus on either their triceps or their chest during the lift. The control group was told to perform the exercise without any further cues. It was found that there was an increasing linear relationship between 20-80% of the lifter’s 1 rep max (1RM) and the electromyogram (EMG), or electrical analysis of muscle activation, reading of the lifter’s chest (pectoralis) and triceps muscles. This suggests internal cueing improves technique and recruitment of more muscle! Also, there was not a limiter on focusing on one muscle over the other; in fact, focusing on the triceps increased activation of the pectoralis muscles as well! So, theoretically, we can push more weight, and build more strength, by mentally engaging the muscles we need for the exercise.
Mental Imagery Maintains Muscle Too
Gaining strength is very cool, but so is being able to maintain muscle, just by thinking about it! Brian Clark and his team found that strength loss was reduced significantly when mental imagery was performed in individuals with non-dominant wrist immobilization. Measuring wrist flexion strength, the overall loss in strength was only 24% in individuals utilizing mental imagery, compared to 45% in the participants who were immobilized but not given mind-muscle connection cues. Overall force production loss was also attenuated by about 50%. The period of immobilization induces a decrease in neural drive to the wrist musculature. This follows previous research in that loss of strength is correlated to the decreased ability to voluntarily activate the muscle due to its disuse. According to Ranganathan et. al., performing “mental contractions” of finger abductions increased strength by 53%, pinkie finger abduction by 35%, and elbow flexion by 13.5%! These strength gains were made solely by mind-muscle connection and imagery, and not by performing actual exercises! Our minds are so powerful that we can reduce the amount of strength lost when a joint has been immobilized, and even have a potential to gain strength, all without lifting (or abducting) a finger! How amazing is that?
How could it be that only thinking about a maximum contraction could make the muscle stronger? If we think about the pathways involved, it’s actually pretty simple. A muscle contraction starts in the cortical part of our brain, as an electrical impulse. This impulse is converted to a chemical trigger when the signal reaches what’s called the neuromuscular junction, and the chemicals trigger a cascade reaction that produces the physical shortening of muscle fiber, or the “contraction”. So, in short, the more we think about activating a muscle, the more impulses get sent from the brain, and the more muscle fibers we end up recruiting.
Internal Cueing Increases Gains in Size
Mind-muscle connection will also increase muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the increase of the size and number of muscle fibers. The muscle also gets engorged with blood and fluid, which is that “pump” that lifters look for. Individual fibers will also increase their glycogen (energy) stores, allowing for the muscle to go longer before fatigue sets in. A study by Schoenfield, et. al., showed via ultrasound that muscle thickness increased by 12.4% in the biceps and other elbow flexors when utilizing internal cues, and 6.9% when using external cues! So say hello to your own personal gun show after focusing on those big biceps when doing curls!
A similar change was noted for quad muscles, however, there was a limit due to some participants’ lack of training experience. Thus, inexperienced people who have a hard time maintaining a mental connection to the muscle did not see as much of an increase as experienced lifters. Again, this is why proper coaching helps people maintain form and get higher “gains” from having encouragement and positive reinforcement of successful movement.
External Cues and Athletic Training
In addition to internal mind-muscle connection, external cues are equally valuable to build strength as well as technique. A study from Marchant, et. al., showed that although EMG readings were higher with internal cues compared to external, using external cueing produced a greater amount of torque, or force production, when performing biceps curls. This greater force production would also produce an overall increase in strength during the course of a training program.
This shows how important proper verbal instruction and continual encouragement is for proper and effective coaching. Of course, when we take this outside of the weight room setting, these external “outcome-focused” cues become even more critical. It would be mind-boggling to try to use specific muscle focusing to explain to someone how to throw a two-finger fastball, or how to correctly perform the “catch” phase of a freestyle swimming stroke. In fact, a study from Pelleck and Passmore showed that internal cues impaired performance for a successful 3m or 5m golf putt.
Which focus produces the best outcome for me?
Thus, it’s important to know when to focus on which type of cueing, coach or athlete. It is important for the athlete to understand what they are doing and that they are actively attempting to do it during their training session. When it comes to strength training and working in the weight room, focusing on outcome goals may result in compensatory movement and cheating. However, if we are already solid in that motor pattern, then adding internal cues can add to how well the move is executed and the strength and hypertrophy benefits for the muscles! When looking at performance, though, external focus proves to be more beneficial in producing more successful outcomes than utilizing an internal focus.
So now the question lies in how to decide which cues we should be using when we train others. A large study by Krajenbrink et. al. designed to develop a motor skill in children (throwing a slingball) showed that both internal and external cues were equally beneficial in overall learning. External cues worked to initially increase outcome during practice. However, this advantage over internal cues was not retained when retested the next practice. I tend to begin training mind-muscle connection with external cues. After the client improves, I migrate to more internal cues as they become more accustomed to the desired outcomes and have built up a significant number of consistent successful repetitions.
Implement both at the right times for optimal outcomes!
When I teach a client a new exercise or performance skill, I will initially focus on the outcome. Once they are more accustomed to the task, I move to internal cues. For instance, when I’m teaching a squat, my initial cues are going to involve proper positioning outcomes. After they improve, I will add more “breathe into and brace your core” and “squeeze your glutes” cueing, because now they have a better understanding of what I’m actually talking about. There’s no point in telling them to squeeze their butt if they don’t know how!
Both types of cueing are so valuable and necessary; it’s about finding the right time as a trainer to implement them. If a client’s already coming into training with a good squat, or we are adding weight, I can dive straight into internal cues. When I teach taekwondo, sometimes I focus on how they should be hitting the target (external), and other times on how they should be moving their leg (internal). It’s all about focusing on what is most necessary, and then as they master that portion, getting pickier and pickier – especially when it comes to complex, multi-joint movements. I’m not going to worry about how hard someone snaps their roundhouse if they can’t pivot their foot. I’m not going to worry about tempo variation and pushing weight if they can’t even reach the proper depth (a whole different debate) in their squat yet.
Tips for Proper Cueing Decisions!
In conclusion, here are some things that I have found as both a coach and an athlete to be beneficial in how to decide what to cue:
- Tempo: Make the client or athlete slow down! If they can bust out 25 pushups, but only the first 10 look great and then it goes all cattywampus, then they just wasted 15 reps! Focus on a slow eccentric. Focus on the muscles being used. Use the slower tempo to figure out how to increase movement quality. Stop at tricky parts of a complex movement and work backwards and forwards through it until you can get it right.
- Take video, and use mirrors: This will help both an athlete on their own, or a coach and their client, break down a movement analysis into their parts. Take slo-mo videos during explosive or fast-paced exercises.
- Use specific complementary exercises to understand what to focus on: Use bands, cables, and specific dynamic warm-up exercises to focus on optimizing muscle activation, and figure out how it should feel and where before going to the weights.
- Focus on one or two cues at a time, especially in complex movements: Give a focus for the session, and focus on getting better at that specific portion, without sacrificing the things that are already done well. I will sometimes spend an entire lesson doing kicks that require turning the hips over, focusing solely on how to properly pivot the planted foot.
- CORE CORE CORE: At the end of the day, core bracing is going to be one of the biggest ways to help be able to execute any lift properly. Work on both movement focused and stability focused core exercises.
If you are a lifter working on your own, ask yourself: “What are the primary muscles I should be using during this exercise?” “What compensations should I watch out for, and how can I engage properly throughout the movement?” If you don’t even know what muscles to use, or are feeling discomfort in other muscles during the exercise (eg. feeling your low back when doing a deadlift or good morning), chances are there is something in your technique and focus that needs work. My primary goal as a coach is quality movement. I have the critical eye to see the little things that you need to do. If you’re compensating, or just flat-out not paying attention, you’re increasing the potential for injury!
The most important thing is that you are continually trying to make it happen. Don’t just “go through the motions”. Get off the phone while you’re at the gym, and put your mind-muscle connection into each workout- every lift, every sprint, every rep, every moment. I promise you’ll come out better for it!
Train with me here at COR and find out exactly what I mean. Are you going to keep your workouts lackadaisical, or are you going to use them to make you stronger, leaner, faster, and better? Set up a trial today, and learn what it takes to take your mind-muscle connection to the next level!
Set up your trial here:
“What puts you over the top? It is the mind that actually creates the body, it is the mind that really makes you work out for four or five hours a day, it is the mind that visualizes what the body ought to look like as a finished product.”
– Arnold Schwarzenegger
From “The ‘Classic’ Arnold Schwarzenegger” by Amazon Leisure
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., . . . Andersen, L. L. (2015). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology,116(3), 527-533. doi:10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7
- Clark, B. C., Mahato, N. K., Nakazawa, M., Law, T. D., & Thomas, J. S. (2014). The power of the mind: The cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness. Journal of Neurophysiology,112(12), 3219-3226. doi:10.1152/jn.00386.2014
- Krajenbrink, H., Abswoude, F. V., Vermeulen, S., Cappellen, S. V., & Steenbergen, B. (2018). Motor learning and movement automatization in typically developing children: The role of instructions with an external or internal focus of attention. Human Movement Science,60, 183-190. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2018.06.010
- Marchant, D. C., Greig, M., & Scott, C. (2009). Attentional Focusing Instructions Influence Force Production and Muscular Activity During Isokinetic Elbow Flexions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,23(8), 2358-2366. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b8d1e5
- Pelleck, V., & Passmore, S. R. (2017). Location versus task relevance: The impact of differing internal focus of attention instructions on motor performance. Acta Psychologica,176, 23-31. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.03.007
- Ranganathan, V. K., Siemionow, V., Liu, J. Z., Sahgal, V., & Yue, G. H. (2004). From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia,42(7), 944-956. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2003.11.018
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., . . . Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science,18(5), 705-712. doi:10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020
- Athlete Beach Biceps Selfie: Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
- Brain Lifting Barbell: Photo by Gary Waters. Creative #: 656281841. Ikon Images
- Neuromuscular junction: Photo by Clker-Free-Vector-Images / 29591 images / Science – Technology
- Female Bodybuilder: Photo by Sabel Blanco from Pexels
- Arnold Schwarzenegger Quotes: The ‘Classic’ Arnold Schwarzenegger. https://amazonleisure.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/the-classic-arnold-schwarzenegger/ via @wordpress.com
- Arnold Palmer quote. http://www.american-gymnast.com/focusing-on-the-right-thing-at-the-right-time/