Training is a journey. Just when we think we have reached our destination, we realize there is still so much more to learn. That is why I love training so much and continue to find it challenging 20 years later. About five years ago, I started learning about the mind-muscle connection – the conscious and deliberate contraction of a muscle. It refers to the act of activating the muscle instead of just moving the weight. At the time, I thought I knew how to lift weights but this “new” concept intrigued me. I set out to “feel” every exercise I did. I studied muscle diagrams. I researched movement patterns. I can’t tell you how many times I asked guys in the gym “what muscle is that working?” (and often got blank stares). Once I dove deeper, it changed the entire trajectory of my training. I went from trying to do everything as fast and heavy as possible to slowing down and understanding my body. I went from having nagging aches and pains to having greater range of motion and feeling better at (nearly) 40 then I did at 25 years of age.
Developing a strong mind-muscle connection is an important building block to transforming your body. Let’s use the pull-up as an example. Suppose you can do a couple pull-ups but when you do them, your shoulders scrunch up to your ears and afterwards your neck feels uncomfortably tight. Or maybe you can’t progress to unassisted pull-ups after tons of assisted practice. These may be signs that you are not connected to latissimus dorsi muscles (the primary movers in a pull-up) and instead relying on your traps and/or biceps. If you are only focused on getting your chin to the touch the bar, you are missing the point of the exercise. Now suppose that you spend a few weeks learning how to activate your lats. You learn to drive your shoulder blades down and back by contracting your lats as you pull your chest to the bar. You can keep your neck long and your shoulders down from your ears. Your pull-up is stronger, your neck isn’t stiff, and you’re finally building your back muscles – the exact point of the exercise.
This connection can be applied to any exercise you perform. Your individual needs will probably vary. To figure out what muscles you need to connect to and how, talk to a coach. It’s our job to help! Also, here are some tips and ideas for you to develop your own internal cues:
Strip away outside distractions during your training so you can “feel” what is going on in your body. This is especially important when you are working to develop your mind-muscle connection and the warm-up and activation phases of the training are the best times to practice.
Repeat your coach’s cues in your head
“Repetition is the mother of learning.” If a coach gives you a cue that clicks with you, repeat it in your head for the duration of the exercise to cement it in your memory. Writing it down afterward is also helpful for retention.
No one is good the first time they try something. And even if you successfully connect to a muscle right away, it will take repeated practice to solidify it to muscle memory. Keep working on it!
While learning to connect to our muscles during warm-up and activation, the weights and reps are irrelevant. The focus is to learn to turn the muscles “on and off.”
Touching the working muscle with your free hand can help you bring awareness to the muscle. Other ways to physically connect may be to take off your shoes, not wear a weight belt, or isometrically flex the muscle before the movement.
My final advice is to be patient. You don’t need to work on connecting correctly to every muscle in your body all at once. Start with a few and build from there. Some muscles will be easier to connect to and others harder. But the pay off for your efforts will be limitless.
- Coach Jessica
Coach Jessica has had a passion for training for over 25 years. She approaches strength training as a puzzle; fitting together all the pieces so the client can accomplish their specific goal. Her style combines powerlifting, bodybuilding, and functional fitness in different ratios depending on what the client needs. Her approach with clients is to first see where they are, set a goal for where they want to be, and then develop a plan that is sustainable and enjoyable. To meet with coach Jessica or schedule a PT appointment, check out her schedule below: