I recently read an article on the ACE website and thought that it’s well worth sharing. The article talks about the mind-muscle relationship. So, let’s talk about what this really means. My understanding was like that of most people, that it’s about paying attention to the targeted muscles, but it turns out it’s a lot more than that. Being consciously aware and focused on moving a targeted muscle has been proven to strengthen the muscle without physically moving it. No, it’s not science fiction and this has been scientifically proven.
There was a 2014 study conducted at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine led by Brian Clark where 29 volunteers had their wrists wrapped in surgical casts for four weeks. Half of the group was instructed to sit quietly and visualize flexing their immobile wrist for 11 minutes a day, five times a week. The rest of the participants obliged and did nothing. When the casts were removed, the researchers found that the wrist muscles of those in the visualization group were twice as strong as the wrist muscles of the control group. (Clark et al., 2014).
There was another research conducted in 2002 at the Cleveland Clinic
Foundation. This was a three-month study where researchers had participants in one group physically exercise their pinkie finger. The study subjects in the second group had to concentrate intensely on flexing that same finger and keep it still. The scientists took measurements of the finger muscle before, during and after each session. At the end of the study, the subjects that actually did the physical work increased their finger strength on average by 53% while the participants that mentally concentrated on the visualization of flexing the finger increased strength by 13.5%. This is almost a third of the workout group (Ranganthan et al., 2002).
In another more recent study published in the European Journal of Exercise Physiology , it offers real-world evidence to the mind-muscle link and an explanation behind the physical payoff for the mental focus during your workouts.
Let me break down the study and the science-based evidence. The primary focus of the research was to determine if focusing on specific muscles, such as chest and triceps, when performing a bench press can actually improve performance of these muscles. The study participants performed the bench press under three different conditions: (1) without concentrating on any specific muscle part; (2) while concentrating on contracting the pectoralis major muscles; and (3) while concentrating on flexing the triceps muscles. Having done as instructed, subjects performed the bench press at 20%, 40%, 50%, 60% and 80% of their set 1-repetition max (1-RM). Results showed that muscle activity did increase when lifters focused their attention on the two target muscles, but only up to 60% of their 1-RM (Calatayud et al., 2016).
What was the determining factor that it was only up to 60% 1-RM? There are three things that are of utmost importance when creating a mental connection to the targeted muscle and they are focus, attention and concentration. This can only occur when using weights with a given 20-60% 1-RM range that was used in the study. Lifting a weight at 80% of your 1-RM requires a lot of mental focus to be directed at getting that weight up, versus mentally connecting to the quality and intensity of the movement. As opposed to lifting a challenging but manageable weight that corresponds to 20-60% of your 1-RM, it is much easier to focus on the “quality” of the lift.
The question then is, how can one create that mind-muscle relationship during the workout? Here’s some helpful tips to aid your workouts to see better results.
1. Move slowly. Concentrically lift for 2 seconds, pause for 1 second at peak contraction and then eccentrically return to the starting position for a count of 3. The more time under tension, the more your muscles need to work and there’s more time to mentally connect to the muscle movement.
2. Lift with your eyes closed. This eliminates visual distractions and deepens the mind-muscle link by focusing on the muscle contractions. Note: Please do not attempt if you have balance problems, are lifting heavy loads, or are performing an exercise that requires spotting assistance.
Implement these techniques to enhance your workouts and see for yourself where this simple tweak to the workout can make a big difference and could lead to a physical transformation.
AUTHOR and Contributor Lorne Opler and Publisher ACE Fitness
Opler, L. L. C. L. (2019, October 3). The Mind-muscle Connection. Retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/7388/the-mind-muscle-connection.
Calatayud, J. et al. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116, 3, 27-33.
Clark, B.C. et al. (2014). The power of the mind: The cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness. Journal of Neurophysiology, 112, 12, 3219-3226.
Ranganathan, V.K. et al. (2004). From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia, 42, 7, 944-956
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