Musing on Movement
Back in the early 2000s, the idea of “muscle confusion” arose among the fitness crowd after it became the buzz phrase used in a popular line of fitness DVDs (yes…that was a thing). The layperson took this to mean that all someone needed to do was pull random movements from a hat, structure them in an interval type-workout, and voila – muscle confusion at its finest. The muscles would be so confused at the training being thrown at them, they would have no choice but to grow to never-before-seen levels!
While this led to increased sales of that previously mentioned video program, the research did not support this theory. Instead, what was called “muscle confusion” was really just the application of an old friend to the gym – progressive overload – being applied to gym goers who were stuck in the same 3×8 set/rep scheme at their local gym.
Fast-forward to the present and we are being offered with a new theory. However, unlike muscle confusion, the research on this topic is promising, and bodybuilders have been applying it since the golden era days. This concept is the mind-muscle connection, and in research it is better known as attentional focus (1).
Brain Strain for Muscle Gain
Briefly, attentional focus is when someone intentionally concentrates on the lengthening and shortening of their muscles throughout the duration of a lift. Take a second to go watch older clips of bodybuilding partners training together. You’ll notice sometimes the partner who is spotting, will use their fingers to poke the working muscle of their training partner who is lifting. While this may appear to be just bros being dudes and admiring some gains (nothing wrong with that), there’s a more altruistic reason. This is to keep their training partner focused on the working muscle. And it’s not just for show; remember this was before FitSpo was a thing.. No, the research supports this training tool as a way to maximize muscle growth!
Research has shown that focusing the mind on muscle activation during training can significantly improve performance and muscle growth (1). In fact, one study published in a reputable journal showed that when men focused on their chest contractions during the push-up, they elicited significantly greater electrical activity (think muscle drive) in their pectoral muscles compared to the group that did not (2).
Interesting, but maybe you argue though this was just an acute study, and that does not necessarily transfer over to chronic training, such as those individuals following Power Athlete’s programming. Well, I have news for ya, in the form of another study.
In 2018, hypertrophy guru, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, and his team took a group of men and split them into two groups: a group that implemented attentional focus and a group that implemented external focus (aka: focused on the outcome of the lift). The two groups trained 3x a week for 8-weeks and, as you would guess, the group that implemented attentional focus had significantly greater improvements in muscle thickness compared to the group utilizing external focus (3). It appears that, regardless if the training is a single session, or a chronic training program you are following, focusing on the “squeeze” can really pay off in the long run when it comes to growing those muscles.
The Bottom Line
As a researcher, I always look to science for answers. Sometimes though, the science hasn’t caught up with the evidence of those practicing it. The mind-muscle connection has been around a long time, with even Arnold having spoken on it in his famous Pumping Iron documentary. Even as late as 2021, Arnold shared his thoughts in a newsletter on the mind-muscle connection: “The first and most important muscle-mind connection is making it automatic that you go and do your training every day. It should require no thinking. It should become an instinct that you train no matter what. You do this by training every day and creating a real routine.” He later added, “have you ever tried to workout when you are distracted, and you pace around for too long between sets, and then when you lift the weight it feels heavier than usual? This is because your mind is not connected to your muscles. In order to get the perfect pump, your mind has to be the body’s guide, thinking about every part of the movement, every contraction, every squeeze. If your mind is involved in your workout, there is no way you can lose. I look at it as a form of meditation! The more I focus on the lift that I’m doing, the more present I am in the moment, meaning I can feel exactly how my body reacts to the lift. Get to know your body, and get your mind working in sync with it. Yes, like all of you, I get distracted, but then I bring my mind back into the movement. You can call this meathead mindfulness” (4).
Empower Your Performance
Life is better with muscle, and if we want to maximize every last bit out of our lifts, it might do us all some good to start practicing some meatheaded mindfulness. Do you have the mind and muscle, but are looking for a program to establish that connection? Head on over to PowerAthleteHQ.com/training and check out one of the many that we have to offer today!
Training: Power Athlete Programs
Podcast: Power Athlete Radio Episode 307
Blog: John’s 6 Rules For Strength and Muscle by John Welbourn
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Contreras, B. (2016). Attentional focus for maximizing muscle development: The mind-muscle connection. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 27-29.
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Colado, J. C., & Andersen, L. L. (2017). Mind-muscle connection training principle: influence of muscle strength and training experience during a pushing movement. European journal of applied physiology, 117, 1445-1452.
- 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.
Hunter Waldman is a former DII collegiate linebacker who found his passion in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology during his undergraduate years. After working as a Strength and Conditioning coach/personal trainer for several years, Hunter pursued his doctorate in Exercise Physiology while also serving as a Sweat Scientist for the Gatorade Sport Science Institute (GSSI) in Florida. Hunter is now a Professor of Exercise Science at the University of North Alabama, Researcher, Director of the Exercise Biochemistry Laboratory, and Power Athlete Block-1 Coach. Hunter's research area is in Nutrition and Metabolic Health/Performance, where his lab is attempting to understand how to increase cell stress resiliency via nutrition, supplements, and exercise.
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