You’ve probably heard of it: mind-muscle connection. But what exactly is it? Does it even exist or is it a myth, as there are so many untruths circulating in the world of strength sports?
BRAIN AND MUSCLES
We can be brief about the latter: there is certainly a connection between your brain and your muscles. The contraction and relaxation of your muscles, responsible for the movement in your joints and your limbs, is controlled by the brain. Your brain sends a signal via your central nervous system to a motor neuron, which controls various muscle fibers.
Most muscle movements are conscious or intentional. Your intent was to make a certain movement take place. Suppose you want to take a sip of your coffee and you reach for your cup. Although you reach for the cup practically without thinking (“automatically”), this is done consciously; in other words, you are not surprised that the movement is taking place. That’s because your brain initiated the movement, even though you haven’t thought the movement through extensively, like some math problem. The signal is transmitted so quickly that it seemed as if it happened unconsciously, ie automatically or without thinking.
In the gym you also see some people doing their reps, sets and exercises on autopilot. The same way they reach for a cup of coffee. Now in gym circles the story goes that to train well, you have to target a muscle in a targeted way – consciously. Target the muscle. In fact, this means that you have to think about your muscle when you train it.
Well, that sounds a bit weird: thinking about your muscle when you train it. Suddenly you see a drooling Pluto with a thought bubble with a large bone in it. Yet scientific research, by hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld, has shown that thinking about the muscle you train can contribute to muscle growth (hypertrophy).
Schoenfeld investigated two types of focus during strength sports: internal and external. Let’s take the single biceps curls as an example. Biceps curls target, you guessed it, your biceps. Your biceps are responsible for flexing your forearm, or rather, for the flexion at your elbow joint. When performing biceps curls, it is therefore essential that there is only movement in your elbow joint and that you do not swing the weight upwards by involving your shoulder joint. This is similar to the way people engage their hip joint when performing cable rows or lat pulldowns, exercises that target your back, while the only movement should be in your shoulder joint and elbow joint.
Now there is a significant difference between focusing on the movement and focusing on the muscle responsible for the movement. With biceps curls, for example, do you focus on bending your forearm or on the muscle in your upper arm, the biceps, which is responsible for this movement? In fact, this is a matter of perspective: are you targeting the cause – the muscle – or the effect – the movement? Schoenfeld calls focus on the muscle internal focus, focus on the movement external.
In principle, the external focus seems to be the most important in performance sports. And you can’t do without an external focus in strength sports either. In complex exercises such as the deadlift and the squat, where many muscle groups and muscles work together, it is important to focus on the individual movements to perfect the overall exercise. After all, the exercise consists of several movements – bending your hips, knees, etc. Only when you have mastered every ‘individual’ movement, you have mastered the exercise. Think of it as the individual pieces of a puzzle that fit together.
Nevertheless, Schoenfeld’s research seems to provide tentative evidence that internal focus is also important, at least for muscle growth. It turned out that the studied group of students who applied internal focus to biceps curls achieved significantly more muscle growth than the group that focused externally. With leg extensions however, the outcome was different: no significant difference in muscle mass was found for the quadriceps. Schoenfeld says it may be because it’s easier to focus on your biceps than on the quadriceps. This is in line with what the participants also indicated at the end of the study. It should be noted that these were untrained subjects who exercised at a relatively low intensity. This doesn’t mean that the results automatically also apply to advanced bodybuilders who complete heavy workouts. The cautious conclusion is nevertheless that for muscle growth, internal focus is especially important (the muscle), and for strength external focus (the movement).
Incidentally, it is not the first time that the effects of internal focus, ie mind-muscle connection, have been scientifically investigated. But in previous studies, electromyography (EMG) was used, which means that one looks purely at the activation of the muscle during exercise. However, it is not said that more activation actually leads to more muscle growth in a long-term training program. Hence, in his latest study, Schoenfeld looked at changes in muscle size using ultrasound measurement.
CONCLUSION AND ADVICE
Focus is of great importance in performance sports, in particular strength sports. With external focus you concentrate on the movement of an exercise: to learn it and to perform it correctly. Internal focus refers to the muscle you are training. Research has shown that internal focus can contribute to muscle growth. External focus is especially important if you train (purely) for strength.
Mind-muscle connection is therefore not a myth, but something that you as a bodybuilder should take seriously. This does not alter the fact that bodybuilders must also have an external focus, especially when doing compound movements. After all, it is necessary to perform the exercises correctly. During a complex exercise such as the deadlift, you must therefore focus on the correct execution of the movements on the one hand, and on the muscles you are training on the other. As you progress and master the practice through external focus, you will have a little more ‘space’ in your mind for the internal focus.
The conclusion is that your mind also has to do a lot of work in the gym. Never perform exercises with the carelessness of reaching for a cup of coffee.