Mind-Muscle Connection: The Best Kept Secret for Increased Muscle and Strength

Do you wish you could just think about a muscle and it would grow bigger and stronger?

Well…although we can’t actually THINK a muscle into growing, our thoughts during strength training can play a critical role in the growth, development, and activation of our muscles.

Arguably, what goes through our minds while lifting weights is just as important as the actual movement itself.

As a bodybuilder and former fitness competitor I have learned first-hand the importance of establishing a strong relationship between the mind and the muscle.

This relationship is known as the Mind-Muscle Connection.

The American Council on Exercise defines mind-muscle connection as the “the act of consciously and deliberately thinking about moving a targeted muscle.” Studies have shown that this internal focus can lead to improved muscle activation, muscle size, and strength over time.

If you think about it, mind-muscle connection is essentially muscle mindfulness!

The 3 Types of Muscle

Our bodies consist of three different types of muscles: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal.

  1. Cardiac muscles are located in the heart and function involuntarily,
  2. Smooth muscles are located in the walls of hollow organs such as the stomach and intestines and function involuntarily, and
  3. Skeletal muscles are attached to bones by tendons, are responsible for our physical movement, and function voluntarily, meaning that we have the ability to control how and when we choose to move them.

When it comes to strength training and the mind-muscle connection we are specifically talking about our ability to impact the movement and growth of our skeletal muscles.

Muscle Contraction Explained

Muscle contraction, or the recruitment of specific muscle fibers, begins with our brain.

The main neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that is released by the brain to signal a muscle to contract is called “acetylcholine.”

Acetylcholine travels to the neuromuscular junction, the location site where neurons and muscles communicate and the place where you can technically say mind-muscle connection occurs.

At this junction acetylcholine crosses over a small space between the synapses of neurons, called the synaptic cleft, and binds to the designated muscle fiber of a muscle.

Muscle is composed of numerous muscle fibers and developing our mind-muscle connection can help increase the recruitment of those fibers when performing weight bearing exercises and improve our overall exercise performance. The more muscle fibers we can recruit during that exercise, the greater output or strength the muscle will have.

Now that we’ve learned how our minds can positively impact our strength and performance, here are 6 tips to help improve your mind-muscle connection.

6 Tips to Improve Mind-Muscle Connection

“Warming up” or getting the body ready for exercise is often associated with “static stretching” or movements performed by holding a single position, either standing, sitting, or lying down, for a designated period of time. Static stretch holding time typically ranges anywhere between 15 to 60 seconds.

Contrary to common belief, static stretching can actually decrease performance, strength, and reaction time if done prior to a workout by desensitizing the muscle and tendons which limits the recruitment of those specific muscle fibers you are trying to stimulate.

But not to worry, there is a much better way to warm-up…Dynamic Stretching!

Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching SHOULD be incorporated into your warm-up routine.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine defines dynamic stretching as “the active extension of a muscle, using force production and momentum, to move the joint through the full available range of motion.” The goal of dynamic stretching is to increase blood flow and joint mobility and subsequently increase performance and decrease the risk of injury.

Examples of dynamic stretching movements include:

  • Walking lunges
  • Leg swings
  • Mountain climbers
  • Arm circles
  • Jumping jacks

One of the most common mistakes I see when it comes to strength training is lifting too much weight too soon.

I know what you’re thinking, “Jasmine, how do YOU know that I am lifting too heavy?!” Well I hate to break it to you, but it’s pretty obvious…

If you are using your body to create momentum to lift the weight, swinging your weights around, or not able to lift the weights you have chosen to use in a slow and controlled manner throughout the entire movement, you should decrease the weight that you are lifting.

Here is my mental checklist when it comes to determining whether or not it is time to increase the amount of weight, I am lifting:

  • Can I perform the exercise with proper form?
  • Can I do at least 3 sets of 15 repetitions with control?
  • Am I able to lift this amount of weight without straining my joints or other parts of my body?

If the answer is yes to all 3 of these questions, I will increase the amount of weight I am lifting during that specific exercise.

However, if you do not feel comfortable increasing weight, another way you can generate muscle stimulation is by increasing either your number of repetitions and/or the number of sets performed for that exercise during your next workout session.

Visualization is essentially a mental dress rehearsal.

A technique in which you mentally create images or visualize yourself performing a specific exercise.

Visualization can help reduce anxiety, mitigate stress, increase focus, strengthen neural pathways, and build confidence prior to actually performing the physical movement.

Inhale…Exhale….

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t hold your breath,” well this statement couldn’t be more applicable when it comes to strength training.

Whether you are lifting weights in a gym or lifting a heavy box off the floor, we have a natural tendency to hold our breath without even realizing it!

Failing to breathe properly when performing exercise or strenuous activities can lead to:

  • Dizziness,
  • Early fatigue,
  • Fainting,
  • Increased blood pressure,
  • Decreased oxygen to our muscles
  • Impaired performance, and
  • Injury to the muscle (muscle strain)

As a result of decreased oxygen supply to your brain, muscles, and cells.

When exercising, it is important to be aware and conscious of your breathing.

How to properly breathe when strength training:

Breathe OUT during the concentric phase — when you are lifting a weight

Breathe IN during the eccentric phase — when you are lowering a weight back down

Slowing down your exercise movements can help increase your mind-muscle connection and your ability to properly target the muscle you are utilizing.

By slowing down it gives your brain time to feel the muscles you’re intentionally working instead of mindlessly going through the movement and only focusing on moving the weight from point A to point B — especially when it comes those smaller, and often neglected, muscles.

Squeezing and holding the contraction of the muscle during the exercise can also bring mental awareness to your muscle and help stimulate muscle growth by sending an increase of blood flow to the specific muscle. Blood functions to carry oxygen and specific nutrients that are essential for muscular endurance and growth.

Training Tip: When decreasing speed, decrease the amount of weight you are lifting. This can better ensure you successfully perform the entire movement in its full range of motion as well as control the weight you are lifting with proper form.

This is probably one of my favorite mind-muscle connection techniques.

Have your workout partner tap on, or lightly touch, the muscle you are exercising as you are performing it. This cue serves as a friendly reminder to mentally focus on that specific muscle being exercised.

Note: This should not be a distraction, but rather aid in bringing and increased awareness to the working muscle.

Jasmine El Nabli MS, RD

Creating healthy eating and lifestyle habits without the right tools, skills, and knowledge is often seen as a daunting task, but that’s where I come in. I am here to show you that becoming the happiest and healthiest version of yourself can be done!

Through the combination of a whole-body approach and scientific research, I empower and educate individuals on how to implement small changes into their daily life that in turn lead to sustainable and lifelong healthy habits.

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