The Science Behind the Mind & Muscle Connection

By Emma Aguirre – October 1, 2022

How many times have you gone to the gym just to check the box? 

You know you need to get it done, you know the routine is in place, you understand the benefits and love the gains, but some days it just feels like you’re going through the motions. The same moves, the same weights. The fact is, some workouts are just … meh.

If more and more of your time spent in the gym feels like that and you notice that results have slowed, you could be missing an often overlooked piece of the puzzle. Motivation could be zapped and momentum stalled, but it could be the mindful connection with the muscle that’s really non-existent.

The Body & The Brain 

Studies have long since linked the value of a strong and consistent daily mindset practice to overall health. While we can’t think ourselves thin, we can shift the focus to a powerful psychological aspect of training called the mind-muscle connection, beyond lifting the weight and simply showing up. 

Biologically, here’s what that looks like: When you do a biceps curl, for example, you communicate to the brain which then releases acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. This neurotransmitter, then, binds to muscle fiber receptors, which causes muscle contraction and you lift the weight. 

Just like every other aspect of training, the more you do it, the better you get at it. The greater the level of communication between the brain and the muscle, the better it will perform. Through this mind-muscle connection, you’re teaching the brain to pay attention to the task at hand — a safe, controlled, effective movement pattern — every single time. 

Person stretching.

Get Connected

There are a few strategies to put into place to deepen the mind-muscle connection.

  1. Focus. It sounds simple, but distractions are everywhere in the gym. A bad day at work, the wrong playlist, uncomfortable clothes, a busy gym floor, traffic, what’s for dinner… the list is endless. Focusing on each and every movement you’re trying to achieve rather than what weight you’re lifting, that concentric movement from point A to point B, is where the real magic happens. 
  2. Know what muscle you’re targeting. When you understand the “why” behind the exercise, you’ll do it better. Single-joint exercises may be more beneficial as opposed to a compound movement for this kind of concentrated work so you can truly isolate the muscle you want to work.
  3. Move away from mirrors. You may spend more time making sure you look good as opposed to actually working out without even really knowing it. Use the mirrors to check your form once, and move away if you can. Try to execute a full range of motion.  
  4. Pick up a slightly lighter weight. You might know you can bench press 200 pounds. But how much of the work is being done by the triceps and deltoids, as well as the pecs, to offset some of that load? Lowering the weight and connecting to the muscle you want to work on brings the focus back to where it needs to be.
  5. Move slowly. Tempo training is a great way to sharpen the mind-muscle connection, and choosing the right movement is key. We can’t slow down much during a burpee, but we can perform a seated leg extension as slowly as we like. This will create a longer time under tension and you’ll be able to truly connect with each rep rather than simply powering through. It’s less about how much weight you can lift and more about how your body moves and if you’re feeling it where you’re supposed to. 
  6. Add variety to your workouts and always warm up. Adding in a workout that challenges the body in a different way, such as yoga, Pilates or even a barre class, will bring the connection back to the breath, the body and ultimately that mindfulness. When you do the same movement pattern repeatedly, the body will simply stop changing and working as hard. Variety and variability are key.  

So instead of adding in another set or upping the weight, slow down and tune in. It’s the next level of training that could be exactly what your workouts need. 

 

About the Author

Emma Aguirre smiling.

Emma Aguirre’s training career began with spinning almost 20 years ago in a small women-only gym in South Texas. After a career in journalism, Emma switched to fitness full time, certifying in Practical Pilates, TRX and Jillian Micheals BodyShred program. She is also qualified as an AFAA Group Fitness professional and holds several personal trainer certificates, as well as Precision Nutrition’s Level 1 certification. She is currently certifying as an International Sports Sciences Association master trainer and spends her days coaching clients online as a Personal Health Advisor at Austin’s Wellthy Soul. 

 
 

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