It’s funny, when I think of some of the concepts I use in my training and spend long portions of the day teaching to clients, it makes me laugh. My 21-year old self would mock the hell out of my present-day self instructing a client to “feel the lats squeeze when you drive your elbows back!” or “squeeze your butt as hard as you can at the top of the movement!”. The truth is, I always thought the only way to get stronger and build muscle was to use as heavy a weight as possible and get it from point A to point B with good (enough) form. I was under the impression that the mind muscle connection was for yoga and the Karate Kid. Now, when I see heavy weights flying around with zero mental focus in the weight room, I pause and say Namaste to keep my blood pressure from reaching cardiac arrest status. While there is little debate that progressing in terms of external load (weight on the bar) is in everyone’s best interest, it must also be stated that focusing on the targeted muscle(s) during a movement to strengthen or grow a specific muscle has its place.
The proof is in the pecs
Looking at the standard push-up, we know the three major movers are the pecs, anterior deltoids and triceps. Most lifters, especially men, when asked what muscle they are trying to strengthen/grow during a push-up would say the pecs. However, the triceps can easily take on just as much of the load and sometimes more to perform the movement. If the muscle you are interested in targeting isn’t the muscle performing the most work, you are training the movement not the muscle. While you may be increasing push-up performance, you may not be increasing pec size/strength. In a study (click here for article) performed by one of the top researchers in strength and conditioning; Bret Contreras, the push-up and a variety of other basic strength exercises were put under the microscope using EMG to see how much activation was involved for specific muscles. For the push-up, using the same set up and form, the subjects were asked to focus on the pecs for the first set and then to focus on the triceps for the second set. What resulted was a massive deviation in activation across the primary muscles! When focusing on using the pecs, an increase close to 30% of mean muscle activation for the pecs was observed versus when focusing on using the triceps. Comparable results were observed in each of the other movements tested as well.
Application: Lift it with your mind!
As is normally the case in strength training, how you choose to look at this issue is determined by your goal. If your primary goal for an exercise is to increase the external load of said exercise (e.g. powerlifting or getting on your high school bench press chart), using mental focus to drive emphasis to a specific muscle isn’t that important. However, there will be times where you need to isolate weaker muscles that are inhibiting your progress in terms of load with accessory lifts. This is the perfect opportunity to use the mind muscle connection to increase strength in a weak muscle for the overall goal of progressing in terms of external load in a given movement.
If your goal for strength training is more about aesthetics or hypertrophy (muscle size), mental focus on every rep in your training should be razor sharp. The steps for a perfect rep are simple, yet frequently overlooked amongst the general population:
1) Identify the targeted muscle(s) you wish to strengthen/grow
2) Mentally focus on contracting and creating tension in the targeted muscle(s)
3) Perform the movement with strict form in a controlled manner using full range of motion
Following these three steps will maximize the effectiveness of each lift during training. The external load of a movement is just one of many variables, more important is the question: are you focusing on the muscle you wish to target for each movement? If you are, you can be confident that you are getting the most out of each rep and set in your training.
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