The Art Of Focus
New research has confirmed that when weight lifting, using the mind-muscle-connection (MMC) can activate more muscle fibers when compared to unconscious weight lifting. MMC refers to the conscious focus of muscle movement, with recent data showing that using this connection can help increase muscle gain. Basically, when exercising our brain sends signals to tell our muscles to contract, extend, support or execute a particular movement. Focusing specifically on the movement of the muscle, while also using proper form, can lead to increased recruitment of muscle fibers and thus increase muscle strength.
I have no doubt that using MMC when lifting can increase strength and is a great training tool. Just like any skill we are attempting to build, if we are mindful of what we are doing, over time we will get better at that skill. A great example is playing the guitar. If I practiced guitar while also watching TV, I would not improve as much as if I were focusing solely on my guitar skill development. The same can be said for weight lifting. When you focus all of your attention on the muscle you are working, your brain gets better and more efficient at working that muscle.
For example, most people new to lifting will often initially gain strength but not necessarily much muscle mass. This is because, in the beginning, the connection between brain and muscle is adapting to this new form of exercising. The brain is learning how to appropriately signal the muscle and, with practice, becomes more efficient in this connection, allowing the lifter to gain strength, even when not building much muscle. Over time, the muscle begins to grow and the brain plays less of a role in growth. However, after a period of time muscle growth often plateaus. Using MMC, along with a variation of exercises and progressive overload, can prompt a continuance in the development of these neural adaptations, enabling the lifter to improve their strength further.
The MMC technique can be effective on both compound and isolation exercises, although focus is easier to maintain when performing isolation exercises. A bicep curl is a great example of an isolation exercise that is easy to focus on the contraction and extension. A bench press would be an example of a compound exercise that is a little trickier as there are multiple muscles facilitating the movement. Focusing on the concentric and eccentric movement of the pectoralis major during a bench press is paramount when trying to achieve growth of the chest muscles. Focusing on and learning the proper function of the desired muscle can vastly improve form as well. Understanding how a particular muscle moves can help alleviate improper joint angles and assistance of muscles not required for a particular movement.
Some techniques to help maintain focus and prepare for your training sessions using MMC include diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, mental imagery, and progressive muscular relaxation (this is the flexing and relaxing of muscles where one learns to become aware of targeted tension and thus can control it). Hiring a trainer or working with a knowledgeable partner can also serve to help remind you to focus before starting your lift.
MMC should be practiced during all lifting sessions and is something that I actively prescribe to my clients.