The mind-muscle connection has been popular for decades, and the phrase is common when referring to the 70’s bodybuilding greats such as Arnold, Frank Zane, and Mike Mentzer.
Today, some folks take a more evidence-based approach to movement as opposed to relying on how the muscles feel and seeking the pump. While I agree that we shouldn’t always aim for the pump as our number one goal, it shouldn’t be completely overlooked for various reasons.
Today we’re going to talk about the concept of mindfulness, and how to apply it to your training for more muscle, higher intensities and better workouts.
To put it as simply as possible, mindfulness means to be consciously aware of the present moment.
I don’t mean to sound new-age-y, but this is a concept most people do not talk much about. It’s not because it’s unimportant, but mostly because it’s something we rarely ponder.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to whatever you’re doing, and being sold out to that activity in that very moment, not doing 3 tasks at once. It’s not writing an email while listening to the radio, and switching back and forth between your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter tabs, while washing the dishes, and vacuuming.
Mindfulness, for most Westerners, is a foreign concept due to the constant distractions we face.
But I come bearing good news – if you’re reading this, you’re probably in the gym regularly, and if you have any interest in improving your physique, and getting stronger, the gym is a great place to practice mindfulness in the way I’m about to explain.
If you’ve ever found yourself going through the motions, especially in the gym, this one simple concept can make your workouts infinitely more enjoyable, and more beneficial.
Let’s first talk about how to apply mindfulness in the gym in 3 simple steps.
- Pick a movement you’re proficient at. It can be anything – the bench press, squats, tricep extensions, wrist curls, it doesn’t matter; just make sure you know it well.
- You’ll select a weight you can perform at least 12-15 times.
- Cut your rep speed by about one half of what you normally do. Yes, I’m talking to all of you who’ve gotten used to using momentum to sling that bar up to your belly during rows, or bouncing the bar off your chest for a brag-worthy bench press. This may mean doing about 70-80% of the loads you’re used to.
Now you’ll perform the movement with a focus on getting at least 12 reps while paying attention to every little aspect of how it feels.
Let’s say you’re doing an EZ bar curl. How does the bar feel in your hands? As you contract your biceps, where do you notice the most tension? Do notice how the bar speed slows as you get closer to failure? How does the stretch at the bottom position feel?
See what I’m getting at here? I want you to pay attention to everything happening during the movement, but in particular, the fatigue, tension and quality of contraction.
Don’t pay attention to anything else at this point except for how the movement feels. Notice how pumped your arms get as you near the 12th rep, and then keep going if you can. Go until failure, and can’t hit another rep with full range of motion.
NOTE: This is obviously a BAD idea for movements like heavy squats, presses, and deadlifts. For these movements, I recommend avoiding maximum failure, and stopping just short of the moment when you have one rep left. Hang it up at that point. TL;DR = keep one rep in the tank.
If you can do this without thinking about anything else, you’ve successfully made the mind-muscle connection, and alas, practiced mindfulness with movement.
Okay, okay so why does any of this matter?
I’ll preface this statement with the obvious. Most beginners need to focus on getting stronger, and more efficient with their workouts. The beginner wanting to get bigger can almost always rely on the fact that adding weight to the bar will help them gain more muscle.
However, this isn’t true forever and here’s why.
Raw strength is about moving as much weight by any means possible. Many people will tell a beginner to add 100 pounds to their squat over the next 6 months and guarantee they’ll have gained more muscle as a result. While this is often true, there are many ways to add weight to the bar without creating any differences in the amount of lean body mass you carry.
For instance, most people can pull more weight from the floor when using a trap bar, or sumo-style stance as opposed to a conventional style deadlift. But why? The difference in leverages, hand placement, and other factors affect how much weight you can lift.
So let’s go back to my point above. If a beginner starts with full range of motion back squats, and transitions over to low-bar box squats halfway through their training over 6 months, they’re not truly adding 100 pounds to the same lift. A low-bar squat typically allows you to lift more weight due to the change in angle and leverage. This also goes for the guy who starts with a full squat and ends up with a half squat from trying to add weight too quickly.
This is also why a trained powerlifter can out lift a bodybuilder of the same height and physical traits (similar joint size and muscle belly length) by a few hundred pounds and be much smaller in comparison of lean body mass levels.
Power lifters and strength athletes find ways to move the most weight, and bodybuilders find ways to recruit the most muscle through short rest periods and volume, regardless of the weight lifted.
The take-home point: Strength is a good indicator of progress, but only when it’s done through a full range of motion, and with great form.
If you want to be bigger, and stronger, you should learn to be patient, and focus on great movement quality as opposed to lifting as much weight as soon as possible.
With intelligent training and time, both muscle and strength gains will be yours.
Time and time again, I hear people complaining that a certain muscle isn’t as shapely as they’d like, while the other muscle groups seem to be growing just fine. This usually comes down to one of two things. It’s either their ability to activate the muscle properly, or genetics.
Most often, it’s the first part, and once that’s learned, genetics will determine the shape and size you can achieve with great training, a lot of food, and time (I know, I’m hitting on this again). Activating any particular muscle takes practice, and paying close attention – which is all the more reason to practice mindfulness with your training.
For some, other muscles compensate for weaknesses. It’s not uncommon for people to have weak glutes from too much sitting, or a weak upper back causing rounded shoulders due too much pressing as opposed to pulling.
If these weaknesses are not addressed, the surrounding musculature will continue to take over, and leave the unactivated muscles as they are, weak and small. To combat this, we must take the right course of action to activate said muscles, and relearn the motor patterns necessary to get them working how we want them to.
For the person with a weak set of buns, heavier deadlifts, or squats is rarely the answer. Rather, a more focused approach and movement selection to focus on the glutes is a better use of time, at least until they’re proficient at firing that paltry pair of love muffins (glutes for the those with no humor).
So how do we do this? Specific activation drills, better movement selection, and alas… patience.
Getting someone to activate their glutes can be problematic if they’re not used to flexing them bad boys. So you must focus on the lighter, more isolated movements such as single leg glute bridges, hyperextensions, and kick backs.
Movements that force one to pay attention to the muscles they’re using, and concentrating on that feeling, as opposed to something external like a particular load they’re aiming to hit, can help one learn how to properly fire and activate a dormant muscle group like the glutes (or anything in particular).
The same goes for a weak upper back, or a chest (or shoulders) that fails to be activated during a bench press.
Finding a movement that allows you to remove your ego, and focus purely on the muscles being worked is a good first step in learning how to get the activation needed for full recruitment, which usually results in a fully worked, and exhausted muscle.
Okay, so I’ve harped on some ideas for being more mindful, but how can you put it all together and get something out of it?
Like this: Let’s take your current routine. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, but the longer, the better because the newness will have worn off, and you’ll be in a routine of going through the movements.
I want you to pay attention to your next training session more so than ever before. Instead of focusing on how much weight you’ll lift, I want you to dial it back to about 80-90% of the planned loads. Remember what I said at the beginning of this piece about paying attention to how that curl bar felt in your hands? Well this is what I want you to do with every movement in your session.
Slow down, and pay attention to how the muscles feel as you perform the movements. If it’s a leg press, notice how your quads and hamstrings feel as they fatigue. If you’re doing a bench press and notice you get little to no chest activation, swap movements to something like a neutral grip dumbbell press, or even better, get on the cable flies before the main movement. Pump out sets of 15-20 until you feel those chesticles burning. THEN, move onto the main lift and see if you notice a difference in muscle recruitment.
Force yourself to slow down and pay attention. If you continue to do the same thing and expect a different result, well, you probably know how that will end for you.