When it comes to resistance training, you may have heard people refer to the “mind-muscle connection,” but what does it actually mean?

Did you know that deliberately thinking about moving a targeted muscle can actually strengthen the muscle without even exercising it. This may sound like science fiction, but the research backs it up. If you focus on lifting heavy in order to build up muscle strength and you are eating at maintenance or in a surplus with sufficient amounts of protein, you are already doing some things right. However, many people forget what muscle power actually is.  It is your mind, who coordinates the muscle fibers, who regulates the build-up of tension and therefore decides on the development and output of strength. It is your minds ability to use the already existing potential and to give the relevant structures the appropriate instructions. Thus the Mind Muscle Connection is the link between mind and muscle. It is one of the main differences between beginners and advanced athletes.

In a 2014 study conducted at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine under the direction of lead researcher Brian Clark, volunteers had their wrists wrapped in surgical casts for four weeks. Half of the participants were instructed to sit quietly and visualize flexing their immobile wrist for 11 minutes a day, five times a week. The other group did nothing. When all the casts were taken off, the researchers found that the wrist muscles of those in the visualization group were twice as strong as the wrist muscles of the control group. (Clark et al., 2014).

This study builds on previous research conducted in 2002 at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. In this three-month study, researchers had subjects in one group physically exercise their pinkie finger; study subjects in the second group were instructed to concentrate intensely on flexing that same finger but not move it. The scientists took measurements of the finger muscle before, during and after each session. At the end of the study, while the study subjects that actually did the physical work increased their finger strength on average by 53%, the participants that mentally concentrated on the imagery of flexing the finger increased strength by 13.5%, almost a third as much as the workout group (Ranganthan et al., 2002).

A more recent study published in the European Journal of Exercise Physiology offers real-world relevance to the theory of the mind-muscle connection and an evidence-based explanation as to the physical payoff for the mental efforts of your workouts. The research evaluated whether focusing on specific muscles (chest and triceps) when performing a bench press can actually improve performance of these muscles. Study subjects performed the bench press under three different conditions: (1) without concentrating on any specific muscle part; (2) while concentrating on contracting the pectoralis major muscles; and (3) while concentrating on flexing the triceps muscles. Under each of these three circumstances, subjects performed the bench press at 20%, 40%, 50%, 60% and 80% of their pre-determined 1-repetition max (1-RM). Results indicated that muscle activity did increase when lifters focused their attention on the two target muscles, but only up to 60% of their 1-RM (Calatayud et al., 2016).

Why only up to 60% 1-RM? Creating a mental connection to the muscle you are moving requires focus, attention and concentration. And that can only occur while using weights that you can manage, such as the 20-60% 1-RM range as used in the study. When lifting a weight at 80% of your 1-RM, your entire mental focus will likely be directed solely at heaving that weight up, rather than mentally connecting to the quality and intensity of the movement. However, while lifting a challenging yet manageable weight that corresponds to 20-60% of your 1-RM, you can mentally focus on the “quality” of the lift. That’s the mind-muscle connection in action.

The results speak for themselves. If you train and consciously promote the connection between mind and muscles, you will benefit from a whole range of advantages. Some of them may surprise you.

The advantages of a good mind-muscle connection:
1. Improved muscle coordination
2. Improved self-awareness and control
3. Compensation for asymmetries
4. Better hyper- irradiation

1. Better Muscle Coordination

Every movement of the body follows the instructions of your mind. The control center, the brain, sends the instructions to the muscles via the central nervous system (CNS). This connection between mind and body, like all other structures in our body, is strengthened through use and weakened through neglect. An average person only uses 20-25% of the strength of their muscles because the muscles involved in the respective movement cannot be properly coordinated.

There are basically two different types of muscle coordination:
→ Intramuscular coordination: The cooperation of the muscle fibers within a muscle.
→ Intermuscular coordination: the cooperation of the muscles with each other.

Both types of coordination are important in order to be able to carry out a movement well on the one hand and to develop as much power as possible on the other. Poor coordination is often seen in squats, for example, when the knees of a beginner begin to slide inwards or the upper body is unstable. Incorrect movement patterns like this, are a sign that the individual muscle fibers and muscle groups are not pulling together and therefore are not coordinated properly. Technically you should always improve your coordination first, then technique, and only then increase the load. 

2. Better Self-Awareness and Control

The more the body and mind work together, the better the self-perception develops. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said: “You need to put your mind in the muscle.” Particularly people new to resistance training often have problems feeling the target muscle of a movement. They may perform a lat pulldown and may feel the biceps at most, but not the back muscles or lats in particular. But the basic rule is:

If you don’t feel a muscle working, it’s not getting the full effect.

3. More Muscle Symmetry

Almost everyone has to deal with asymmetries. Usually one side is stronger and more muscular than the other.

This is because we usually favor one side of our body for our day to day activities and this side usually automatically has a better mind muscle connection. How to compensate for asymmetries:

- Incorporate unilateral exercises, train with free weights. This way you can avoid that the stronger side supports the weaker side. When doing such exercises, always make sure that you only do as many repetitions with the stronger side as you do on the weaker side and that the stronger side “waits” for the weaker side and does not rush. If you do one side after the other, do the weaker side before the stronger side when your CNS is still ‘fresh’.

- Deliberately use the weaker side more frequently in everyday life. For example try to use your weaker arm in everyday activities like lifting a box, opening a door, eating or brushing your teeth . This will help improve the Mind Muscle Connection on this side and therefore help assimilate both sides.

An improved mind muscle connection helps to compensate for asymmetries.

4. Better Hyper-Irradiation

What the heck is hyper-irradiation? A fancy word for “full body tension”. The premise is that the more muscles are involved in a movement, the more power you can develop. 

Now that you know the main benefits of a well-developed mind-muscle connection, it’s time to take action, if you’re not already ‘connected’, let us know how you find the results!