If you’re a veteran in the game, you know all about the mind-muscle connection. Even back in the day, Arnold used to talk about how he envisioned his biceps growing bigger and bigger on every rep during a dumbbell concentration curl. He would talk about “feeling” the muscle do the work. This was back in the 70’s and the mind-muscle connection goes back even further. So, with all of this history, and current talk about “make sure you are feeling the muscle during the exercise”… is Arnold and all the current bodybuilders right? Is there some science and research to back up the mind-muscle connection phenomenon? Well, lets find out.
We usually have two camps when it comes to the mind-muscle connection subject: athletes, especially bodybuilders, who believe you can deliberately force specific muscles to contract and increase the activation of certain fibers through conscious effort and neuromuscular control. On the other side we have chiropractors, and professionals of related fields, who believe if you are performing an exercise, with proper form, the muscles involved will take of the contractions themselves. So, who is right?
First off, lets talk about mind-muscle connection. When we refer to this subject, we’re talking about how you have conscious control over the muscle fibers being worked – this is where we focus on “feeling” the muscle during an exercise, instead of just mindlessly “moving the weight”. This takes practice and deliberate effort. A perfect example of this is when you have a beginner client and tell them to perform the lat pull down. If you try to tell them, “Really focus on feeling your lats during this movement. Take your biceps and forearms out of it and just focus on those lats squeezing and contracting.” – they’ll look at you with a gaze of confusion. They have no idea how to “feel” their lats contracting. Compare them to someone who has been in the iron game for 5-10 years and it’s night and day. A seasoned bodybuilder can easily isolate the lats during the pull down, or the biceps during a concentration curl, or the triceps during a close grip bench press. They have their mind solely focused on the muscle they want to work and they neurologically make it happen. They get a ridiculous pump after the set is complete and frequently say, “I really felt that one. That was a great set.”
A pilot study was conducted by Contreras et al to get to the bottom of this debate. I’m unsure on how many subjects were in this experiment, but there were four exercises picked for the upper body and four picked for the lower body. During each exercise, the focus was to first, perform the exercise regularly with no concentrated attention on activating a particular muscle. On the second attempt of the same exercise, with mechanics, cadence, load, and so forth being nearly identical, the focus was to concentrate attention on activating a particular muscle. They used electromyography to examine muscle activation. They used “light” loads, which would allow them to gauge metabolic stress and maximal tension, such as a 135-pound bench press and a 135-pound squat. Long story short, they found that advanced lifters steered neural drive to and away from various muscle groups without significantly altering their form. For example, when subjects performed the bench press focusing on the pectorals, there was a 64.90% MVIC (maximum voluntary isometric contraction) in the upper pec and 63.43% in the triceps. However, when they performed the same movement with concentrated attention now on the triceps, MVIC of the upper pec decreased to 58.47% and triceps activation increased to 71.77%! In the body weight back extension exercise, with no focus on the glutes, there was a 6.05% activation in the gluteus maximus. However, when the same exercise was performed, and now there was concentrated focus on the glutes, the percent activation increased to 38.18%! That’s some cool science for you. There have also been some other studies done proving the benefit and activation of certain muscles via neuromuscular control and focus.
The mind-muscle connection is not “broscience”… it’s for real. It influences neuromuscular recruitment and dynamics during resistance training. However, there still needs to be more research done to prove that this muscle activation via neuromuscular control can lead to more muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. Try it out the next time you’re training biceps; perform a set of dumbbell curls and then immediately after you complete the set, hold an isometric contraction of the biceps by flexing the muscle with no weight and no change in range of motion. You’ll really “feel” that bicep burning and swelling up. The mind-muscle connection can be used for all muscles and, in my opinion, is beneficial for overall muscular development and muscle fiber activation when performing certain exercises to target specific muscle groups.