Where does your mind drift during exercise? It’s easy to become distracted or to want to power through your repetitions when you’re busy – but don’t! Being mentally present during your workout will help you get more out of each exercise and help establish the important mind-muscle connection. Read on to learn why focus matters and what strategies you can implement next time you’re exercising.
Internal vs External Focus
When focusing your attention during exercise, there are two main strategies implemented. Internal focus refers to the mind-muscle connection and using cues like “squeeze your muscle” to be more mindful of what is happening to the actual muscle during the exercise. External focus refers to thinking about the outcome of an action, using cues like “lift the weight higher.” In physical therapy, both cues are often used at the discretion of the therapist depending on the goal. Using the mind-body connection approach is more helpful for muscle engagement and potentially muscle growth. Focusing on an action is usually better for specific tasks like in sports or when lifting heavy weights according to current research. It’s thought that when powerlifters are attempting to complete a complex move with heavy weights, they are less focussed on each individual muscle contraction and more focused on the task at hand overall.
In this article, we focus on the use of internal cues to facilitate a mind-muscle connection during typical exercise routines for the purpose of improving muscle contraction and strength gains.
Benefits of being present during exercise
It might seem like it’s enough to just get through your sets and reps without any thinking involved, but there are many reasons being present during each repetition will yield better results.
Stronger Muscle Contraction
As mentioned above, current research suggests those who think about the muscle they are engaging and foster a mind-muscle connection actually show greater muscle activation when compared to those who do not. A better muscle contraction means more efficient strength gains because you are targeting the desired muscle group for a stronger contraction while ideally recruiting less use of other accessory muscles.
Maintain Good Form
Falling out of proper form can may lead to injury. Not only is proper form important for achieving desired results, but it actually helps to protect the body. Depending on the exercise, using good technique may help to stabilize the spine, protect the back and neck, prevent tissues from being impinged upon, and minimize strains and sprains. In order to maintain good form, you need to have bodily awareness.
Utilize Full Range of Motion
It’s important to strengthen a muscle throughout its full range of motion for optimal muscle performance. It’s very common for people to only perform repetitions within a limited range of motion, especially if they are not focusing on the movement itself. When you understand how a muscle moves the body and pay attention to the feeling of the muscle lengthening and contracting, you’re more likely to move through the full range of motion in a controlled manner.
Mental Health Benefits
Mindfulness is a useful technique to help quiet the mind and instill a sense of peace. Being present has been linked to decreased anxiety, depression, and stress. Exercise has been shown to have similar mental health benefits. When you combine the two, it’s a great way to improve your physical and mental health.
Tips for establishing a mind-muscle connection
Beginning to practice mindful exercise and encouraging a mind-muscle connection might feel overwhelming at first. These tips are a great place to start:
Think about the action of the muscle you are exercising
• Understanding a muscle’s action is the foundation for success in your exercise routine. If you don’t understand where a muscle is located or how it creates movement, creating a true mind-muscle connection is challenging. This doesn’t mean you need to memorize exact anatomical structures, but you should have a general idea of where a particular muscle is and what exercises will adequately target it for strength gains.
Slow down the reps
• When it comes to strength training, it’s not a race to the finish line. You will get a better, more controlled muscle contraction if you slow down your reps and focus throughout the entire range of motion. Slowing down will also help ensure you achieve full range of motion as it becomes a tendency to decrease range with faster repetitions.
Think about what other muscles you are engaging
• During an exercise, do a quick body scan to get a feel for what other muscle groups you are also engaging. If you’re trying to strengthen your shoulders, but feel a lot of tension in your neck, that’s your cue that you may not be performing the exercise correctly or engaging the right muscles and modifications need to be made.
Touch the muscles for tactile cues
• Sometimes it can be helpful to touch the muscle you are looking to engage before you begin the movement. Physical therapists call this “tactile cueing” and it can be very helpful in facilitating a muscle contraction of the correct muscle. For example, if you are looking to contract your biceps muscle, you would place your opposite hand over the upper arm, where the muscle bulk is located. A good way to know if you are contracting the right muscle is to feel for the contraction during the movement. Sometimes tapping the muscle is used to further encourage muscle activation.
If you are unsure what a muscle does, how an exercise is performed, or are looking to improve your form, checking in with a physical therapist is a great place to start. Download the OneStep app today to be connected with a licensed physical therapist who can teach you about each muscle in your exercise program, where to feel for a contraction, and the proper range of motion that should be achieved during each movement. It’s difficult to implement mind-muscle connections without a basic understanding of each muscle group, but your physical therapist will educate you and set you up for success.
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