We have a truly special article for you guys this week from the young and talented guest author, Ian Padron. This one is a must read if you are interested in building lean muscle, and let’s be honest…who isn’t interested in building a stronger, leaner physique?
The mind-muscle connection has been on my radar from a performance, aesthetics and rehabilitation standpoint for a while now. Ian uncovers some of the most effective methods for enhancing this neurological brain muscle connection and coaches you through the process in muscle groups throughout the body with detailed coaching notes and videos. Enjoy this one!
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
-The mind-muscle connection is real, and backed by real science, not just bro-science.
-You can enhance the connection with tempo work and isometric contractions like slow eccentrics and flexing.
-A conscious effort to activate the target muscle before and between every set while actively visualizing it’s action and desired appearance during a movement will help to develop this powerful connection.
-The mental aspect of training is just as important, if not more important, than the physical. Wrap your head around that!
You hear it all over these days. This elusive ability to control your muscles’ contractions, redirect tension with pinpoint accuracy, and turn weights into tools to sculpt your body. Kai Greene talks about it. Ben Pakulski talks about it. Everyone who’s anyone talks about it. But what is it and how the hell do you apply it?
The mind muscle connection is the single most important skill to develop for anyone seeking to enhance their physique, whether they are a professional bodybuilder or total novice. In this article I will dive into the science behind why the development of this neurological connection is so crucial, and provide some helpful tips and methods for trainers, coaches, therapists, and athletes alike to apply these concepts for each specific muscle group.
WHAT IS THE MIND-MUSCLE CONNECTION?
When people talk about the mind-muscle connection they are referring to a conscious and deliberate muscular contraction. They are referring to the act of activating a muscle and NOT just moving the weight. Ultimately, the ability to focus your mind’s attention on a single muscle or group of muscles relies on quite a bit of neuromuscular control and proprioception. This is why you can ask a novice lifter to flex their lats and they look at you with total confusion, while a seasoned veteran of the iron game will likely be able to individually control segments of the fibers that make up those same muscles.
EMG studies have shown that when subjects are simply told to focus on using a specific muscle before performing a movement, they call upon a higher percentage of those fibers and fewer accessory fibers. With resistance training, your body is able to call upon more motor units to produce force over time. That’s science, and it sure is cool!
MORE THAN JUST BRO-SCIENCE
Scientifically, really is pretty straightforward. Your brain and nervous system create and sharpen connections to muscle fibers that are called upon to produce force frequently. Muscles that are not utilized are not innervated to the same degree and thus lack the fine control associated with this mind-muscle connection. In a sense, you are “unaware” of that unused tissue, for lack of better terms.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Well, all this science is great but I just want to develop my own mind-muscle connection!” All the science aside, that’s what we are really interested in. How can we increase muscular strength and hypertrophy using the mind muscle connection? Here’s how!
MAKING YOUR MIND WORK FOR YOUR MUSCLE
I am a huge proponent of prescribing tempo work for all novice trainees and the vast majority of advanced athletes alike. By spending more time in the eccentric portion of a contraction, a higher demand is placed on the nervous system leading to accelerated improvements in coordination and motor control.
For example, my new clients spend at least three seconds in the eccentric portion of all lifts during their first month of training to ensure that the aforementioned benefits are attained. The brain, not the muscle, is responsible for the notorious “newbie gains”, in which a beginner experiences dramatic increases in strength during the first few weeks and months of a well-designed resistance program.
Ideally, we want to make sure that a program accounts for both the musculoskeletal and neurological components of resistance training. That means using things like primer sets to fire up the central nervous system during the warm-up, isometric contractions (3-5 seconds) in a muscle’s fully shortened position. Also, slow eccentrics can improve coordination, innervation, and muscular control; all while being sure to target the stimuli for muscle hypertrophy (microdamage and cellular swelling).
HOW TO ENHANCE YOUR MIND-MUSCLE CONNECTION
Here is a guide for you all to apply to your next training session. Remember that we are moving muscle, not weight, so choose a weight that makes you fail in a given rep range WITH the following forms. No PRs are going to be set when you first start incorporating these tactics, so set your ego aside and get ready to grow!
CHEST EMPHASIS TRAINING
Lead with your elbows, retract your shoulders, and focus on eccentric contractions.
Great priming exercises include pushups, cable flies, and the pec-deck.
Barbell Presses– Make an effort to “shorten” the bar by attempting to touch your elbows together at the top of the movement, and “sliding” your hands together throughout the movement without actually moving your hands on the bar. This inward intent will keep your pecs engaged throughout the movement. Use 3-5 second eccentrics to activate the deep fibers of your chest and enjoy the DOMS.
Dumbbell and Cable Movements– Lead with your elbows. Pretend like you are simply moving your upper arm, bring your elbows as close as possible on the top of each movement. Once you get about half-way through the concentric portion on a fly movement, straighten your arms fully and squeeze your upper arms the rest of the way up using your pecs.
BACK EMPHASIS TRAINING
Pull with your elbows, retract your shoulders, and squeeze it hard after each set!
Great priming exercises include pull and chin-ups, inverted rows, and lat pullovers.
Rows– The key here is to pretend you are pulling your elbows into the opposite back pocket (i.e. right elbow into back left pocket). Always focus on pulling with your elbows, not your biceps. This requires you to rotate your scapula and retract your shoulders hard, engaging your back musculature and taking stress off your arm musculature. Hold a hard contraction for 3 seconds to really fire up your back. Trying to work your upper back? Lean back on a seated cable machine. Lower back your focus? Sit yourself up on a few 45 pound plates and row away.
Pulldowns– Your focus here, whether it be chin-up or pulldown variations is to first activate your abs by assuming a slight crunch position (ribs tilted down pelvis tilted up). This measure redirects force into the back muscles by inhibiting any swinging. LEAD WITH YOUR ELBOWS….see a pattern here? You want to pull the weight with your lats, while pulling your shoulders back with your traps and rhomboids.
SHOULDER EMPHASIS TRAINING
Lead with your elbows, maximize role of gravity as resistance, core tight all the time.
Great primers include dumbbell raise trisets, and standing military press variations.
Shoulder Presses– Same thing as chest presses, your body is simply moving in a different plane. That means inward intent on the bar and leading with your elbows with a barbell, and squeezing with your elbows with dumbbells. Keep your forearms perpendicular to the ground. Locking out on top will put force into triceps, so stay in the active range of motion. Slow eccentrics are still killer for shoulder work as well.
Shoulder Raises– Take a seat. We want to take away momentum, so lock yourself in before each set. That means chest out, chin up, shoulders back. When targeting lateral delts, keep that muscle head in a position where it counteracts gravity the most, so facing directly upwards. Active range of motion here is your best friend, keep the tension in your delts. Gravity only pushes down, so incorporate cables in your shoulder raise arsenal to modify the way your body must combat force. You will notice a difference.
ARM EMPHASIS TRAINING
Mix up your arm training programming.
Primer sets shine when working arms as they are a small muscle group that get a lot of assistance work on pull and pressing movements (although they will get much less by applying the above rules!)
Biceps– Treat your arm as a single hinge. Incline dumbbell curls, seated alternate curls, and spider curls are great methods of locking your elbow in a single plane and isolating your biceps. Supinate your forearm (like you’re turning a doorknob, or think “palms up”) and drive the pinky side of your hands into the weight to target your biceps. For the rest of your elbow flexors, use slow eccentric curl work (4-6 seconds) on overhand grip or neutral grip exercises. Hold all contractions on top of the movement for at least 1 second. Cables are your best friend!
Triceps– Get familiar with this muscle’s true range of motion, and target it accordingly. Squeeze contractions HARD and learn what exercises target the specific heads of the triceps.
LEG EMPHASIS TRAINING
Push THROUGH the ground, don’t lock at the knees, movements should look and feel smooth.
Leg extension and curl machines might not be your best bet for mass, but they will excel in terms of movement prep and priming.
Quadriceps– On squats and leg presses, push the floor or plate apart with your feet to target the outer musculature, and “pull” the floor or plate together to work the inner musculature (vastus medialis, and adductor complex) A wider stance will transmit force through the inner thighs, a narrow stance will do the same for the outer thighs. Don’t lock your knees and focus on pushing the floor away from you, not simply standing up. Eccentrics here are hard, and there is a reason for that, they work!
Hamstrings– The hammies are the biceps of your legs, so SQUEEZE them HARD. On straight-legged deads try throwing a couple 5 pound plates under your toes to activate the hammies before the movement. Turn your toes slightly out to hit the outside of your hammies, turn your toes slightly in, to target the inside. Modify the width of your stance to do the same, wide for outside, narrow for inside.
Calves– Roll up onto your big toe, don’t allow your feet to become inverted or everted. Hold contractions and really get a good loaded stretch during the eccentric portion of the movement. Don’t be that guy or gal bouncing all over the place, your movements should be deliberate and controlled. You use your calves all day long without really ever noticing, so make an effort to connect during your training sessions.
KEY TAKE AWAY POINTS:
The mind-muscle connection is real, and backed by science.
You can improve yours with tempo work and isometric contractions (slow eccentrics and flexing)
A conscious effort to activate the target muscle before and between every set (flexing and posing), while actively visualizing it’s action and desired appearance intraset will absolutely help to develop this connection
As is the case with all things in life, the mental aspect of training is just as important, if not more important, than the physical.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ian Padron is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s Exercise Science Program and an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, currently residing in Seattle, WA. Ian’s mission is to revolutionize the health and fitness industry by combining science and education to evoke sustainable change in his clients and readers. He preaches the importance of a holistic approach to training, taking into account the mind AND the body. Ian also walks the walk as a natural competitive bodybuilder.