You know the phrase “mind over matter?” Turns out, it can apply to your workouts, too. One of the buzziest theories in fitness right now is something often referred to as the mind-muscle connection, and the basic idea is that just by thinking about your muscles moving your body through an exercise, you can help them work more efficiently.
Pretty much any trainer will tell you there are big benefits to be found in mentally connecting to your movement, simple as it may sound. “It can be very easy to disassociate from your workout by chatting with your friends or paying more attention to the instructor. But what we’ve seen is that if you focus on contracting the muscle that you’re involving, then you can get a better result out of it,” exercise physiologist and ACE-certified personal trainer Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., as well as host of the All About Fitness podcast, tells SELF.
There are a few different theories that suggest why brain power is such an important tool in getting the most out of your time at the gym—and while some are still under investigation, others make a convincing argument for channeling the mind-muscle connection in your own workouts.
First, it’s worth noting that neurological evidence shows that our brains play a major role in regulating muscle movement and strength.
“Muscles are a puppet of the nervous system, and a muscle that does not have nerves regulating it is essentially useless in terms of force production,” Brian Clark, Ph.D., executive director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute and professor of physiology and neuroscience at Ohio University, tells SELF.
This means that muscle movement begins in the brain, and it plays a major role in regulating strength—remarkably, the brain can regulate strength without you ever moving a muscle. Clark coauthored a 2014 study that found that participants with one arm immobilized in a cast could avoid loss of wrist strength simply by using imagery, thinking through the process of flexing their wrist.
Here’s how the connection works: “Whether you’re actually doing a task or just imagining a task, if you’re imagining it correctly, you see increases in the EEG signal, which suggests that the neurons are being activated,” says Clark.
This neurological signal is then sent down from the brain to the muscle you’re thinking about. The theory is that if you visualize an exercise and specific muscle movement as you do it, you can train the brain to send stronger signals, which translates to more muscle engagement, likely by either recruiting more muscle fibers or getting the fibers to work more quickly and efficiently, he says.
The jury’s still out on whether mentally moving through an exercise while you do it improves muscle recruitment on its own, but early research is promising.
Of course, as with all things that sound too good to be true, there’s a kicker—you’ll see bigger strength benefits actually working out than just thinking it through, stresses Clark (so you definitely shouldn’t give up that gym membership if you’re physically able to exercise).
But these findings give us a clue into how the mind drives movement, and new research is exploring the question of how thinking about your workout while you’re doing it can give you better results than just mindlessly performing the exercise alone.
Clark points to a few recent studies from other researchers exploring how mental effort affects workouts, including one published in June 2017. In the study, 18 young, healthy participants were put in a low-intensity strength training program for six weeks and divided into a high mental effort group, a low mental effort group, and a control group that didn’t exercise. The participants in the high mental effort group gained more strength than the other groups, even though the workout intensity was the same for both the high mental effort and low mental effort groups.
While promising results like these are buzzy among fitness pros who’ve been advocating for the mind-muscle connection for years, these are early, small-scale studies (the study above also didn’t test imagery directly), so it’s hard to say whether thinking about your muscles working actually leads to better performance, independent of other factors.
But until more research is published, there are actually some other reasons to think about your muscles as you use them.
Thinking about engaging the correct muscles during an exercise is an excellent path to better form, which does lead to better results.
Actively focusing on the muscles you’re trying to engage as you move through an exercise can be the difference between a “meh” rep and a killer one, exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., tells SELF. Take squats, for example. “If you don’t feel the glutes flexing whatsoever but you just keep pumping out reps, you might be working your quads and hamstrings, but you’re not getting the benefit that you’re actually looking for,” he says. “If you’re working on decent technique, it’s going to be a much more effective exercise.” Actually thinking about the muscles you’re trying to target is a simple but effective place to start.
By focusing on form, you’re also less likely to rely on the wrong muscles to get you through an exercise, which can lead to pain and injury.
Plus, simply picturing your muscles working can help you get in the zone.
From a psychological perspective, McCall and Somerset both say that a major benefit they see from implementing the mind-muscle connection is just feeling engaged with your workout (which probably means you’re working harder, too). “A big buzzword is mindfulness. When people are really focused on what they’re doing, they’re able to hone in on that exercise more easily. It’s a matter of quality—you’re intrinsically focused on what you’re doing,” says Somerset.
“When you see somebody focused on what they’re doing, you see a tremendous difference [in performance],” adds McCall. “It’s kind of like a form of meditation. If you focus on the muscles that you’re using, you just become more in tune with what your body is doing,” McCall adds.
Ready to try it? Here’s how to use put the mind-muscle connection into practice.
The good news about the mind-muscle connection is that it’s really as simple as it sounds. As you’re working out, actually picture your muscles contracting as you move through an exercise. For example, if you’re doing a bicep curl, imagine the bicep muscle contracting and lengthening as you lift the weight up and down. You can do this during pretty much any exercise or type of workout, says Somerset, but it’s particularly useful in exercises where it’s easy to drop into improper form (like rowing exercises and even running). If you’re not sure what specific muscle or muscles you’re targeting with a more complex exercise, ask your trainer or the class instructor to give you the lowdown.
Bottom line? A mental workout doesn’t top an actual workout, but there are benefits to doing both. It doesn’t take any extra time or physical effort to simply channel your thoughts, so there’s nothing to lose and only potential strength to gain.
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