Mastering the Mind-Muscle Connection
The connection between the mind and body is a skill that most of us only scratch the surface of developing. We can think about moving our arm and easily lift it any speed or direction we want, we can get up and walk or run mindlessly, chew our food and swallow it without thinking and other basic functions without much thought at all. This is the basic level of the mind-muscle connection. When we begin playing sports, the mind-muscle connection gets more comprehensive; to sink a jump shot in basketball or hit a fastball in baseball you reach another level of the mind-muscle connection, often described as eye-hand coordination. A man named Ted Martin (not a pro-basketball player) made 5,221 free throws in a row in 1996. He didn’t just show up on the court one day and make his first 5,221 shots. This mastery of his hands, arms and legs to sink free throws over and over without fail took years of developing ridiculous control over his muscle movements. The highest level of the mind-body connection though belongs to master Buddhist Yogis in Tibet and the Himalayas. Scientists studying them over the years have documented mind-blowing acts that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend as possible. The case of a man voluntarily making his forehead perspire while in a freezing room, a man who could regurgitate on command, cases of Yogis altering their heart rate to levels so low that it was undetectable by a stethoscope. Most remarkable, though, was the case of Swami Rama, who, while sitting perfectly still produced an atrial heart flutter of 306 beats per minute that lasted 16 seconds. During a fibrillation of this speed, a section of the heart oscillates so rapidly that it can’t even fill with blood and the valves don’t work. However Swami Rama gave no indication of pain or heart damage after the fact. These Yogis developed such thorough control over their muscles that they could even modify subconscious body functions. These are extreme cases of mind-muscle control that took decades to master with multiple hours spent every day and takes a level of concentration beyond belief, however they illustrate the possibilities of mind-muscle mastery. As it relates to the gym, honing an advanced mind-muscle connection will result in increased and more complete muscle-growth and greatly decrease the chances and frequency of injuries.
Further, by learning to fully and completely activate the muscle, more strength can also be developed. There are several methods that can be used to build the mind-muscle connection and take training and muscular development to a level not possible otherwise. However, much like playing baseball, basketball, or stopping your heart on command, it is going to take practice.
Researchers at Hull University Department of Psychology in collaboration with the College of Sport, Heath and Exercise Science carried out a study in which they examined the impact of harnessing the mind muscle connection in a gym setting. A group of 29 people performed bicep curls while connected to a machine monitoring total muscle activity. They were to produce as much force as possible under three separate conditions. (1) thinking about their muscles and how they were contracting, (2) thinking about the dumbbell they were lifting and (3) thinking about whatever they wanted. The study showed significantly increased muscle activity when people thought about the specific contraction of their bicep compared to when they just thought about the dumbbell they were lifting. Past studies have shown that thinking about your movements and muscles can make performing certain skills, such as throwing a ball, more difficult and thinking about the target itself yields better results. However, in an exercise setting when the goal is strictly to build the muscle strength and size, thinking about your target muscle helps to activate the muscles, which will lead to increased muscular stimulation and thus, over time, increased muscular development. So how can we focus our minds to optimize muscle stimulation? Here are some tips to use:
Focus completely on the target muscle: If you are doing a bench press, place all of your focus on the pectorals. Try to relax the shoulders and triceps and place all of the emphasis on the chest and the work tit is doing to move the weight.
Maintain the movement as if there was no weight: Simulate the movement you would be doing if there were no resistance at all. Do not make adjustments (the best you can) to just move the weight and lose focus on contracting the muscle. This will lead you out of position and take the focus off of the target muscle group.
Avoid Momentum: Maintain complete control of the weight on the positive and negative part of the movement. Using momentum, while it will allow for more weights and repetitions, is counter-intuitive when the goal is to stress a muscle to its fullest.
Keep focus under stress: As the weight gets harder and more painful, it will become harder to maintain the mind-muscle connection. This is where you grow (both your body and mind). Continue to concentrate on the goal of completely taxing and stimulating the muscle and don’t let your mind focus on the pain or the number of reps.
Using these techniques, over time, will train your body and mind to operate in a much more safe, efficient and effective way. There is a time and place for heavy weight, momentum, and brute force. However, refining this skill of the mind-muscle connection will result in greater gains when incorporated into your training. It will allow for fuller, rounder and more robust muscularity.