Mind Your Muscle

Posted: December 2, 2014 by TRU in Fitness, Physique, Rehab
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conc curl

What I’m about to discuss is actually nothing new or particularly original, but a long held practice of the bodybuilding community. Unfortunately, this tactic has not quite found its way beyond bodybuilding to other fitness and rehabilitation pursuits. What I’m referring to is the mind-muscle connection(MMC). That is, increasing a muscles activity through mental focus. So read on to learn how your mental focus could be the missing link in your training and rehabilitation tool chest.

Thinker

Who would’ve thought that the mind and body might actually be related?

Open Your Mind

Can you remember what you were thinking about the last time you did an exercise as you were doing it?

If the set got tough, you were probably not very aware of what you were actually thinking. You were simply fixated on moving the object(barbell, cable, etc.) to complete the rep. This is commonly referred to as an external focus/feedback. As an example, if you were doing a back squat an external focus would be the heavy bar sitting on your shoulders and your attention to successfully completing the lift. You might also be concentrating on keeping your chest up or pushing your feet through the floor. In this case, it doesn’t really matter which muscles are doing the work, the rep just needs to be completed and so every muscle that can help accomplish the task will. And since the squat is generally considered a great quadricep exercise, the assumption is that you sufficiently worked those quads. Case closed…or not.

Squat

C’mon push…2 more!! Factoid: muscle fibers actually don’t push, they pull.

This assumption isn’t incorrect, but it isn’t entirely complete. Take another exercise like the bench press. It primarily targets the chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps. Changing your hand position and back angle can alter the ratio of each to some degree, but those three muscles are always going to be the big players. This has to do with anatomy/biomechanics. Muscles attach to bones in relatively distinct places so when bones move in certain directions specific muscles must be the ones doing the pulling. In case I’ve lost you, just know that a target muscle(s) for a given exercise is largely based on anatomy/biomechanics…but of course, there’s more.

Fortunately there is also some redundancy with respect to joint movement, meaning if you suddenly lost your anterior deltoid you could still flex your shoulder. It certainly wouldn’t be pretty, but odds are you could still do it. Now if you suddenly got that anterior deltoid back, what would determine how much work that anterior delt would do to flex your shoulder vs. the other muscle(s) that had been doing the job in its absence? This is the part an anatomy book doesn’t quite tell us. In other words, when more than one muscle can do the job, what determines how hard each of those muscles is working? Is there a hidden muscle controller? Well there just might be, and it could be sitting right between your ears.

Surface Anatomy

While the anterior deltoid is the prime mover, several other muscles can also flex the shoulder.

The Muscle Controller

Instead of devoting all of your focus to lifting that bar back onto the supports like in the example above, what if you thought about your muscles during the lift? Yes the quads are working hard during that back squat, but what if you also consciously focused on contracting your quads as you lifted and lowered that bar? If you did this then you would be taking advantage of the MMC. To an observer, nothing would look all that different between the two scenarios, but in the example where you focus on your quads you could actually increase the amount of work (as a percentage) your quads are doing relative to the other leg muscles assisting the lift.

Let’s say you tend to be quite hip dominant and so your quads typically do around 40% of the work during a back squat, meaning your glutes and other hip/knee muscles are doing the rest. After consciously focusing on contracting your quads they’re now doing 48% of the work. With continued practice your MMC becomes so well established that your quads can now do 62%. This is hypothetical of course, but if this were possible the same exercise that was initially an ok quad developer became a great quad developer. Nothing about the exercise or your anatomy changed but only your focus, and consequently, the amount of quadriceps muscle recruitment. This is the splendor of the MMC.

distracted

To take advantage of the MMC, shift your focus from external stimuli to internal (target muscles).

Now take that one step further and imagine the impact of MMC on rehab. An inappropriate exercise or task could become an appropriate exercise/task merely by shifting focus from external to internal. Say you get patellofemoral pain when you squat. Well you can certainly try shifting things like foot placement and weight distribution to decrease knee stress, but why not also shift your mental focus to other muscles that won’t pull on the patellar tendon and create your familiar pain? Why I have not yet witnessed this strategy in the rehab world is puzzling, but may also be due to the current lack of evidence.

Evidence Please

As an evidence based practitioner, I generally do not advocate things without evidence to support them. That being said, this is one of the few instances where I’m willing to vouch for something with a paucity of evidence. My hypothesis is that as research continues this will be something that IS worth the time. However, don’t mistake my words to imply the MMC can make a shitty exercise routine a great one. While you might be able to get the best glute contraction/MMC by doing bodyweight hip bridges, don’t expect them to build a divine derrier without a regular dose of squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts. Thus, think of the MMC as icing on an already well decorated cake. Icing alone is no cake, and cake without icing isn’t quite complete.

cake

Think of the MMC as icing on an already well decorated cake

So the percentages from my squat example above are not real and unfortunately I cannot site a specific study to back this up…yet. It is has been shown in division III football players that you can actually increase the percentage of muscle recruitment when told to focus on a muscle(Synder), but by how much I cannot exactly say. That being said, if muscle development/physique enhancement is the goal then even a marginal difference could make a substantial difference overtime, especially given that your ability to recruit a muscle will improve with practice. Give it a try and focus your way to a better physique.

Thinker 2

It may be possible to focus your way to a better physique.

5 Tips For a Stronger MMC

  1. Practice: like any motor skill, practice is essential. Think of a well-executed baseball pitch and how many pitches it takes to throw at the professional level. Now think of someone else who can make their pecs dance. While not as dazzling as a 90+mph fast ball, both involve motor learning and therefore require practice. So the reason someone can make their pecs dance is not so much because they have large magical pecs, but because they have a more well established MMC.
    • Note: To prevent burnout/increased muscle fatigue try simply contracting a muscle for 1 second without weight. Shoot for 20-30 reps a few times per day as a start. In the beginning it may not seem like much is happening but persist.
  2. Posing: Posing is similar to the first point, only posing (for bodybuilding) tends to be held for longer durations and in certain positions that flatter the body. Nothing wrong with this either but a bit more muscle fatigue may result. In any case, you’re still focused on contracting a muscle so it still strengthens the MMC. Just don’t let it fatigue you too much and take away from your workout.
  3. Warm-up: This is a great time to prime the muscles/muscle connections about to partake in the exercise e.g. if you’re about to work your glutes then practice glute contractions as mentioned in the first point above (before the workout or in between sets). But again, be sensible and don’t let fatigue from these contractions take away from your workout.
    • Note: there is some overlap here with an old bodybuilding technique known as pre-exhaustion. Pre-exhaustion isn’t necessarily superior to straight sets but one way it may “work” is by increasing focus on certain muscles/muscle groups…effectively making it a technique that allows you to tap into the MMC.
  4. Feel the Burn: There is some value to feeling the burn in a muscle you’re trying to work since that’s one of the few ways you can know that a muscle is working during a set. If you’re trying to work triceps and you feel the most intense burn in your shoulders that can be an indication something is off and allowing your shoulders to “shoulder” more of the exercise. Try changing your position and mental focus to shift that burn from the muscles you don’t want to the muscles you do.
  5. Elastic Bands: something about using elastic bands really allows you to concentrate on certain muscles without getting a lot of help from other muscles you don’t want. You can also vary the angle/ alter the line of pull (in other words, make the point of return somewhere other than straight down as is the case with free weights) and really optimize recruitment. You can incorporate them as part of a warm-up or even during your workout.

Be diligent and practice the five tips above and you’ll be well on your way to strengthening your MMC. As a secondary benefit, a stronger MMC will tend to improve your form/technique which comes with another host of its own benefits, not the least of which is keeping you in the iron game…for the long run.

Stay Focused,

TRU

References:

  1. Cram J.R., Kasman G.S., Holtz J. Introduction to Surface Electromyography. Gaithersburg: Aspen Publishers. 1998
  2. Ekstrom R.A., Soderberg G.L., Donatelli R.A.Normalization Procedures Using Maximum Voluntary Isometric Contractions for The Serratus Anterior and Trapezius Muscles During Surface EMG Analysis. J Electromyography and Kines 15, 418-428
  3. Sakamoto A, Sinclair PJ. Muscle activations under varying lifting speeds and intensities during bench press. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Mar;112(3):1015-25
  4. Snyder B.J., Fry W.R. Effect of Verbal Instruction on Muscle Activity During the Bench Press Exercise.J Strength Cond Res. 26, 2394-2400
  5. Vera-García F.J., Moreside J.M., McGill S.M.MVC Techniques to Normalize Trunk Muscle EMG in Healthy Women. J Electromyography and Kines  20, 10-16

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