Can’t Feel It, Can’t Build It
Can’t feel a certain muscle working during an exercise? Then you’re probably not building it much. Here’s how to fix that problem fast.
Flex your biceps right now. Do you feel that squeeze of the muscle and the rush of blood that pools in and around the fibers? The harder you flex, the more you’ll feel it. This is an example of the mind-muscle connection.
It’s defined as the attentional focus on a muscle while executing a movement, particularly during strength training. In his book, Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy, Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., writes that “attentional focus is a well-recognized aspect of motor learning and its use has important implications for muscular hypertrophy.”
When you’re lifting, there are varying degrees to how effective each rep and set will be. There’s a big difference between going through the motions and being internally focused on the muscle. This focus-based sensation is achieved through both optimal form and emphasizing contractions of every muscle involved in the exercise.
The connection between your brain and your muscles isn’t something that can be measured in and of itself; however, researchers have found that activation of a given muscle is enhanced by using an internal focus of attention.
Schoenfeld notes: “Snyder and Leech demonstrated that subjects were able to significantly increase EMG (electromyography) activity in the latissimus dorsi by directing their focus to this muscle during the lat pulldown.”
We have motor units in our muscles that send signals through our spinal cord to our brain, which is enhanced through training. When activation is higher, more motor units must be recruited. This can occur through more weight, more speed, and muscle fatigue.
However, these scenarios don’t account for or measure your concentration on the active muscle(s) during a lift. That can vary widely from individual to individual. The difference between someone who has a stronger mind-muscle connection and someone who doesn’t? The person with a higher level of mind-muscle connection will have more effective reps and sets, all other factors being equal.
You can develop mind-muscle connection through a few different avenues:
- Tempo reps
- Isometric holds
- Ultra-high rep sets
- Flexing or posing
Here’s an overview of each:
1. Tempo Reps
When the concentric, the eccentric, and the periods in between have prescribed times, we call those tempo reps. This is usually noted with a 4-digit code. Something like “4040.”
- The first number is the eccentric (lowering phase) time. In the example, it’d be the 4.
- The next number is the time between the eccentric and concentric phases of the movement. So a pause at the bottom of an exercise might have a 1 or 2 there. But in our example, there’s a zero, so that means you’d go immediately to the concentric (lifting phase) with no pauses.
- The third number is the amount of time you want to take to complete the concentric (lifting) phase. So, 4 seconds in our example.
- The fourth number would be the time between the end of the rep and the next eccentric contraction. So in our example, once you lift the dumbbells back up, you can move immediately back to the eccentric phase if there’s a zero there. If there’s a greater number there, you’d just pause at the top for that amount of time.
Why do tempo reps? They can amp up your mind-muscle connection. This is especially true when the tempo is slow through both phases of the lift and when it includes a pause at the peak contraction. Additionally, slower phases and longer pauses can increase time under tension and amplify the sensations within the muscle for both the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift.
2. Isometric Holds
To do these, hold a weight or a position under load statically or isometrically. This kind of muscle action involves no shortening or lengthening of a given muscle, so it’s a good tactic for developing positional strength, positional endurance, and a mind-muscle connection.
It forces you to focus on the area you’re holding. There’s almost no way to avoid the mind-muscle connection. It’s foolproof. When held long enough or hard enough, it’ll cause a high level of muscular engagement to maintain whatever position you’re in.
This can also help with joint stabilization, which contributes to mind-muscle connection. If there’s less stress on the joints, the muscles can contract more efficiently around that joint.
When you’re holding a weight or position for an extended period of time, there’s no hiding place for weak links. The muscle that must work in that position will be felt, usually with a burning sensation from fatigue and metabolite build-up.
3. Ultra-High Rep Sets
Every once in a while, think beyond the basic set-rep schemes. Lifters already do this with super-low sets using heavy weight, but you can hit ultra-high reps using a lighter load, too. This could be anywhere in the realm of 30 to 100 unbroken reps. The concept here is basic: fatigue the muscle so much that it forces you to squeeze the crap out of it just to get that body part to move.
When you perform an ultra-high rep set, the muscle is usually pushed to a place where there’s so much blood and so much lactic acid built up in the muscle that the only way to get the next rep is to have EXTREME attentional focus to force the next contraction while maintaining good form. Use these sparingly or try them as finishers.
4. Flexing & Posing
It might feel awkward in public, but flexing is one of the best ways to build a mind-muscle connection. You can do it in the mirror, but flexing with your eyes closed is even more effective.
If you have a hard time simply flexing a muscle group without weights, you’ll likely have a hard time feeling that muscle when adding load. Every peak of contraction essentially mimics a pose and helps build a neural connection to the muscle you’re flexing. If you want to build a mind-muscle connection, practice flexing and posing. Just make sure the bathroom door is locked!
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