Improve workouts: how mind-muscle connection is the secret to better training

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Keeping your head in the game by practicing mind-muscle connection could be the difference between a good and a great workout. 

Staying focused during workouts can be tough. Think about it, how often do you go through the physical motions while your mind wanders towards what you’re going to cook for dinner that night or an email that you need to send? Often times, it seems that our bodies move independently of what our minds are telling it to do.

It can be hard to switch off your inner list-maker while exercising, but studies have shown that boosting your mind-muscle connection – in other words, stop thinking about all the things you need to do after your workout and instead, focus on the exercises you’re doing and the muscles you’re targeting – results in a better workout. And who doesn’t want to be more efficient when it comes to exercise?

There have been various studies into mind-muscle connection over the years. A 2009 study of women found that when verbally cued by a trainer to focus on either their glutes or hamstring muscles, they increased activation of the muscle they were training. Another study in 2016 found that when the subjects focused on their chest muscles and triceps during a bench press, more muscle fibres were activated by 20-60% from their one-rep maximum (the maximum weight they lifted in one rep). Which means that by simply focusing on the muscle you are activating, you’re likely to get faster and more effective results.

“For those who weight train, ‘feeling’ a muscle work during an exercise has a direct relationship to the development of that muscle,” explains trainer Alice Liveing. “Getting a strong mind-to-muscle connection at a very basic level means that you’re dictating proper tension to that said muscle, and therefore increasing its activation.”

To help you get the most from your workouts, we called on personal trainers, an Olympian and a mindset coach to reveal how to stay focused during your sessions.

What happens to your body when you focus your mind?

“When we lift weights, the brain fires off a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which sends signals to the brain to make the muscles contract,” explains Andrew Cohen-Wray, a mental performance coach and director at 1404 Performance. “The really clever bit is that the more we focus on that individual muscle, the more it recruits associated muscle fibres. Not thinking about the particular muscle we are working can often lead to imbalances and potential injury.”

Leon Taylor, Olympic diver and founder of Mindset and Movement, knows all too well about the power of mind-muscle connection. “When I was recovering from my fourth shoulder surgery, I would use visualisation – not only to assist the rehab exercise, but to imagine what it would be like to perform dives again. This primed my neural pathways ahead of time, so that when I healed, I was able to progress quicker. The reason why visualisation works – and all high performers use this technique – is because the subconscious can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Under a brain scanner, the same pathways light up whether the participant is actually performing an exercise or just visualising that they are. If you are truly present in the movement, all of your nervous system is engaged and involved – deepening the experience and enabling faster progress.”

So, if you’re training without really thinking about your form, it’s time to take a step back. “Too many people focus on how many reps they can do rather than focussing on performing the exercise properly and effectively,” notes David Weiner, training and nutritionist specialist of the fitness app Freeletics. 

Woman doing a front squat
Improve workouts: your mind plays a greater role than you think when it comes to getting stronger

Focusing on your muscles during a workout not only help speed up your results, but it can also keep you strong both physically and mentally. “There is risk involved in any exercise,” says Liveing, “so ensuring that you’re keeping a good level of concentration on what you’re doing will help to avoid injuries from occurring.

“In terms of using exercise for mental wellbeing, it’s the perfect time to zone out of the stresses of day-to-day life and draw your concentration to something that can bring great rewards. This will help you to reap the rewards of exercise both mentally and physically.”

Of course, as with most things, the mind-muscle connection takes practice to get it right. “The more you practice the mind-muscle connection, the sooner it will become second nature when you exercise,” says Dalton Wong, celebrity trainer and founder of Twenty Two Training.

How to get in the right mindset before a workout

The key to all good workouts is getting into the right mindset from the very start. “You should have a goal,” says Cohen-Wray, “whether you are thinking about the final outcome or the goals of progression along the way. By having a goal, you can create purpose – which in turn will make you more focused and determined to achieve.”

The trouble is that even with a goal, finding the motivation to exercise can be challenging. We suggest getting into your workout kit. It may sound simple, but Strong Women editor Meriam Ahari agrees. “I find it harder to exercise on the weekends. So when I start the day running errands or going to brunch, I’ll wear my activewear so that when I get back home, I’m one step closer to being ready for to train. Otherwise, it feels wasteful to put on my kit and not follow up with a workout.” 

Liveing uses music to get herself in the mood. “It’s a way to drown out any distractions and get into a good headspace for the session ahead. Once you’ve got your favourite playlist on, try and start each session with something that helps you to mark the next hour as your time to train. This could be a gentle walk to get focused, some mobility work or even breathing exercises.”

Improve workouts: focusing on your breath is one way to improve mind-muscle connection for better training

Try this breathing exercise to stay focussed before training

Still having trouble staying focussed? Try these breathing exercises to keep your mind on the muscles you are training.

“When mentoring, I teach a technique called single-nostril breathing,” says Taylor. “The magic of it is in the concentration it takes and it’s been shown to improve resilience, lower blood pressure, and keep us calm and grounded. 

Here’s how to do single-nostril breathing:

  • Place two fingers on the centre of your forehead (onto what some refer to as your ‘third eye’) and your thumb on your right nostril.
  • Inhale through your left nostril whilst closing off your right nostril.
  • When you’ve finished inhaling through your left nostril, close off your left nostril using your pinkie and ring finger. 
  • Release the thumb from your right nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
  • Inhale through your right nostril. 
  • When done inhaling, close off your right nostril with your right thumb. 
  • Exhale through your left nostril with the right nostril closed off. 
  • Repeat for 10 rounds (20 breaths).

Want effective at-home workouts? Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Image credit: Getty

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