How to brain train your way to a stronger body

You could be forgiven for thinking that the “mindful strength training” is just another meaningless sound bite but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that by honing our concentration and thinking about the muscles we’re intent on working, we can become more powerful than ever!

Ever been to a gym class in which the trainer told you to really think about the muscle you’re working? You might have thought that you were simply being asked to concentrate in order to avoid falling behind with the moves or putting yourself at risk of injury, but there’s actually a lot more to it. Whether it’s concentrating on squeezing your glutes during a squat or activating your core in a pilates class, our brains can help us to work harder and more effectively using bodyweight alone – fact. But what exactly is going on here? 

Rob Leiby is a PT and founder of Modern Day Warriors Coaching who says that the mind games all start with twotypes of intention when exercising: internal and external. “Internal focus (also known as mind-muscle connection), involves a controlled thought process wherein we deliberately contract and think about the muscle we are trying to work – e.g. ‘squeeze the bicep!’” The external focus, on the other hand, is all about focusing on moving a weight from A to B, making it to the finish line or trying to complete a rep. He says that if your goal is to build muscle and get stronger, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the internal focus, or mind-muscle connection, can help you reach it more easily. 

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Rob points to one 2018 study, published in the European Journal of Sport Science, in which participants were asked to do have either an internal or external focus during their workouts. Over an eight-week period, the group who focussed internally experienced almost double the muscle growth in their biceps (12.4% vs 6.9% respectively). 

Another piece of research, this time published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, looked at whether focussing on using the triceps and pectoralis major (chest muscles) during a bench press could selectively activate those muscles. Scientists got 18 men to perform a one-rep max (1RM)in first session. In the second session, they were asked to do another set of bench presses at 20, 40, 50, 60 and 80% of their 1RM, under three different conditions: regular bench press, and a bench press focussing on selectively using the pecs or triceps. Researchers found that focussing on using individual muscles increased muscle activity all the way up to 60% of the 1RM, and that focus on one muscle didn’t detract from the activity of the other muscle (e.g focussing on working the pecs didn’t reduce activity in the triceps or vice versa).

Focussing on the muscle you’e working can it to work more effeciently

These kinds of studies show, Rob says, that “we can definitely use the mind-muscle connection to increase our gains and get more out of our workouts!”

Ellie Crawley, PT and founder of FeelFit, says that while more of us might have become interested in the impact mindfulness can have on fitness and gains over lockdown, she’s been advocating for clients to move mindfully for years. “The more you fully and effectively can feel the muscle you are working, the better chance of you growing that muscle, understanding the movement and feeling the muscle during the movement. 

“We can all squat, press and bicep curl, but if we tell our brain to focus on a specific muscle during an exercise without just moving without thinking, the brain will actively recruit more muscle fibres to complete the task.” She encourages us to try engaging our glutes while standing – without the hamstrings, lumbar (back) or hip flexors getting involved. “I bet you can feel all of those muscles working when you try to isolate the glutes,” she says, before recommending that the next thing we should do is to lie on our backs, feet together and knees apart. “Now try – I bet you can feel your glutes!” 

Ellie suggests imagining that you feel your muscles individually throughout your workout (even if you have to force your imagination to do a little over-time). “If you want to grow muscle, get stronger and perfect that move, then this way of working is definitely the key.”

How to brain train your way to a stronger body

Feel it

Put simply, you need to feel your body working rather than being concerned with how your body looks. It requires you to be mindful of how you move – which has the added benefit of concentrating and calming the mind as well as helping you to make gains.

The next time you work out, have a think about what you’re about to do. Each of our SWTC videos always gives you a brief overview of what main muscles are being worked so that you can anticipate which areas will be targeted by certain moves. Use that to your advantage by setting your intention to focus on those muscles throughout the workout and see if having that mindful approach works better for you than simply committing to getting through a session. Use the biological feedback from your body to inform you about how well or powerfully you’re doing each move.

Rob’s advice “would be to place all of your attention on the exact muscle you’re trying to work, then think about contracting that muscle as hard as you can throughout the whole exercise.” He explains that if you can’t feel a particular body part working properly, then you “may want to seek the advice of a professional who can advise on perfect form and technique!”

Slow down

It’s so tempting to rush through exercises because they feel uncomfortable or we’re thinking about reps, but moving slowly really can be the key to getting stronger. You want to move explosively through the concentric part of the move (so that’s the descent in a squat or the push in a shoulder press) before slowing it right down in the eccentric bit. The more time under tension, the more your muscles have to work and the more you’ll be able to think about what body parts you’re moving. Think about keeping a tempo of 3-1 – counting to three on the eccentric and moving quickly on the concentric. Sound interesting? Read more about this technique (also called “progressive overloading”).

Close your eyes

Be careful with this one – if you’ve not got great balance or you’re lifting heavy then you might want to give it a miss. However, closing your eyes for a couple of reps can really help you to concentrate on what you’re doing. Make sure that you’re really stable before giving this a go and take your time. If it feels awkward standing, why not sit or kneel while doing upper body moves so that you have a better base.

Prioritise warming-up

Warm-ups are really important for avoiding injury, but they’re also an essential factor in getting stronger because they help us to better use individual muscles. Lots of programmes will have you doing lighter versions of exercises at the start of a workout of moves you’ll be doing in main sets – like bodyweight squats and good mornings before a workout of goblet squats and Romanian deadlifts. As you get warm, concentrate on squeezing your muscles and feeling them move through their range of motion. That’ll prep the mind ahead of the heavier sets that really matter. 

Try using this technique when doing an Arnold Press. Concentrate on the biceps and shoulder muscles as you return the weights back to collar-bone position and see if that makes any difference to how powerful you feel!

Keen to improve your form? Check out our How To library to see exactly how the experts do over 100 of the most common strength training exercises.

Pictures: Getty

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