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Fitness and the mind-muscle connection

From choosing to lead a healthy life to making sure you're doing your workouts with the correct form, it all starts with your mind

Train your mind before training your body. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Train your mind before training your body. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Try doing a few leg raises. They’re meant to work your abs, but if your hip flexors—the tiny annoying group of muscles below the pelvic bone and above the quadriceps—start hurting, then you are doing the leg raises wrong. But how can one get leg raises wrong? The solution is academically simple, yet practically difficult. Next time you try doing leg raises and want to avoid your hip flexor screaming in pain, just squeeze your abs every time you hit a rep. What this does is create a mind-muscle connection—it forces your body to raise the legs using the core and abs and not the front of the hips. The human body is extremely sly, constantly trying to compensate for hard work by using its many muscles and connectors. And it needs to be tricked right back into working the right muscles. And this is the secret to making every rep count.

Another popular example is the bicep curl. Trainers and fitness enthusiasts will obsess over not swinging your back while curling the weight up. The usual recommendation is to keep your elbows stuck to the sides so that the body doesn’t compensate for the bicep curl by activating the back muscles to lift it. As strong as one may be though, the body tends to add a swing to lift those last few reps through the tiredness. Those last reps do matter. But if you let the body swing and the back help you, the final reps won’t help.

Workouts are as much of a mental process as they are physical. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said: “What puts you over the top? It is the mind that actually creates the body, it is the mind that really makes you work out, it is the mind that visualizes what the body ought to look like as the finished product.” In other words, this is what it means when someone asks you to “activate” a muscle. Bruce Lee would squeeze and flex his chest tightly before and after every set of bench presses and push-ups. The scientific explanation is that this activation produces more acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that makes your muscles move. The more acetylcholine you produce, the more contraction you can give your muscles, leading to the speeding up of muscle growth and strength.

There are other terms you will hear in the gym: “isolate the muscle”, someone will say. All this can be very daunting for a newbie. “This kind of connection is something that comes with muscle maturity and experience. For me, the best way to train newbies is to make them follow commands. Once they start getting the hang of it, I make sure to point out whether the muscle they were working on has a decent pump at the end of the set. That kind of visual feedback helps muscle memory,” says Kunal Mahour, who has four national-level gold medals in calisthenics, and works at the Pune-based gym MultiFit.

Workouts are as much of a mental process as they are physical. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Workouts are as much of a mental process as they are physical. (Photo: Istockphoto)

As someone who mainly deals with bodyweight exercises, Mahour needs to extensively work on his mind-muscle connection. While he was training me in calisthenics, he made sure there was a slow progression in muscle activation. The first couple of weeks included learning to execute a move using momentum and with an allowance to bend or flex my legs to make it easy to lift my body. The next two weeks were focussed on straightening the legs out for strict form. The pull-up for example is easier to do with legs crossed behind when compared to a strict straight-legged one.

I had another trainer in Delhi who would ask me to listen to audio clips by American bodybuilder and media personality CT Fletcher to get my “body in the zone” before training. Fletcher said he started using verbal cues because “his muscles wouldn’t listen to him.” Of course there were times when I would listen to just half the audio and move on, but a lot of people seem to listen to his motivational pieces before training (attaching a video below so you can decide if it is for you).

“In weight training, you can isolate muscles in an easier way than in bodyweight exercises. In what I practice, I can do a pull-up using my lats or my shoulders, depending on what I am working on. I use help from other trainers during an exercise,” says Mahour.

A research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology called the Importance Of Mind-Muscle Connection During Progressive Resistance Training tried to investigate “whether focusing on using specific muscles during bench press can selectively activate these muscles.” It is an interesting research because with the bench press, the primary movers are the chest muscles, and the secondary movers are the triceps supporting the barbell.

The study found that “in both muscles, focusing on using the respective muscles increased muscle activity at relative loads between 20 and 60 %, but not at 80 % of 1RM (rep max). The increased activity did not occur at the expense of decreased activity of the other muscle, e.g. when focusing on activating the triceps muscle the activity of the pectoralis muscle did not decrease.” It also found that focusing on the triceps helped the chest muscles as well.

Below are some tips to follow if you’re interested in building the mind-muscle connection. Some may work for you, some may not, but it seems that flexing the brain will eventually help you flex your muscles better.

Tips to achieve Mind-Muscle connection:

-Focus on training the muscle, not lifting the weight.

-Give yourself verbal cues during lifts. During a bench press, there is no shame in muttering to yourself “set, lock, lift.”

-Visualise a muscle get darker with every rep and lighter with every stretch. Cheesy, but as long as it works. Turning away from the mirror is a tip some trainers will give.

-Go slow on reps: the slower you go the more your body will concentrate and feel the muscles you are working.

-Warm-up to target the muscle/muscle group you will be exercising that day. Do some light quick reps before you pile on the plates.

-Music is good for concentration. Podcasts and audiobooks, not so much.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.

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