What is the mind-muscle connection? Simply put, the mind-muscle connection is the the act of focusing the tension you create during an exercise on a specific muscle or group of muscles. It is the difference between thoughtfully and deliberately performing the exercise rather than passively going through the motions.
Essentially think about it as mentally connecting to your movement. This may sound obvious; however, you would be surprised how easy it is to disconnect from your movement. I learned this recently when I did my first Facebook Live workout. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I usually workout alone and so I don’t talk much while working out. This makes it easier to connect to my body and feel the exercise and my form. When I did the Live, I had to talk and explain the exercises (which can I just tell you makes the workout so much harder as you cannot regulate your breathing the same as when you are silent!) I noticed when I watched the workout after the fact, to my dismay, my form was off on many of the exercises that I usually perform with excellent form. I was focused on talking and what to say, rather than how the movement felt in my body and it showed. This is something to be aware of as it can be easy to lose focus if we are chatting with friends, watching TV, or possibly watching the instructor of a class, rather than focusing on our own movement.
One study published in the European Journal of Exercise Physiology in 2016, offers an evidence-based explanation for the physical benefits for mental efforts during your workouts. The research evaluated whether focusing on the chest and triceps when performing a bench press could actually improve performance of these muscles. The study subjects performed the bench press under three different conditions:
1. Without concentrating on any specific muscle part and just doing a bench press
2. While concentrating mentally on contracting the pectoralis major (chest) muscles
3. While concentrating mentally on contracting the triceps (back of the arm) muscles
Under each of these three circumstances, subjects performed the bench press at 20%, 40%, 50%, 60% and then 80% of their pre-determined 1-repetition max (1-RM). The Study showed that muscle activity did increase when the subjects concentrated on the two target muscles, but only when performing up to 60% of their 1-RM. At 80% the extra benefit was not seen.
Why did it only help between 20- 60% of 1-RM? Well, in order to have the capacity to mentally connect to the muscle that you are moving, you have to be performing an exercise with a weight that you can manage well. Once the load gets so heavy, all you will be able to think about is getting that weight lifted. There isn’t mental “room” to be thinking about specific muscles and the quality of your movement when you are so physically maxed out. This is good news for those of us that workout at home because we may have limited equipment or weight loads available to us, but this research suggests that by mentally connecting to our movement and form, we can boost the gains from our exercise! Additionally, by focusing on our form and muscle recruitment, we will also be avoiding pain and injury!
In another study published in Life Science in 2017, 18 young, healthy participants were put through a low-intensity strength training program for six weeks. They were divided into one of the following test groups:
1. High mental effort group
2. Low mental effort group
3. Control group that didn't exercise
The participants in the high mental effort group gained more strength than the other groups, even though the workout intensity was the same for both the high mental effort and the low mental effort groups.
What are the take-a-ways?
Form matters. Focus matters. Your mind is powerful!
Try using a mind-muscle connection with your next workout and let me know what you think!
Calatayud, J. et al. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116,
Jiang CH, Ranganathan VK, Siemionow V, Yue GH. The level of effort, rather than muscle exercise intensity determines strength gain following a six-week training. Life Sci. 2017;178:30-34. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2017.04.003