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Read any list of bodybuilding tips, and you’re bound to encounter references to the “mind-muscle connection” as a key aspect of training for size and shreds. But a recent analysis of studies published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living suggests that it may not be as useful when it comes to performance.
The mind-muscle connection involves focusing on your target muscle as you rep out an exercise, and it’s a strategy that many top bodybuilders swear by. Studies have even shown that keeping the focus internal during workouts can help athletes increase muscle activation as they lift.
That’s perfect for those who are aiming for hypertrophy and aesthetics (hello, bodybuilders), but not necessarily for athletes looking to lift heavier, the new analysis suggests. Instead, strength athletes may want to focus on the external effects of their efforts, like the barbell’s movement. Studies show that lifters actually exert less effort and move weight more efficiently when their focus is external, according to the new analysis, rather than internal.
When you think about it, this notion makes perfect sense. The benefit of forging a mind-muscle connection is supposedly more muscle fiber activation with the same weight. For lifters strictly focused on how much weight they’re moving, that would mean more work for the same result.
“It appears that this external focus allows automatic control processes to operate, removing the attentional demands and mechanical inefficiency of conscious muscular control,” said review author David Neumann, a professor at Griffith University in Australia. Basically, focusing on the weight lets your body move it on autopilot instead of getting tripped up by focusing on certain muscles throughout the lift.
Overall, Neumann recommends that athletes looking to lift more in training and competition try focusing on moving the load, not contracting the muscle—but there are a few catches.
First, most of the studies examining focus strategies during training are very small and typically look at young, Western males who are experienced lifters. Until there are larger, more diverse studies, it’s tough to say for sure that these findings apply to most athletes.
Another thing to consider is that Neumann’s theory suggests that focusing on the external force helps muscles move “automatically” through the movement. That may not be great for lifters who are just starting out and need to focus on form to get the exercise right.
And finally, focusing on the muscle itself still has a place in training for hypertrophy, so go ahead and mentally target those bicep peaks. But when you’re going for the mind-muscle connection approach, keep it lighter. According to the review, the advantages of internal focus seem to disappear under heavier loads.
In the end, it’s up to you to find out what works for your body. If concentrating on your muscles helps you max out on bench, then go for it. But neither strategy will help you hit your goals if you don’t stay consistent and work your ass off.