It’s been a long thought among the bodybuilding community that, in order to maximize GAINZZZZ (aka hypertrophy), you need to establish a “mind-muscle connection”. What that means is the person who is performing the exercise is actively “thinking” about contracting the muscle as opposed to simply going through the motions. Now, in 2018, there is empirical evidence to support this idea.
The concept has long been touted by bodybuilders such as Kai Greene and Arnold Schwarzenegger (pictured here) that it’s essential to eek out those small, fine details of building muscle. Interestingly, last year at the International Society of Sports Nutrition Conference that was held in Phoenix, Arizona was the first time I heard about this study. Brad Schoenfeld, the lead researcher and OG of muscle science, talked for a short time about the findings of the study; however, since research takes a long time to publish, it was only recently made publicly available. So here we are! Let’s see what the study said!
To begin, let’s talk about where this idea fits in the scope of science. The broader term for this concept of mind-muscle connection is known as “Attentional Focus”¹. This is simply what floats through people’s minds while performing a task. It’s broken down further into an External and Internal focus¹. In a hypertrophy and bodybuilding context, an internal focus is what we consider the mind-muscle connection. It’s thinking about squeezing the working muscle and contracting it as hard as you can to “maximize gainz”. An external focus, the way I see it, is more motivational/supportive in that either yourself or someone else is keeping you focused on the outcome of the exercise¹. In this study, external focus was enforced by a trainer instructing the lifter to “Get the weight up!”, so you can see that it’s more focused on finishing the lift and completing the exercise as opposed to the muscle contraction¹.
“Okay, but how did they do it?”
Great question! The researchers took 30 males who were untrained (meaning they don’t normally exercise) and put them through 3 day/week training sessions for 8 weeks straight of barbell bicep curls and leg extensions (these exercises are easy to measure and isolate the muscles being studied)¹. As mentioned earlier, both internal and external groups were given different cues by the trainers depending on which group they were in (“squeeze the muscle!”) vs. (“get the weight up you weenie!”[no participants were called weenies during this study])¹.
Biceps and quadriceps muscles were tested to by an ultrasound machine for muscle thickness (MT)¹. MT is an indicator of muscle growth.
Side note: Could you imagine only doing curls and leg extensions 3 times a week for 8 weeks straight? I personally would get so bored! Applause to these guys who did it, because that sounds boring to me.
“So they made them do this boring routine..what happened?”
What happened next may shock you! (Are you tired of those headlines like I am?)
After the trial, the participants saw some interesting results. In the biceps, the internal focus group saw greater increases in hypertrophy over the external focus group¹ via increased MT. The study also found what was called a large effect size favoring the internal group for the biceps muscles¹. A large effect size basically reinforces that the cause of the increase in hypertrophy is actually because of the internal focus rather than something else.
The quadriceps muscles observed did not differ greatly in hypertrophy between both groups¹.
“But WTF does any of this mean?”
It means that the bodybuilders were right! However, this is only one study that has tested the mind-muscle connection theory in this manner with the machines and methods that they did. Nevertheless, this is exciting to see that the concept of actively thinking about contracting and “squeezing” your muscles may have some validity to it! Next time you’re in the gym doing some curls, benching, or leg curls, stop listening to your music and have that voice in your head (I know I’m not the only one) tell you to SQUEEZE!!! Try it for yourself! You may get more gainzzz that way.
A word of warning though: from my own experiences playing with this, I have had to use a lighter weight because the concentration does make the exercise feel harder, so you may want to try with a lighter weight than you normally do.
As for why there were no differences in the groups for the quadriceps muscles, the researchers offered a potential explanation for this phenomenon: Lower-limb muscles are not used for small, meticulous, and fine movements like muscles in the upper limbs are (think careful movements with your fingers and how precise you can be with the muscles and actions of them)¹.
We don’t have that precise control over our leg muscles like we do the muscles in our upper-limbs, so it may be more difficult to actually “squeeze” the muscles harder than you already do. Not to say that it’s impossible! Another reason might be because the subjects were untrained and had not a lot of experience exercising and learning how to “squeeze” the muscles like an experienced bodybuilder may have¹. I believe we would see a different picture if bodybuilders could be tested.
- The mind-muscle connection has long been a theory among bodybuilders about thinking about the muscle you’re training to make it work harder and therefore, get more gainzzz.
- This study supports the idea for upper-limb muscles only because that was the only area where internal focus (aka mind-muscle connection) appeared to make a difference.
- Lower-limb hypertrophy may be greater if an internal focus is taken if the subjects are trained, but this study can’t say that. More research must be conducted first.
- Consider trying it for yourself!
As always, thanks for reading!
Flexing muscle with blue background graphic Created by Dooder – Freepik.com