Many bodybuilders believe the more you focus on a muscle as you train it, the more it’ll grow.
This “focus” is known as the mind-muscle connection, and it’s a controversial topic in the fitness space.
That’s because many others don’t believe that concentrating on a muscle while exercising has any bearing on how it develops.
According to the naysayers, so long as you train through a full range of motion with heavy weights, your muscles must work, regardless of whether you pay attention to them.
Do you have to connect your mind with your muscles to maximize growth?
Or should you focus on something else when you train, like your technique?
Get evidence-based answers in this article.
What Is the “Mind-Muscle Connection?”
The mind-muscle connection, or “mind-to-muscle connection,” refers to the idea that by intensely focusing on a muscle as you train it, you can increase its activation and subsequent growth.
For example, proponents of the mind-muscle connection (bodybuilders, typically) believe that if you fix your attention on your biceps as you perform the dumbbell curl—feeling it stretch as you lower the weight and “squeezing” it as you lift—you’ll gain more biceps muscle and strength than if you went through the motion passively.
Not everyone believes the mind-muscle connection is necessary, though.
Evidence-based fitness experts generally argue that focusing on a muscle does nothing to boost strength and size gain if you train through a full range of motion with sufficiently heavy weights since doing so requires your muscles to fully contribute to lifting the weight, whether you focus on them or not.
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Is the Mind-Muscle Connection Important?
In a sports context, there are two types of “attentional focus:” internal and external.
Internal focus directs your attention toward what you’re doing with your body as you move (e.g., thinking about contracting your quads while squatting). This is the type of focus associated with the mind-muscle connection.
External focus directs your attention toward how your movements impact your environment (e.g., imagining pushing the floor away while deadlifting).
A wealth of research shows that external focus is superior to internal focus for boosting performance in almost every sport, including weightlifting.
For example, in a review published in the journal Sport (Basel, Switzerland), researchers found that focusing externally while weightlifting increases your strength on exercises like the squat, deadlift, and rack pull.
Furthermore, weightlifters who use external “cues” (mantras that help you focus externally) typically gain more strength over time than those who don’t. And since lifting heavy weights and getting stronger over time is paramount for building muscle, external cues likely aid muscle growth more than internal cues, too.
In other words, keenly focusing on the muscles you’re training is less important for gaining muscle and strength than thinking about how your body affects your environment as you perform an exercise. The opposite of what bodybuilders preach, basically.
Does this mean that internal focus is always a bad idea?
Not necessarily—some studies suggest harnessing a mind-to-muscle connection increases muscle activation in the target muscle. And while increased activation isn’t the best proxy for gauging growth, it may spur growth in some scenarios (more on the specifics soon).
With that in mind, here’s how I recommend you train to maximize muscle activation, recruitment, and gains.
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A Better Way to Think About the Mind-Muscle Connection
An “external cue” is a mental mantra you recite while weightlifting that shifts your focus externally.
Some examples of external cues include “spread the floor” with your feet in the squat or “throw the bar into the ceiling” in the overhead press.
Since external cues boost your strength, improve your balance, burnish your technique, help you produce more force and perform more reps, and make exercises feel easier, using them for most exercises in most workouts makes sense.
You can find a catalog of my favorite external weightlifting cues in this article:
Complete List of Weightlifting Cues for Perfect Form & New PRs
Or, if you’d prefer to invent your own, here’s what I suggest:
- Make weightlifting cues short: Six words or less works best. This makes them easy to remember and repeat in your head as you perform an exercise.
- Start the cue with a verb: Keep your cues succinct and clear by starting them with verbs like “drive,” “crush,” or “explode” that directly pertain to how you want to move.
- Focus on one instruction at a time: Trying to achieve too much with a single cue (“Spread the floor and explode up,” for example) dilutes your focus and muddles your movements.
(If you like training tips like this and want an even more in-depth guide to how to train to build your best body ever, check out my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.)
2. Use internal cues for isolation exercises (if you’re an experienced weightlifter).
(This technique probably won’t work for new weightlifters because most haven’t yet developed the coordination and control to make internal cueing effective.)
Thus, if you’ve been training for more than a year or two and have a lagging muscle that you don’t feel working, try using internal cues during isolation exercises for that muscle.
For example, during exercises like the biceps curl, triceps pushdown, overhead triceps extension, leg curl, leg extension, calf raise, and chest fly, remind yourself to “squeeze,” “flex,” or “contract” the muscle you’re trying to train during the concentric (lifting portion) of each rep and feel the muscle “stretch” during the eccentric (lowering portion).
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3. Lift explosively.
Most guides on how to improve mind-muscle connection recommend slowing your reps so that you can focus more closely on the muscles you’re trying to train.
In a study conducted by scientists at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment, researchers found that bench pressing explosively produces significantly more muscle activation in the pecs and triceps than pressing slowly and focusing on connecting with the pecs or triceps specifically.
Thus, unless you’re learning a new exercise or recovering from an injury, aim to lift weights as fast as possible while maintaining good form and control of the weight. This usually means lowering the weight with control, then raising the weight as fast as you can.
Remember that attempting to move the weight as fast as possible doesn’t mean the weight will move quickly.
If you’re lifting heavy weights, the weight will still appear to move slowly (a second or more per rep is normal), even when you try to lift explosively. What’s important is that you try to move the weight as fast as possible, not that the weight actually moves quickly.
+ Scientific References
- Wulf, G. (2013). Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. Https://Doi.Org/10.1080/1750984X.2012.723728, 6(1), 77–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2012.723728
- Grgic, J., Mikulic, I., & Mikulic, P. (2021). Acute and Long-Term Effects of Attentional Focus Strategies on Muscular Strength: A Meta-Analysis. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 9(11). https://doi.org/10.3390/SPORTS9110153
- Marchant, D. C., Greig, M., & Scott, C. (2009). Attentional focusing instructions influence force production and muscular activity during isokinetic elbow flexions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(8), 2358–2366. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181B8D1E5
- Lohse, K. R., Sherwood, D. E., & Healy, A. F. (2011). Neuromuscular effects of shifting the focus of attention in a simple force production task. Journal of Motor Behavior, 43(2), 173–184. https://doi.org/10.1080/00222895.2011.555436
- Marchant, D. C., & Greig, M. (2017). Attentional focusing instructions influence quadriceps activity characteristics but not force production during isokinetic knee extensions. Human Movement Science, 52, 67–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.HUMOV.2017.01.007
- Vigotsky, A. D., Beardsley, C., Contreras, B., Steele, J., Ogborn, D., & Phillips, S. M. (2017). Greater electromyographic responses do not imply greater motor unit recruitment and “hypertrophic potential” cannot be inferred. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(1), E1–E2. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001249
- Taylor, L. (n.d.). IMPACT OF ATTENIONAL FOCUS CUES ON STRENGTH TRAINING The impact of attentional focus cueing within a training intervention on back squat and deadlift performance in team sport athletes IMPACT OF ATTENIONAL FOCUS CUES ON STRENGTH TRAINING 2. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://research.stmarys.ac.uk/id/eprint/1819/1/Dissertation – Luke Taylor.pdf
- Wulf, G. (2008). Attentional focus effects in balance acrobats. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 79(3), 319–325. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2008.10599495
- Wulf, G., & Su, J. (2007). An external focus of attention enhances golf shot accuracy in beginners and experts. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 78(4), 384–389. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2007.10599436
- Halperin, I., Williams, K. J., Martin, D. T., & Chapman, D. W. (2016). The Effects of Attentional Focusing Instructions on Force Production During the Isometric Midthigh Pull. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(4), 919–923. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001194
- Marchant, D. C., Greig, M., Bullough, J., & Hitchen, D. (2011). Instructions to adopt an external focus enhance muscular endurance. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(3), 466–473. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2011.10599779
- Lohse, K. R., & Sherwood, D. E. (2011). Defining the Focus of Attention: Effects of Attention on Perceived Exertion and Fatigue. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(NOV). https://doi.org/10.3389/FPSYG.2011.00332
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., Golden, S., Alto, A., Larson, R., Winkelman, N., & Paoli, A. (2018). Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science, 18(5), 705–712. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020
- Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Colado, J. C., & Andersen, L. L. (2018). Influence of different attentional focus on EMG amplitude and contraction duration during the bench press at different speeds. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(10), 1162–1166. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2017.1363403