The Mind/Muscle Connection
By Raymond Shipley
I don't know how many times I've stressed the mind/muscle connection throughout my career training clients, but the fact remains it is likely one of the most important, and overlooked, aspects of bodybuilding. All the perfect exercises, programs and even nutrition in the world will not create one's best physique if the mind/muscle connection is not developed.
Working for chain gyms like LA Fitness sent a vast array of clientele my way. Some were young, some old; some fit, some not so fit. But the fact remained if I had my way there would consistently have been a crash course for the first few weeks on getting to know one's own body and how to use it. The lesson I always tried to stress most was that bodybuilding (or body sculpting, as some shy from the other term) is not about lifting weight, bodybuilding is about contracting muscles against resistance in order to induce growth.
The body strives for homeostasis, never wanting to grow or lose too far from where it is comfortable. Forcing change comes from placing mass amounts of stress on the body, making it adapt in attempt to no longer feel the stress. When heavy weights are consistently lifted the body responds by creating bigger, more efficient muscles in order to handle the stress. So, what of the mind/muscle connection?
Those with the most impressive muscles on the planet are bodybuilders. Love them or hate them, this is simple fact. But what does a bodybuilder actually do? They flex. It's that simple. On stage, they flex. When prepping for contest, they flex. In the gym, they flex. Just like a baseball hitter that rehearses his swing in the on-deck circle with a weighted bat, the bodybuilder practices his craft, with weight, until his muscles are as efficient as possible.
The beginner will often experience a rapid strength gain when first starting a program. This is not due to massive amounts of new muscle, but rather honing the neurotransmitter link between muscle and brain. When first training every lift will feel awkward until the mind and muscles begin to communicate about what is needed. Random muscles will be engaged, wasting strength and efficiency, until the mind can discern how to properly execute the lift and exclude what is not needed.
So, how does one practice this art except for lifting weights in the gym? Simple: flex. Pose. Consciously contract the muscles on each repetition and utilize isometrics between sets, after workouts and on off days. There is no sense in training if one doesn't know what they are doing. Get in the mirror and learn about one's own body. I don't know how many times I've asked a client to flex their back muscles only to receive a confused look as response. If one cannot engage the muscle, how does one expect to train it?
I still recall a lengthy talk I received from a training director in the past about ensuring a client never develop the mind/muscle connection. This would create a fully dependent client, and be job security for me. I was absolutely appalled at even the notion. Withholding the grail for such a selfish purpose negated the entire reason for training, and I refused. Perhaps creating self-sufficient clientele caused me to eventually lose more clients as they became able to maintain their goals without me, but I truly believe that such honest training actually benefitted both my clients and myself in the long run. And it is a testament to such honest training every time a new client would arrive specifically requesting me as their trainer.
Practice flexing and lift with conscious intent. And if one is working with a trainer, be mindful of what is being taught, and not taught, and whether the exercise selection is done to advance one's goals or confuse and confound. One trains to improve their physique, so be sure that is always the goal.