How Touching Yourself Builds More Muscle
Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated facets of physique enhancement is the sheer number of tools, tricks, and cool little “hacks” you can use to make your training more effective.
I purposefully say “under-appreciated” and not “unknown” or even “under-discussed” because despite all the threads clogging up message boards with blather about rollers, grippers, kettlebells and all the other stuff, how many people are actually taking advantage of these things?
Of course, that question is impossible to actually answer, as we have no real way of quantifying such usage. However, two very obvious points stand out in regard to this topic:
The more advanced—and definitely the elite—lifters of all weight training disciplines use a variety of tools to achieve their strength or physique goals.
This is true of most people who make a living in the fitness industry, and certainly of anyone who competes in any fitness-related endeavor at a high level.
Power lifters use boards to perfect their lockout, chains and bands to train using accommodating and elastic resistance to maximize power output through the entire range of motion.
Serious bodybuilders use straps, belts, wraps and the like to help hoist more weight for a greater number of reps, helping them to have more productive and growth-inducing workouts.
And, on the other hand…
The vast majority of recreational lifters—even those who consider themselves “serious” about their training—tend to shy away from such tools, viewing them as extraneous or unnecessary. More to the point, these tools are considered “too expensive;” an opinion which is not without rationale. After all, if you are not planning on competing in a strongman event, dropping a few hundred dollars on a truck-pulling harness probably sounds like an investment that would be difficult to justify.
Given the two above facts, we see that although elite level lifters use tools to improve already incredible performance, other lifters tend to shy away from such tools and deny themselves access, despite the fact that it would make life more awesome. A solution?
What if I told you there was a tool that, if used properly, could help people of any level to achieve their goals more quickly? That could help increase size, strength, and power and even help you get leaner in the process? You’d probably be pretty interested.
What if I then went on to tell you that this tool, once used properly for a little as two months, would thereafter consistently give you the majority of the benefits of ever having used it? Does that sound like something you might be interested in?
Maybe. But, maybe you’d probably be pretty skeptical.
Well, what if I then told you that this tool was absolutely free of change, and that in fact you already have one in your possession—two even! Does that sounds like something you might be interested in?
You’d probably be pretty annoyed at this point, and tell me to stop with the fucking sales pitch and just get to the damn point.
Well, fine…you don’t have to get all pissy about it.
So, just what magic tool am I babbling about?
What? You’re not impressed!? Are you not entertained? IS THIS NOT WHY YOU ARE HERE?
Well, that’s only because you haven’t yet seen what I can DO with this hand. The ladies know what I’m talkin’ about. (rimshot!)
But we’re talking about building muscle. So, to carry on with that discussion.
More than just a euphemism for eight-grade style hand love, tactile stimulation is a valuable method of muscle recruitment that can help lead to great progress. Simply put, tactile stimulation is essentially a way of activating or focusing a muscle by lightly touching it; primarily to increase mental awareness of that area: the much lauded mind-muscle connection.
Touching a muscle at rest makes you aware of it. As soon as you lay fingers (especially your own, although others work as well) on your skin you immediately become more attentive to that area of your body; your nerve endings become engaged, your muscles more responsive.
Likewise, when you touch a muscle that is flexing or working, the effect becomes even greater. In terms of weight- training, touching the muscle sends a signal to the brain to help preferentially recruit that muscle for the given task; this obviously helps with the performance of an exercise and the results gleaned thereby. Used correctly over time, this will allow you greater overall control of the working of that muscle.
The use of tactile stimulation, about which we will later speak in greater detail, is in large part designed as a facilitator to increase what has been colloquially called “Mind-Muscle Connection.” Before we can discuss the real reasons tactile stimulation is useful, some insight into this mental aspect of things is needed.
I think a good majority of the problem stems from the language we use. The term “lifting weights” is problematic. It puts you in the mindset that your sole job is to hoist the weight. This is true only in the most general sense.
It is not enough to just “lift” weights. In order to achieve greater recruitment of fibers in the muscle you’re trying to work, you should (as a general rule) be consciously trying to flex and squeeze the targeted muscle(s) throughout the entire range of motion. This is something practiced and espoused by bodybuilders, and by those who train them; a good example is my friend Christian Thibaudeau, a high level physique coach who consistently stresses the importance of actively engaging in each exercise by way of flexing.
To illustrate, let us take the example of the bench press. To the uninitiated, the exercise is simply lowering a bar to your chest and then lifting back to the starting position. Of course, experienced lifters know that is not the case. Just as we have the option to change grip width, bar path, and body position to change the degree to which certain muscles are used, we also have the option of using a variety of techniques to get the targeted muscles to work harder.
Stated somewhat more completely, albeit obtusely: to increase the amount of fibers working within that muscle, thereby increasing the amount of work that specific muscle performed.
Staying with the example of the bench press, one trick often used is that of squeezing. That is, actively try to force the hands towards one another on the bar, thereby activating the pecs to a greater degree. There is nothing overtly wrong with this technique; quite the opposite. It is a moderately effective approach and certainly better than just pushing a bar. But it isn’t optimal.
Wouldn’t it better to just, you know…flex?
The problem is, most people can’t “just flex;” at least, not during a lift. Instead, they get exactly as much or as little recruitment as the exercise dictates and their body is inclined to give. These trainees are limited in recruitment potential because they do not have a well-developed connection between their bodies and their mind.
Tactile stimulation is, bar none, the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective way to correct the disconnection, increase muscle recruitment. And, in the end, make you stronger and faster.
Mind-muscle connection in fact has two components: conscious muscle control, and conscious muscle awareness. The line between the two is a tad blurry, but it is there.
Conscious muscle control is being able to recruit/flex/squeeze a muscle at will. This develops over time. CMC is usually easy to develop, and happens fairly organically. Although it’s not quite a linear equation, typically speaking the more time you spend training a muscle the more control you have over it.
So, because most people start out their weight training career by focusing on chest, just about anyone who has been lifting for a few months can consciously flex their pecs. Other muscles are harder to consciously recruit, but more on that later.
Conscious muscle awareness is somewhat harder to define; it’s essentially knowing or feeling which muscles are working in a given exercise; or more specifically, to what degree different muscles are contributing to the lift. The more muscles involved in the lift, the harder it becomes to focus on this. Conscious muscle awareness comes not just from spending a lot of time training, but from spending a lot of time training correctly. There are a lot of longtime lifters with lousy muscle awareness, and it seems to be almost epidemic among newer lifters.
By increasing both aspects of the Mind-Muscle Connection you truly maximize the effects of your workout; and by employing tactile stimulation, you can achieve this in far less time than just waiting around for your brain and muscle to fall in love and live happily ever after.
To help illustrate my point and give you a better understanding of how this all comes together, there is a simple test I normally prescribe.
Close your eyes and flex your chest. Well, don’t actually close them yet, I haven’t finished explaining the test yet. (I am so clever.)
Okay, so, what you are going to do when you finish reading is: close your eyes and flex your chest. As you flex, and without touching it, try to focus on your upper chest. While still flexing, slowly move your upper arm around, trying to find the position that activates the clavicular head of your pectorals to a more intense degree.
Chances are you can get it, but it takes a little doing—not exactly quick and easy. Now the fun part.
Take the first two fingers or your right hand, and gently touch the upper area of your left pec: right where the clavicle says “what’s up” to the sternum. Flex the upper area of that muscle. Once again, move the humerus of your left arm around until you feel hard, dense flexion. Not only will you feel the contraction in your chest, you’ll also have the added benefit of feeling it occur right beneath your fingertips.
If you are doing it correctly, in addition to this two-fold method of increasing awareness, you have the contraction occurring more intensely. You’ll also be able to “find” it faster.
This is valuable for a number of reasons. As mentioned previously, it will allow you to develop mind-muscle connection and use that going forward. In the short term, it also makes your workouts more productive. Finally, it helps you define your perfect range of motion for working a stubborn body part.
If you’ve ever had trouble trying to fix a muscle imbalance, increase the level of isolation in a lift, or even just “feeling it” where you’re supposed to feel it, tactile stimulation is going to blow your mind.
I will use myself as an example, and in particular my back.
For starters, I believe that, generally, most people have lousy mental-muscular awareness in their back. Newer lifters more so, and myself in particular. When I was just starting to train, I must have tried every variation of the bent row, seated row, pull-up, pull-down and pull over known to man, with little to show for it. My arms were growing, my traps were growing, my shoulders got a little thicker. But my back progress was almost non-existent.
One day, I wound up working in with a random guy on the Hammer Strength seated row. This gentleman just happened to be a sort of “hands-on” spotter, so whenever he wasn’t gently applying pressure to the weight stack, he was gently applying pressure to my upper and mid-back. In true bodybuilder form, all the while he was screaming “that’s it, bro, you got it! Squeeze, kid! Nice set, bro!” Although somewhat annoying, it was a pretty good workout.
The next morning, I could barely move. I was sorer in my back than I’d ever been in my entire life. Now, at this point in my training career I wasn’t an idiot, and I know when I’d touched on something important—pun intended.
So for the next few weeks, I did all of my back workouts unilaterally—one hand doing the work, and the other hand stretched across my body holding onto my opposing lat. In three months, my back development took off like I’d never imagined.
By touching my back with one hand, I was making myself aware of how little those muscles were working. And, at first unwittingly and then later extremely consciously, I was learning how to flex and engage the musculature of my back and put it to work the way it was supposed to. Eventually, I was able to flex and recruit those muscles at will; and when I went back to two-armed exercises, the heavier weight this allowed for changed me even further.
All told, in six months my back went from being my worst body part to one of my best. And there is a great lesson here: in order to grow, a muscle needs to do some work—so if you’re using the wrong muscles, you’re selling yourself short.
There are dozens of tools available to make your progress better or faster—everything from Fat Gripz to Prowlers and all kindsa crazy stuff. And all of those things are great—but, they cost money and take a bit of time to master.
Tactile stimulation, on the other hand, is a free, effective, and fast way to ensure that you’re increasing mind-muscle connection…and thereby, your results.
It’s all you, bro.