You’ve put in countless hours pumping iron over the last couple of years. You’ve made gains, cut down body fat, and feel like a completely new person.
You continue to show up at the gym, work hard, and nail your macros, day in and day out.
Yet, something just isn’t right.
The gains seemed to have slowed or disappeared; you feel stuck.
It happened to me a few years ago. Progress stalled and gains all but disappeared, until one day I read a quote from Arnold himself:
Arnold and the bodybuilders of his time didn’t need PubMed studies that backed up their methods. They went to the gym and focused on one thing: growing as much muscle as possible. Improving the mind-muscle connection was one of the ways to continually do that.
There’s a neat little neurotransmitter in our bodies that stimulates skeletal muscle called acetylcholine. When stimulated, acetylcholine leads to a bunch of fancy processes that control muscle contraction. Acetylcholine is also one of the main contributors to our cognitive abilities like our attention span, memory, and memory recall.
For those unfamiliar with the term, I pity you. Midichlorians are the microscopic life forms that live in the cells of all beings in the Star Wars universe. They’re what allow people to sense “The Force.”
The more acetylcholine we have available, the more attentive our minds can be, and the more powerful a Jedi or Sith you will become.
Put another way, the more attention you pay to the muscle you’re using, the greater your gains will be.
What you want is to walk into the gym like Lord Vader on the Tantive IV and have the path to the rack cleared for you.
Um, guys? There is a Sith Lord here. And he demands your attention.
This is where the mind-muscle connection comes into play.
The more focused and connected you are with the movement of the muscle, the more acetylcholine that will be activated. This means more muscle fibers will be stimulated, which will lead to those fibers being used, broken down, and rebuilt.
But while attention and on its own can help, there are myriad strategies to train your mind-muscle connection.
At the end of the day, improving your mind-muscle connection is like learning any skill, it takes attention to technique, certain strategies, and repetition. In fact, I’ve narrowed it down to 4 main steps, with some bonus tips thrown in.
We may think we have an understanding of the job and function of our major muscles and muscle groups, but often our traditional training methods don’t train muscles through all their main functions. Even as a trainer, I find myself learning more and more about the intricate and often complex roles a muscle performs.
Now, as an exercise nerd (and nerd in general), I know I can go pick up my anatomy textbook for this.
However, I know that this is not as simple (or exciting) for others. So, in the appendices of this article, I’ve included the main functions for all of the major muscle groups in training.
For the sake of explanation, let’s use the biceps as an example because everybody wants to improve their biceps.
If you want to improve the mind-muscle connection of your biceps, you have to learn how to move it into its most contracted position. While you may think this would be the top of a standard bicep curl, that is actually missing the mark on two out of its three main functions.
Elbow flexion is what we normally think of when we think of the biceps. It’s what “curls” our hand closer to our shoulder.
Shoulder flexion is raising your arm like a shoulder front raise. If you combine this shoulder flexion with a curl, you end with a similar position to a typical bro bicep peak pose.
Supination is when you rotate your hand outward. You can remember this by holding your hands out in front of you your hands are a bowl of soup. In this position, Your palms face upward. The more you can rotate outwards like that, the more you’re supinating.
Given that these are the three main functions, the biceps will be in their most shortened, activated position when you combine all three. That brings us to step two.
Once you know all the functions, you have to do all the functions. The best way to do this is to first, find a room where nobody will see you. Maybe a bathroom mirror with the door closed (people might think you’re doing something else in there, but the point stands).
Why somewhere solitary? Because you’re going to look like an idiot.
Once you’ve done that, think about the three functions and perform them one at a time. Flex your elbow, flex your shoulder, and supinate your palm.
If your bicep cramps, you’re doing it right. Congratulations, you’ve just fully contracted your bicep for the first time. Even after just a few seconds, don’t be surprised if they’re sore the next day.
(Note: people with elbow, shoulder, and bicep issues, move into this slowly and carefully. The same goes for learning this with any muscle group. If you’ve had an injury history, tread with extra control.)
As any successful bodybuilder will tell you, daily posing is one of the most important components of a program. Bodybuilders are known to spend hours per day posing, focusing on maximally contracting the muscles in the poses they need to be ready for on stage day. So, feel free to flex in the mirror.
Flexing is one of the best ways to learn how to activate many of your muscles that you claim to be using every day. If you want to take this to the next level, go to YouTube and find some videos on bodybuilding poses and start practicing regularly.
Now, it’s time to incorporate this flexing practice into your workout. When you can activate a muscle just before doing a resistance exercise for it, your muscle will be primed to recruit more of those muscle fibers.
Really feel the muscle fibers move. When you do your set you will feel the difference in the pump and mind-muscle connection.
Yes, you might look stupid, and people may judge you for flexing. But you can either care about what other people think, or you can get bigger biceps. This is also much more effective than sitting on your phone in between sets.
After some time, your mind-muscle connection will no doubt be stronger, and you’ll probably already make some gains without even changing the program. However, you can take this a step further by training the muscle through all of its functions and ranges of motion.
If you want to grow your biceps, make sure within your training week that you have exercises that work the biceps through the full range of motion and through all the functions.
Train shoulder flexion by having some kind of overhead bicep curl with a cable.
Train supination by including curls with a lighter weight where you can focus on rotating the lower arm.
You’ll also want to activate the biceps in their most lengthened position also, where the shoulders are extended, arms pronated, and elbows extended.
From here, you know how resistance training works. Slowly add weight to these new exercises to increasing improve your contractions. In the long-term, following these will be key to muscle growth.
Drop the ego for a week and lower all the weight down to a weight you could comfortably complete 15-20 reps with good form. Now, get into a staring contest with that muscle and focus your eyes on the movement of the muscle. Give it a good squeeze at the top and then continue to focus on the muscles as you go back to the starting position (the eccentric or lowering portion is just as valuable to muscle gain as the lifting portion).
Arnold used it. Famous athletes use it when they act out a play in their minds. You need to use it. Dr. Srinivasan Pillay of the Harvard Medical School in a book titled Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders writes that recent studies have shown that we use the same part of the brain to visualize an action as we do when we perform that action. In your mind visualize each muscle filling with blood as you contract the dumbbell during your curl and then visualize the blood exiting each muscle as you return to the starting position. Scientifically we still don’t fully understand the full power of internal focus, but we know it works.
3. Touch Yourself
That’s right. Touch yourself. But only touch yourself on the muscle you’re trying to activate. Roman has written an entire article about why this is effective.
In the same vein of visualizing, there’s a hack I use in the gym and with clients when it comes to increasing mind-muscle connection. It’s something I’ve employed from my days as an actor. To prevent actors from losing focus on stage, the famous acting practitioner, Uta Hagen, instructed her students to use something she calls a “release object.”
The object could be anything from a piece of paper in the actor’s pocket, to a patch worn on their costume, to a prop or an item that had significant value to their character in the play.
If the actor felt themselves drifting out of focus, they would touch this item reminding themselves of their character or an emotion they need to connect with.
You could use anything from a specific song on your playlist, a mantra you keep on a piece of paper in your pocket, or even take an old T-Shirt and turn it into a cape like I have many of my clients do. For myself, I use a Wolverine wristband.
Try using this in the gym to remind yourself to refocus in order to renew your mind-muscle connection.
By connecting our mind to our muscles and harnessing these modern midichlorians, we can stimulate more of our muscles in order to achieve a greater level of success.
We’ve covered the biceps above. Here are the main functions for all the other major muscle groups:
Triceps are the exact opposite of biceps because they’re antagonists.
To feel this, think about a tricep rope extension except you’re bringing your shoulder behind you and turning the top of your hand inward as much as possible.
This is covered more in-depth with exercise subscriptions in this article.
The pec functions to move the upper arm (humerus) in relation to the shoulder. It does so in three different ways:
To put these together, reach your arm forward, reach it across, rotate it inwards.
Just knowing these, you can see how a barbell bench press, often touted as the king of chest exercises, isn’t really all that effective for two out of three functions because you can’t adduct the arm or internally rotate as you press.
The lats are a huge muscle, and when it comes to training the back, that doesn’t even account for big muscles like the traps.
Luckily, I’ve written a long guide on how to activate the lats.
For the traps, check out this article.
The quads are four rather large and different muscles, but they have two functions in common:
To contract the quads, think about the position at the top of a leg extension machine.
The hamstrings are the biceps of the legs. So, they have three analogous functions as the biceps.
To understand hip extension, check out this article.
Internal rotation is when your femur rotates inwards. If you’re standing on one leg with your knee bent, when you do this your foot will swing out slightly to the side. You can combine these three functions together standing up on one leg, extending your hip, bending your knee, and internally rotating.
If you do this in between sets of deadlifts your hammies will light up.
The glutes are another big, complex muscle group, and glute activation arguably deserves its own article. However, there are a few simple functions:
An easy way to do this is to work on hip extension first, and then practice striding and rotating your leg outward. Glute activation is great to include into your warm-up as it plays a key role in your posture.
Calves are also covered in-depth in another article.