"Put your mind into your muscle" is a common gym adage, but what does it really mean? Recently, I posed that question to five health and fitness professionals. Below, they offer their personal take on this oft-repeated nugget of weight training wisdom.
Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist, physical therapist, and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness:
Research shows that when you think about a muscle, greater muscular activity occurs there. For example, one study looked at how much muscles worked in three conditions: (1) thinking exclusively about the muscles that were working, (2) thinking about the weight that was being lifted, and (3) thinking about whatever the participants wanted. Results showed that there was significantly greater muscle activity in the first condition. And more muscle activity during weight training corresponds to the muscles getting stronger.
Joshua Gould, certified personal trainer and nutrition consultant in Boston:
Let's say you're doing barbell curls to train your biceps. Your brain instinctively wants to concentrate on the weight: "Move this weight up and down." You need to rewire your brain to concentrate on the muscle: "Squeeze and release the biceps." To practice this, imagine flexing in front of a mirror while doing the curls. Using the mind-muscle connection lets you stimulate a muscle effectively with less weight, which spares your joints. It also leads to less cheating - breaking form just to perform an action without engaging your muscles properly. You'll get better results with less risk of injury when you put your mind into it.
Josh Kirk, kinesiologist and owner of a personal training and Pilates studio in Baltimore:
Some movements can be completed by more than one muscle, and your body will tend to use the stronger one. For example, maybe you shove your shoulders up toward your ears during overhead presses, using the trapezius (upper back and neck) muscles instead of the deltoid (shoulder) muscles. To target your weaker deltoids - and get the broad, defined shoulders you want - your brain must shut off the dominant muscles and turn on the weaker ones. The mental focus required to do this not only improves your results, but also helps block distractions, relieve stress, and enhance your relationship with exercise.
Charla McMillian, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in San Francisco:
I recommend a quick mental systems check for each new strength exercise. Ask yourself: (1) Are the right muscles contracting when I execute the motion? (2) Do I feel mild soreness in the muscles (a sign to take it a bit easier on that area)? (3) Do I feel any pain there (a sign to stop)? (4) Do I feel extraneous contractions anywhere else? (5) Am I completing the full range of motion? By being mindful of everything happening inside your body, you'll get much more from your training than you would by just going through the motions.
Lee Igel, PhD, clinical assistant professor of sports management at New York University:
To put your mind into your muscle requires organizing your thoughts and concentrating them on the specific task at hand during a workout. Although this sounds like a simple idea, it's not easy to do because there are plenty of distracting thoughts to get in the way. To minimize the distractions, manage your time so that your workout is a priority, which helps your mind be less agitated about other things you think you should be doing. If you start worrying about how you look at the gym or noticing the person next to you, remind yourself that you're there to maintain and improve your health, not to see and be seen by others.