Creating a mind-muscle connection
Say what? A mind-muscle connection? Move the damn weight! Yeah, kind of. But, if you really want to improve, let's take a look at this, as lots of people miss out this important aspect in the gym.
A mind-muscle connection does exactly what it says on the tin. Your mind is connected to your muscles, and you want that connection to be strong. Instead of just going through the motions, you very deliberately lift the weight, concentrating on the muscles you are wanting to use.The stronger the connection, the better you can ask that muscle to help out in whatever movement it is your doing. I've touched on this subject in previous blogs, but let's delve a bit deeper into it.
Less mirrors/no mirrors. Look at one of the latest trends; Crossfit. For everything Crossfit has been denounced for, it has been fantastic for other things. One thing in particular that you may not have noticed is, no Crossfit 'box' (gym, to us non-crossfitters) has any mirrors. Without a mirror, there are no distractions (and no posers flexing and taking pictures, although that's not guaranteed). Without a mirror, you HAVE to build a mind-muscle connection, you have no choice. Given the right cues, you will find the correct position for whatever exercise it is you're doing. You'll then be 'feeling' for that position, rather than looking. A much better method of getting that position. Too often people rely on mirrors for their squat depth, for their bent over row position, for whatever it is. Take away that mirror and their form goes to pot, for the most part, and that's because they haven't been developing that mind-muscle connection.
So I'm now never ever ever going to use a mirror! Whoa, whoa... Look, if you NEED a mirror, then use it. What I'm saying is, try not to rely on it. Eventually get to a point where you are pretty confident without one, where you don't need one, and you know and can feel your movement is correct. Don't go rushing in, not using a mirror, not having any feedback from anything else (see here for methods on exercise feedback and why you need it) and then injuring yourself. Have some smarts about how and when you use mirrors and don't use mirrors.
Using that mind-muscle connection. So, actually using this mind-muscle connection is tricky. You may not be able to get with it for quite some time. For example, when people first start squatting, the last thing they will be able to think about is further engaging their glutes. When they finally are able to concentrate on that, rather than just thinking of the squat in it's entirety, even then they may not feel they are able to actively engage them (trust me, they are active, I'm talking further activation). So, next time you are squatting, try to 'feel' out your glutes... No, not like that. Try to see if you are able to think of actively squeezing your glutes as you squat.
Using the squat as an example makes no sense to me, I can't even feel it in my glutes anyway! With some people, especially those with longer femurs in proportion to the rest of their body, they may find a lot of the work going through their lower back. This is due to their mechanics, and it's just simply because of how they squat and how their body is built. This whole mind-muscle connection work could help them use their glutes to really assist their back in their lift, it'll take time to develop, maybe longer for these individuals.
Isolate the muscle you can't connect with as much as possible, this will make it easier to create a mind-muscle connection. A bicep curl is a perfect example. Most people (normally men who love a good pose) will have an already great mind-muscle connection with their biceps, it's easy to see and easy to isolate. It's just not as easy with muscle groups like the glutes. But, let's try to use some activation exercises in the warm up before a squat session to help you feel your glutes (we'll carry on with this squat example seeing as we've started it). There are a plethora of examples, but these are some of my favourites: hip thrusts, kettlebell swings, pull throughs, monster walks, or Bulgarian lunges. This is why a warm up is important.
Squats' only mind-muscle connection to build are the glutes then? I've gone off on one about glutes and squats, I need to reel it back. That's just one example of an exercise, and one example of a particular muscle used during the squat. Whichever muscles are being used in whatever exercise you're looking at, you want to have a good mind-muscle connection with every muscle used in the movement, which is going to be a lot of muscles, with a lot of examples.
At the end of the day, get a good mind-muscle connection with all of your muscles. In particular, muscles you don't typically feel like you are able to engage when they should be engaging. Try to get muscles you can't feel so much in a compound movement warm, active and ready, and you'll improve on the movement when you come round to it.
What about other exercises? Another good example is that most people don't have a very good mind-muscle connection with their upper back. During a bench press for example, it's advisable you try to use your rhomboids and latissimus dorsi to squeeze your shoulder blades together and down your body. This helps control the bar, especially on the descent. To do that, whilst lowering a heavy weight, with the intention to push it away after, is a big test of a mind-muscle connection with the upper back. This is because these muscles are only supporting in the bench press, they are not the 'working' muscles. As most of us know, the bench press is working the chest, as well as the anterior deltoids and the triceps. Hence why it can be challenging squeezing the shoulders back and down at the same time as pressing, unless of course you have a good mind-muscle connection.
Create that connection, whether it be through lack of mirrors, using mental/verbal cues, utilising activation exercises, isolating muscles, or combining all these methods.
Think I've written the phrase mind-muscle connection enough for now.
Thanks for reading!