We’ve all seen “that” guy or gal at the gym, texting between sets on the seated leg press. Or worse, texting while leg pressing. Don’t be that guy.
Why’s this so bad? It’s just multi-tasking, right? As long as they’re moving the weight, it shouldn’t really matter if they’re texting, reading, talking to somebody, or taking a selfie.
Alas, it does matter.
The Importance of the Mind-Muscle Connection
I may be stating the obvious when I say that all movement originates in the mind, but it’s not something that a lot of lifters think about. Before you deadlift a barbell or curl a dumbbell, your mind must signal your muscles to do the work. Your central nervous system fires up, sending impulses to your muscles to move those weights.
In our multi-tasking scenario, the lifter’s mind is obviously still signaling their legs to do work, but by dividing their attention between the exercise and their cell phone, the result they’re getting from the lift isn’t the same.
They may be multi-tasking, but they’re cheating themselves out of results by not focusing all of their attention on what they’re doing.
To prove the importance of the mind-muscle connection, Bret Contreras (famed for building buns of steel for himself and his celebrity clientele) conducted an experiment that showed mentally focusing on certain muscles while performing various exercises actually changed which muscles were recruited. This is huge!
His experiment measured the activity of different muscles during four lower body movements, two types of presses, and two types of pulling movements. You can read more about the study here (http://bit.ly/1TIoR4O), but the gist of it is this: lifters were instructed to focus on a different muscle when performing a certain exercise, and depending on where their focus went, that muscle was activated to a greater degree than the muscles they weren’t focused on. So when the lifters in the experiment concentrated on their glutes during lower body exercises, their glutes contracted more than when they thought about the other muscles involved in the exercise.
Likewise, when lifters focused on either their pecs or on their triceps during a bench press, either their pecs or their triceps were used more for the exact same exercise.
What does this mean for the guy/gal texting while leg pressing?
They probably aren’t recruiting their muscles to a very high degree with each effort, which means they aren’t getting the most out of their workout.
When you’re in the gym lifting weights, your attention should be directed fully on the task at hand. You want to feel the targeted muscles working when you perform an exercise. Connecting mind with muscle will help you get stronger, faster.
How to Improve Your Fitness Focus
To improve your focus at the gym, first eliminate outside distractions. Turn your phone on “do not disturb” or airplane mode. Select a pump-up playlist before you start your workout, and make it a rule that you only skip 1-2 songs at a time (honestly, if you have to skip more tracks than that, your playlist might need an upgrade). Gym time should be the 30-60 minutes per day that you’re focused on YOU – not your notifications.
To improve your mind-muscle connection, consider where your attention goes during the exercise you’re stuck on. Maybe squats suck, so you’re just thinking about getting them over with as quickly as possible. Maybe you’re looking around, hoping the hot guy/girl next to you notices your bicep pump during your last set of curls.
Instead, try to focus that attention back on your exercise and on the muscles you’re targeting. You’ll get a lot more out of the exercise, and the co-eds at the gym will definitely notice your improved strength and appearance.
Two tricks can help you improve your mind-muscle connection if you’re still stuck.
First, think of external cues. Instead of telling yourself to push your knees out during a squat, think “knees to the walls.” Our bodies respond much more naturally to external cues because these cues allow us to get out of our own heads.
Second, touch the muscle that you’re trying to work. Don’t worry about looking like a weirdo – no one is paying attention to you while they’re working out anyway. You’ll obviously need to perform a unilateral (one-sided) exercise so that you have a free hand to touch your muscle, so this works will with machine and cable pulley exercises. If you struggle with recruiting your lats during pulldowns, for instance, set up a double pulley and grab only one handle. Use your free hand to gently touch your lats on the working side. The proprioception from your free hand will help you activate that muscle more easily.
When you’re able to focus on the muscles and the movements in your workouts, you’ll gain strength, build muscle, and improve your athletic performance much faster.
That’s because there’s a major difference between working up a sweat at the gym and actually training. Most people just show up and go through the motions. Not you. You’re smarter than that.
Use the tips in this article to find your focus so you get better results for your hard work!