The mind & body connection, also known as an attentional focus, is a pretty important concept when it comes to our motor learning skills. The connection is referring to what an individual thinks about when performing a given movement or activity.
We see the mind & body connection most often being demonstrated in physical therapy environments because when we’re injured, we need to retrain the mind to work with the body in order to build strength back up, increase flexibility and improve mobility in our bones, joints, and muscles. Essentially what you’re doing is reminding those muscles how to work properly.
There are typically two types of focus when referring to exercise; internal and external focus. With an internal focus, the individual thinks about bodily movements during a performance such as squeezing the glutes at the top of a hip thrust or hinging back at the hips during a squat.
With an external focus, the individual shifts their attention to their environment instead. So during that same squat, the individual may be focusing on driving the floor away from their body when coming out of the hole of a squat.
Both are correct cues, just different.
“...when the goal is to maximize hypertrophy, indirect evidence suggests that an internal focus may be the best approach.” - Bret Contrares
This makes sense why bodybuilders have long preached the importance of developing a “mind-muscle connection” when training. This internally focused strategy involves visualizing the target muscle and consciously directing neural drive to the muscle during a specific exercise.
Now that we know and understand what the mind & body connection is and have proof that it actually works, what are some ways we can implement it during our own workouts? I list a few below.
Before you workout, WARM UP!
Specifically, warm up the muscle group you intend to work on during your workout. This will ensure blood flow gets to the area so the neural drive is a likely outcome. Don’t jump into your set and start loading weight to the bar either- start with lighter weights and gradually increase weights with each warm-up set. Try these dynamic warm-ups HERE.
Visualize the muscle group you’re trying to focus on the entire time. The brain sends direct signals to the muscles so whatever you choose to focus your attention to, the more blood flow and stimulation that area will receive.
Breathing is an important part of maintaining the mind/body connection so making sure it’s cohesive with the movement pattern is important.
For example, you want to focus on your glutes in a squat- cool. So what you would do is take a deep breathe in (filling your lungs up with air) and brace your core. Before you start to descend down into a squat, take that big breathe in and hold your breathe on the way down until you reach the bottom of the squat. From the bottom of the squat, exhale HARD while driving out of the hole. Make sure to focus on your glutes and visualize them as you find your way back to the top of the squat in order to reset and do it all over again.
Once you’re able to make a conscious shift in the mind & body connection during your workouts, you’ll find that you will be challenged in new ways without changing anything in the program itself. Adjusting and perfecting this technique takes time. Keep practice your visualizing and breathing. Your workouts will feel extremely different and challenging in ways you never knew possible.