Seven Things to Know About the Mind-Body Connection

We’ve all been there—a million things going on: work deadlines, family responsibilities, chores to do at home, social engagements to attend, and you want, no, need to make time for your workouts.

Besides a hectic schedule that seems to leave little time for your own personal needs, one downside of the demands of modern day-to-day life is that your mind can become preoccupied, which makes it hard to be in the moment and focus on what you’re actually doing. As a result, when you do finally get a chance for a workout, it can be easy to go on autopilot, zone out, and think of all of the things you should be doing instead of focusing on what you’re actually doing when you exercise. Admit it, how many times have you gone through a workout without really paying attention to what you’re doing as you move from machine to machine or move to move? Yes, you are sweating, so you will receive some health benefits, but if you’re not really focused on what you’re doing with each movement, you may not get the results you really want. And when time is such an issue, you want to be sure you’re getting the best results out of every minute you have available to get to the gym.

By now, you have probably heard the phrase “mind-body” thrown around in relation to training, but you may not have thought much about it because you relate it to a yoga class in a studio and not a workout on the gym floor. Here’s an important fact: Your brain is directly connected to your muscles through your body’s nervous system. Any movement, any lift that you do is a chance to enhance your mind-body connection. If you value your precious time and want to make sure you’re getting the most from your workouts, it is important to focus on what your body is doing in each element of your training and be mindful about every single repetition you perform.

Muscles consist of bundles of individual fibers that are activated by a motor neuron—the physical connection between the central nervous system and your muscles. A muscle motor unit is the motor neuron and the attached muscle fibers. Think of a motor unit as a light switch for the muscle; as a muscle is required to generate a force, the motor units will “light up” to stimulate the fibers to produce that force. If you work out with the mindset that every exercise is a chance to strengthen the mind-body connection, you will be surprised at the results.

Check out the seven strategies listed below to help you focus your energy and improve the connection between your brain and muscles every time you train:

1. Remember muscle fibers control physical forces moving through the body.

When muscle fibers shorten, they generate the force required to move or resist force; an example is how your thigh muscles shorten when moving from a seated to standing position. On the other hand, as muscle fibers lengthen, they are controlling and decelerating forces entering the body, like when your thigh muscles lengthen to decelerate the pull of gravity as you lower yourself into a seated position. Understanding what your muscle fibers are doing and focusing feeling the movement though both the lengthening and shortening phases of a movement can help improve the mind-muscle connection.

2. Focus on contracting the involved muscles as hard as you can during the muscle-shortening phase of muscle action as you lift a weight.

Technically speaking, strength is the ability of the muscular system to generate tension to move against an external force; the more you can focus on the specific section of muscle you’re using, the more tension you can generate and the stronger you can become.

3. Push into the floor.

According to the all-or-none theory, a motor unit is either active or inactive. When it is signaled to contract, it activates all of its attached muscle fibers. When performing training drills that place you in direct contact with the floor—such as squats, dead lifts or push-ups—you can enhance muscle motor unit activity by thinking about pushing the floor away from you. This simple action of pushing your feet or hands into the floor can help engage all the involved motor units, leading to a higher level of force output.

4. Use heavier weights.

Muscle fibers work according to the size principle: As a muscle works, it starts by activating the smaller motor units. When they cannot provide the necessary force for a movement, the larger motor units and muscle fibers are recruited to perform the work. The higher-threshold, larger motor units are responsible for muscle growth and definition and are not “turned on” unless a high level of force is needed or the smaller motor units fatigue. Using a heavier weight can help you engage the larger motor units sooner than when using a lighter weight for higher rep ranges. This is why your muscles shake when you try to lift a heavy weight for the first time—muscle motor units not previously used are being turned on and called into action. In addition, using heavy weights really challenges you to focus on what you’re doing, helping to improve your mind-body connection.

5. Improve intramuscular coordination so you can get stronger without an unwanted increase in muscle size.

Many people who lift want larger muscles, but some people are looking only to improve strength or definition without necessarily increasing size. If you’re in the latter group, then it’s good to know that using heavier weights and focusing on the movement of a specific body part can help improve intramuscular coordination, the ability of the fibers in a particular section of muscle to work together to generate a force, which helps you become more efficient at generating strength.

6. Use only one limb at a time.

Split-leg squats, lunges or step-ups use only one leg at a time. One-arm overhead presses with a dumbbell or one-arm chest presses either using a cable machine while standing or a dumbbell while lying on a bench allow you to use only one shoulder and arm at a time. The ability to focus all your energy and strength on only one specific body part can help you recruit more fibers, allowing you to move more weight than when your focus is split between both arms or both legs.

7. Focus on your grip.

It can be easy to let a bar or handle rest on your open palm while you’re pushing, but if you concentrate on squeezing with your grip while you lift, you can engage the muscles of the hand, wrist and forearm, which helps you enhance your mental focus on what you’re doing as you move the weight. This is especially true when using barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells.

Time is one of our most precious commodities. It is something we are not physically capable of producing more of; therefore, we want to make sure we can get the most out of the limited time we have when we’re in the gym. Learning how to implement these strategies can help you improve your mind-body connection so when you’re working out, you can really focus on what you’re doing, which is one of the best ways to help you reach your fitness goals.

Photo Credit: ThinkStock, Dragan Grkic