At any given time, there is an abundance of training “education” and “information” at our fingertips, yet it seems that instead of more knowledge, we end up with more questions.
With the prevalence of polarizing camps, those seeking sound information are left in a perpetual state of ambiguity, spinning their wheels on click-bait, misleading headlines and data.
“Where should I feel these?”
“I feel my glute-focused squats in my quads.”
“I couldn’t feel my glutes working, so I went down in weight for better mind-muscle connection.”
As a coach, I’ve received more renditions of these comments or questions than I care to try and count, but I have enough bumps on my head to deduce that mind-muscle connection is apparently where the buzz is.
Let’s start with what mind-muscle connection is (or ‘mmc’ as I will refer to it moving forward to avoid redundancy):
MMC refers to the relationship between the nervous and muscular systems. Simply put, the sliding scale of mmc is graded on one's ability to generate force in a muscle (or muscle group) by focusing more heavily on internal biofeedback (where and how am I feeling this?) compared to external, proprioceptive feedback (where is my body in space?). The application and relevance of mmc can vary by movement, modality, and even the individual.
Let’s begin with the positive applications.
I believe it is important for EVERY individual to have a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology, what muscles are involved in what movement and how shifting technique, setup and focus can affect the level of their involvement. This is important in both the gym and everyday life.
The phrase “Lift with your legs!” has been echoed ad nauseam to denegrate low-back-emphasized technique. But lifting a box with your legs doesn’t remove your back—it just shifts the focus to more "risk-averse" muscle groups like your glutes and quads. While performing a hinge pattern in a gym setting, you may be cued to think about your glutes or hamstrings doing the work. Again, this doesn’t remove your back from the equation—but it does shift the emphasis and in-turn, drive stimuli to the area of interest while also protecting the more susceptible structures.
In a relatively recent study conducted by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld (2018), the effects of mmc were tested in 30 college-age males over the course of an 8 week training block where only barbell bicep curls and leg extensions were tested and scaled via progressive overload, data showed a significant increase in bicep hypertrophy in the subjects focusing on the internal stimulus (mmc) as opposed to the subjects focusing on the external stimulus (completing the movement). Yet, there was a negligible discrepancy between the groups in quad gains made.
While the bicep growth data is promising, the quadriceps data raises more questions:
Was the pattern incongruent due to movement selection, muscle group or some other unknown?
What we can for sure take from this study, focusing on mind-muscle connection matters A LOT ... sometimes.
It’s important to remember the drivers of hypertrophy—mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress—with there being a plethora of data citing mechanical tension as the big-daddy of the bunch. This poses an interesting cost-benefit prompt. Do we forsake load and intensity for an uptick in mmc? We know that training muscles through a full, controlled ROM near or beyond failure induces growth and strength gains. We also know from both experimental and, likely, anecdotal data that the closer we get to our load/intensity thresholds, the more difficult it becomes to focus on the mmc component of a movement. It’s pretty easy to focus on your glutes and quads working in a squat pattern performed with your 20RM. It becomes increasingly more difficult to focus on the muscles specifically while working with your 8-10RM as your new focus becomes – not dying.
I mentioned earlier that the application of mmc in a given pattern could be dependent on many things from movement type to the individual. Movement selection actually seems pretty obvious once you look at it plainly. For example, focusing on actively contracting your quads as hard as you can with a leg extension machine (single joint pattern) seems to be more practical than thinking about really hard quad contractions while performing a barbell back squat (compound movement) where you have more important “intrinsic” things on your mind like stability and breathing.
The effects of mmc vary based on the individual as well. A person’s ability to generate mmc for a specific area can be dictated by training age and even genetics. Not much can be done about shitty genes, but we can home in on the most beneficial approach depending on where we are in our training careers. While there is merit for late-stage intermediate and advanced lifters to harness mmc to maximize their progress and limit fatigue and injury, for new lifters there is too much risk of getting lost in the weeds trying to “feel” every movement than there are possible advantages. In addition, being a novice lifter sets you up for a shit ton of noob gains just focusing on sound execution and steady progression in load and/or volume.
To summarize, I’m a huge proponent of the pragmatic applications of mmc, both in the realms of hypertrophy and injury prevention/rehab. I’m also a huge proponent of my clients achieving their growth goals. So—at least as it pertains to our main compounds—I’ll always encourage them to not lose sight of the cake for a taste of the icing.
I will happily welcome mmc as an addition to our mechanical tension foundation, but sacrificing the latter for the former is a sure-fire way to get stuck on the treadmill of perpetual mediocrity when it comes to muscular development.