The Mind-muscle connection: expert secrets to ultimate gainz

What exactly IS the Mind-Muscle Connection? What does it mean?

Before diving too deep into the mind-muscle connection, there are some definitions that need to be addressed including internal attentional focus and external attentional focus

The mind-muscle connection is also known as a type of internal attentional focus, which means that the focus of attention is shifted inside of the body as opposed to outside of the body. The mind-muscle connection occurs when someone thinks about contracting the target muscle and actively focuses on feeling it throughout the full range of motion of the exercise. This phenomenon has been used by bodybuilders since the beginning of time and they have sworn by its effectiveness at achieving better muscle gains.

On the other hand, external attentional focus is a shift of focus to things in the environment or outside of the body. Some examples of external focus include attention to things like a weight being lifted (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc.), the ground, the desired trajectory of throwing a ball, or another performance outcome. 

The way an athlete executes a squat can involve either internal focus or external focus. The internal focus would require the athlete to concentrate on activating and feeling the muscles used in the squat. An example of external focus would be to have the athlete think about pushing the earth away during the concentric phase of the lift. 

It should be noted that the MMC will work much better when applied to single-joint exercises (Bicep Curls, Tricep Extensions, Seated Leg Curls, Seated Leg Extensions) as opposed to multi-joint exercises or compound lifts (Squats, Cleans, Jerks, Bench Press, Deadlifts, etc.). Compound lifts involve several muscle groups and it can be difficult to put much focus into so many different areas of the body. Single-joint lifts allow you to isolate a specific muscle group and put a ton of focus into it, yielding much more activation than if you were to divide your attention between additional muscle groups.

Is the Mind-Muscle Connection real? Is it backed by science? Or is it all in a person’s head?

Some fitness enthusiasts may be skeptical about the mind-muscle connection and think that it is just broscience quackery, but this is not the case. There is a good amount of research that backs up the efficacy of the mind-muscle connection for increasing muscle activation, promoting hypertrophy (muscle growth), improving strength, sports performance enhancement, and motor skill acquisition (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2016). However, it is important to know whether to apply internal or external attentional focus to achieve your desired results. If muscle growth or muscle activation is the goal, then an internal focus of attention should be used to optimize results (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2016; Schoenfeld et al., 2018). If max strength, sports performance enhancement, or motor skill acquisition are the goal, then an external focus of attention should be used (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2016; Marchant & Greig, 2017).

A recent study conducted by Schoenfeld (2018) compared the effects of applying an internal focus of attention versus an external focus of attention during resistance training on muscle adaptations such as hypertrophy and strength. The study included 30 untrained college-aged men who were randomly assigned to either an internal focus group (they focused on squeezing the target muscle during the exercise) or an external focus group (they concentrated on “getting the weight up”). The resistance training program was implemented 3 times a week on non-consecutive days for a duration of 8 weeks. The exercises performed were the standing barbell curl and seated leg extension and subjects completed 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions for each exercise. All sets were carried out to muscle failure, which was defined as the inability to do another repetition with proper form. This study found that the internal focus group demonstrated significantly greater muscle growth (almost doubled-12.4% vs 6.9%) in the elbow flexors (biceps, brachioradialis, brachialis) compared to the external focus group, but there was no significant difference in quadriceps muscle growth between the internal and external focus groups. Another interesting finding was that the internal focus group demonstrated significantly greater isometric strength increases in the elbow flexors compared to the external focus group, whereas knee extensor strength was significantly greater for subjects in the external focus group. The major finding in this study was that the internal focus of attention resulted in greater muscle growth of the biceps compared to the external focus of attention. This study confirms that the bodybuilders have been right all along, the mind-muscle connection can enhance muscle growth.

While this study presented an interesting finding, it also raises a thought-provoking question. Why did the attentional focus strategy make a difference in upper-body hypertrophy but not lower-body hypertrophy? 

The exact mechanisms as to why this occurred are not currently known. Though, it is speculated that the subjects in the study felt that it was easier to concentrate on the biceps versus the quads. This speculation can be explained by basic principles of motor control. The upper body involves greater use of fine motor skills (writing, tying a shoe, typing) compared to the lower body which is associated with more gross motor patterns (larger movements like standing up and sitting down, walking). Another explanation is that this study involved untrained subjects vs. trained subjects. Trainees with resistance training experience could have a greater ability to focus on lower-body musculature and thus may achieve greater hypertrophy outcomes.

What happens chemically inside the body when the mind/muscles are connected?

When the mind and muscles are connected, molecular signaling for the three major mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy, which include mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage, are increased, thus contributing to greater muscle growth adaptation (Schoenfeld & Contreras, 2016). To illustrate this at a deeper level, the brain uses a chemical neurotransmitter called acetylcholine to communicate with the muscles. This chemical is released into the neuromuscular junction, which is a small space between a nerve and a muscle fiber. Once acetylcholine is released into the neuromuscular junction, the nerves can tell the muscles to turn on, so to speak. An easy way to understand this is to imagine acetylcholine as a translator and the muscles and nerves wanting to communicate but speak different languages. Acetylcholine helps facilitate communication between the muscles and the nerves, which allows the muscle to activate. The better the communication between the nerves and muscles, the more muscle fibers that will be recruited, thus resulting in an improved muscular contraction.

Does the Mind-Muscle Connection Benefit Everyone?

The mind-muscle connection can benefit people from all walks of life as long as the correct application of internal focus or external focus is used. As mentioned previously, individuals who wish to enhance muscle growth or increase muscle activation should implement an internal focus strategy of mind-muscle connection. Bodybuilders, physique-focused individuals, or people wanting to put on muscle mass will greatly benefit from concentrating on the target muscle being used during an exercise as opposed to focusing on the environment or performance outcomes. 

On the other hand, people who want to increase maximum strength, boost sports performance outcomes, or who wish to learn/re-learn a motor skill should adopt an external focus strategy of the mind-muscle connection. Most athletes that are involved in competitive sports will benefit from an external attentional focus. Examples of such athletes include football players who want to jump higher or run faster; runners aiming to improve running economy, strongmen competitors wanting to increase 1 rep max or maximize force production; and golfers who wish to improve accuracy. 

Even sedentary people or people who are immobilized due to paralysis or needing to wear a cast can benefit from using the mind-muscle connection. In fact, the act of consciously thinking about moving and engaging a target muscle can strengthen a muscle with no exercise at all. One study had the participants wrap their wrists in surgical casts for a duration of four weeks (Clark et al., 2014). One half of the participants were instructed to imagine flexing their wrist for 11 minutes per day, five times a week. The other half was told to do nothing. Once the casts were removed, researchers discovered that the group who imagined flexing their wrist muscles had double the strength of the wrist muscles compared to the control group (Clark et al., 2014). Depending on what the sedentary or immobile person wishes to improve, adding either an internal or external focus of attention to their training regimen can yield better results than training without intent.

What is the Difference Between the Mind-Muscle Connection and Visualization?

There is a lot of overlap between visualization and mind-muscle connection, though they are not one in the same.Visualization, also known as imagery in the sports science world, overlaps with the mind-muscle connection in the sense that you can visualize growing bigger biceps while exercising (internal focus) or you can visualize a basketball going into a hoop (external focus). In fact, there is a wealth of research that suggests imagery is a very useful tool for sports performance enhancement and rehabilitation. However, visualization can also include things like pictures or scenarios such as a mental image of a dog, going on a rollercoaster ride or winning a million dollars. The mind-muscle connection is a very specific type of visualization and requires an individual to feel and “experience” what they are focusing on. Visualization does not require a person to tap into the feel or the experience.

What Are Some Ways Athletes and Fitness Enthusiasts Can Use the MMC to Their Advantage? How Does it Improve Their Strength, Agility, Flexibility/Mobility, Focus, Intensity, Expended Effort, Etc.?

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike can utilize the mind-muscle connection to train intelligently and maximize their results. All aspects of performance (strength, agility, flexibility/mobility, focus, intensity, etc.) can be improved by applying the correct attentional focus strategy. Training with intent will result in greater training outcomes as opposed to just going through the motions.

What Steps Should One Take to Better Access Their Own Mind-Muscle Connection?

  • Begin with a single-joint exercise such as a bicep curl or a leg extension. This can help you identify exactly which muscle is being targeted and what to focus on. Multi-joint exercises can be more difficult to apply the mind-muscle connection to because more muscles are involved. 
  • Start with a light load and get a feel for the muscle you are targeting. While you are completing the reps, focus on engaging the target muscle while you are raising and lowering the weight, squeeze the muscle hard at the top of the lift, and emphasize the stretch at the bottom of the lift.
  • Move slowly and make sure you are going through the full range of motion of the exercise.
  • Put your full attention towards the exercise you are working on. Limit your distractions and really concentrate on getting as much activation out of the muscle as you can.

7 Tips to Help Connect Your Brain to Your Muscle and Maximize Gainz

  1. Mind and Muscle Over Matter: Don’t worry about pushing a ton of weight when trying to implement the mind-muscle connection. This technique is meant to be used with lower loads (up to about 60% of your 1 RM) and moderate-higher reps (12-20). If you go too heavy, you will automatically shift the attention of focus from internal to external and not reap the muscle growing benefits of the mind-muscle connection. 
  2. Warm-up Sets: Warm-up with a very light weight (around 20 RM) and focus on feeling/squeezing the target muscle as you raise and lower the weight and pause at the top of the rep, squeezing the muscle as hard as you can. 
  3. Form is Key: Make sure you are using perfect form. If sloppy form is used, the amount of attention going towards the target muscle will be reduced as other muscles will be picking up the slack. Proper form will ensure that you are getting the most out of your reps for muscle growth. 
  4. Pay Attention to Tension: As you are exercising, pay attention to the tension on the muscles and try to maximize it as you are raising AND lowering the weight. It is easy to forget to engage the target muscle during the lowering phase, but this is a critical part of the lift!
  5. Full Range of Motion: Focus on moving through the full range of motion of the joint during the exercise that you are working on. This will allow the muscle to experience mechanical tension throughout its full range of motion and can yield better results.
  6. No Distractions: Make sure you are completely focused on the task at hand. Put your cellphone away, pause the music, and put all of your concentration into the mind-muscle connection while you are exercising.
  7. Flex Between Sets: Flex the target muscle in between sets. This can help improve the mind-muscle connection and allows you to sneak a little more volume into your workout. You could even flex while sitting on the couch at home on rest day! Remember, the more you flex the mind-muscle connection, the stronger it will be!


Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E.,Brandt, M., Jay, K.,…Andersen, L. L. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(3), 527–533.

Clark, B.C. et al. (2014). The power of the mind: The cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness. Journal of Neurophysiology, 112, 12, 3219-3226.

Schoenfeld, et al.(2018) Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science 18(5):1-8. 

Schoenfeld, B. J., & Contreras, B. (2016). Attentional focus for maximizing muscle development: The mind-muscle connection. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(1), 27–29.

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