ATTENTION: the following mind muscle connection article is for bodybuilders and other physique athletes looking to build muscle. Athletes training for specific sports or for function may not find it as useful. However the techniques listed can be used in phases where hypertrophy is the goal.
There are many factors that determine how easily (or not) someone is able to gain muscle. Genetics are the biggest factor and this include things like hormone levels, receptors, type of muscle fibers, myostatin levels, ability to absorb nutrients, protein synthesis rates, etc. The other factors related to optimal muscle growth are more easily manipulated: diet, supplementation, training, determination, consistency, etc. There’s another factor that I think plays a major role in muscle growth that may be genetic, but I believe can also be learned. It is called the “mind-muscle connection” (from here-on referred to as MMC). Arnold called it, “the pump.”
Everyone has their favorite to train…
Ever notice how bodybuilders often have one body part that is much better than the rest? Freaky biceps or giant quads. Ask the bodybuilder what his favorite body part to train is and invariably he’ll say “biceps” or, in the other example, “quads”. Why is this? I’ll venture it’s not always been their best body part. When they began training all of their muscles started small. It’s their favorite to train because it’s the one they can “feel” the most when training and thusly has reacted best. It’s the body part they get pumped in a few sets and becomes their best body part as a result.
The very best bodybuilders tend to have better MMCs with a number of body parts instead of just one or two. The worst bodybuilders couldn’t achieve a pump if their lives depended on it. Most of us lie somewhere in the middle. Some days we’ll have phenomenal workouts, while other times we’ll walk out of the gym having only “gone through the motions”. So the question isn’t “why oh why wasn’t I blessed with this MMC stuff?”. But rather “how can I learn to enhance this ability that we all have?” And I believe we all have the ability, some of us just need to learn it.
This is where the lesson begins…
Far too often, and I’m guilty of it too, we forget that our main purpose (as bodybuilders) in the gym is to build muscle. Whether it be our egos or competition with others (or ourselves), we start lifting weights just to lift them. The quality of the rep is reduced to getting the weight from point A to B, regardless of form.
Tip 1 – slow it down. The first step in reaching optimal MMC, which produces the best muscle stimulation (one of the keys to muscle growth), is to feel the muscle working. Training slowly, at least initially, will force you to focus on the muscle you are training instead of relying on ancillary muscles to do the work.
Tip 2 – touch it. Touching the muscle you are training can help establish a better MMC. On some exercises like leg extensions and concentration curls you can touch the muscle yourself. In other exercises like dumbbell presses or rows, you can use a partner to gently touch the muscle group you are trying to activate.
Tip 3 – increase the reps. Unless you have an advanced MMC, training with reps below 12 may make it difficult to truly “feel” the muscle being worked. Begin training in the 12-15 reps range and really feel the burn in the muscle you are targeting. From my experience, most people will achieve better muscle growth in this rep range rather than six-eight.. There is nothing to say that once you’ve cultivated your MMC you can’t lower your reps, as long as you are still able to maintain it.
Tip 4 – focus on isolation and form. I don’t believe that old adage that “compound exercises build mass while isolation exercises tone and shape”. It’s a ridiculous notion (to me) that doing a barbell curl versus a dumbbell concentration curl is better for building the biceps. I would argue that the exact opposite is true. It is very easy to involve other muscle groups when performing a barbell curl. With a concentration curl, when performed properly, the only muscle group working is the bicep which is exactly what we want!
Tip 5 – utilize supplements. Taking a good pre-workout supplement can help with two main things. The first is focus. Most pre-workouts have a hefty dose of stimulants which not only help ramp up energy, but also help enhance focus. The trick is finding the pre-workout that works best for you. I switch between Kamikaze and Warfare (by my company Advanced Genetics). I find they both deliver the perfect amount of stimulant to give me sniper-like focus. Pre-workouts like these often have a nitric oxide component which will enhance the pump you are trying to achieve. Ingredients like l-citrulline, agmatine and arginine. More muscle pump makes achieving MMC that much easier. Creatine, like that found in GP3 EVO, can also contribute to cell volumization, which leads to better pumps. Making sure that your muscle has sufficient glycogen to train is also key. Supplementing with free form essential amino acids and a quick digesting carbohydrate before, during and after training (Battle Juice) ensures peformance and recovery. Muscles with no fuel can’t function properly, let alone get pumped up. Glycogen also binds to water further enhancing the cell volumization effect.
And there’s more…
Remember, we’re training for muscle growth and not maximal strength. When training for strength, using compound movements and trying to recruit as many different muscles at the same time makes perfect sense. This also makes sense if you are training for “functional” strength for a specific sport. When training for this purpose, the idea is to move weight with the least amount of muscle recruitment – instead technique and advanced motor skills become the main source of power and leverage.
That is not to say we should throw all compound movements to the curb. Instead, use the tips above to minimize the involvement of other muscle groups. Make alterations in technique to ensure only the muscle being trained is working. For example, for the bench press, the movement will be down to a full stretch and then up about until your elbow angle is just past 90 degrees. Anything beyond this and the shoulders and triceps are recruited. For close-grip bench for triceps, the range is at the other end: full extension to lock-out and lowered only to that “just short of 90 degree angle”.
When our main purpose is building muscle we have to make sure everything is just right. Our diet has to be on point, our training needs to be perfect and we have to make the most of what we’ve got to work with. It’s true that some bodybuilders are born with genetic make-up for building muscle mass and can make great gains no matter what they eat or how they train. The majority of us have to slow it down, focus, and use supplements to get the results we want. I believe that by focusing on achieving perfect mind muscle connection that you will start making progress again and finally get the “pump” Arnold was so fond of…every single workout.