Continuing from my last article on how to progress body-weight calisthenics strength and muscle building outside of conventional means like increasing reps, increasing volume, and moving to more difficult exercises, I’m taking a look at the Mind-Muscle connection and how we might be able to progress by focusing on it. The Mind-Muscle connection always seemed like a squishy topic to me but the more I read and consume content on building strength and muscle, the more convinced I am that it’s a real thing and can be a critical factor in making progress, particularly once you’ve gotten to a point where conventional progress is slow or stalled. After all, you can’t expect to be adding clean reps to your pull-ups forever. And if you try, at best you will suffer breakdowns in form and technique and at worst you will suffer injury and frustration.
The Mind Muscle connection is fascinating because it may allow us to progress without ever actually adding more numbers. I guess a good way to approach this introduction would be to ask “what the heck can us old people do to get stronger and better and not more injured?” Improving the Mind-Muscle connection might be the answer to that question.
What Is the Mind-Muscle Connection?
According to Men’s Health, “Research shows that focusing intently on the target muscle as you contract it can lead to greater increases in size. Known as “attentional focus” (or more commonly, the “mind-muscle connection”), the simple act of consciously feeling a muscle work through a full range of motion can enhance muscle fiber recruitment and activation. And the more fully and effectively you engage your muscles, the more they’ll grow.” In other words, instead of paying attention to getting the weight up or getting the chin over the bar, pay attention to the muscles that are working to perform that task.
How Do You Improve the Mind-Muscle Connection?
Check out Kyle Boggeman’s video on movement quality for some really good information. Get used to seeing your rep count take a dive. This is a good thing. The more intently you are focusing on the movement, the better your form will be, and the more stimulation your muscles will be receiving, and the fewer reps you will be able to do. Check your ego at the door and “train with your future self in mind”.
I have tried to focus on the Mind-Muscle connection in the video linked below. Here’s what I did: I chose a simplified version of a single exercise in each of the three movement patterns – push, pull and squat. By “simplified” I mean that I modified the movement to remove challenging aspects that do not directly stimulate the target musculature. I used suspension trainers (or you could use gymnastics rings) so I could adjust the height easily. For dips, I kept my knees bent and feet on the ground. That removed quite a bit of body weight and allowed me to focus solely on the pulling muscles. I kept it fairly slow on the positive and slow on the negative, and did not pause or lock out so I could keep constant tension on the muscles. For pull-ups, I did a modified jackknife pull-up with my feet flat on the ground, the legs again limp and not aiding the movement, and pulled slowly through a full range of motion with constant tension. For squats, I grasped a bar to take the pressure off the lower back and ankles, stopped the movement before standing all the way up (to keep the tension on the quads) and imagined driving my heels into the ground and moving the ground away from me instead of standing up.