The Mind-Muscle Connection
The Mind-Muscle what?
Yep. The Mind-Muscle connection. It's a real thing. And it's the biggest thing you can do to both exponentially increase your gains and reduce injuries!
If you want to read a whole bunch of science about acetylcholine, neuromuscular junctions, and synapses ... then go here.
If you want the non-science version, read on!
Picture these scenarios in your head:
A) You do a workout with a whole bunch of squats. What muscles are sore? Is it your quads (front of your leg) or your hamstrings and butt (back side)?
B) You do a bunch of pullups or ring rows. What is more sore, your biceps or your back?
C) You do a bunch of bench press. What is more sore, your arms or your chest?
These are three common scenarios where we often seen a lack of mind-muscle connections.
A) Squats: It is very common for athletes to rely on their quads and ignore their hamstrings and glutes. This is typically due to our nature to sit down a lot during the day, which shuts off the glutes. So then when you go to squat, your glutes are inaccessable, and you rely on your quads. You do the movement, full range of motion, going from bottom to top, but you rely on the wrongs muscles. You've probably heard a coach say things like "stay on your heels" and "squeeze your butt!" ... but have you established the mind-muscle connection?
B) Pullups: Very common to rely on the biceps than back muscles because again, our backs are typically very weak compared to our biceps, so the body uses what is stronger. This does not mean it is the best way though! You need to tell your body which muscles to use, even though it may mean the exercise temporarily becomes harder (because you start using an underdeveloped muscle) but over time will become stronger and easier.
C) Bench: This is very similar to squats. You can do bench press using just your arms. You'll be more effective and powerful though when you learn to engage your pecs. You must THINK about squeezing your chest as you push that bar up!
Ok, that was a lot of information. Here's what to do with it:
Reassess your movement. Next time you do squats, go slow, and think, "Am I using my glutes?" You should be able to FEEL them engage and work.
If the answer is no, then try more warmup to get them firing. Then reassess.
If more warmup does not help, you may benefit from doing specific strength training for the target muscles. This is the perfect time to grab a coach and book a 30 minute personal training session so they can teach you how to do the accessory movements correctly and ensure the right muscles are working.
Once you feel the muscles working the way they should, you are going to have to keep it light and "re-learn" to lift heavier weights.
For the longest time (years) I would do thrusters by using mostly my quads. I thought I was doing them to the best of my ability because I was putting up heavy weight and going fast.
But one day I was watching the CrossFit Games, and I noticed how they did their thrusters. They did not go all the way down to the bottom of the squat, they stopped right below parallel. They of course are stronger and faster than me.
So next time thrusters came up, I tried their version.
I could NOT do it. I could NOT stop right below parallel with 95lbs on the bar.
This caused me to realize my glutes were not engaging properly. So I did more warmup, I did glute specific strength training, and I reassessed.
I put 95lb on the bar and tried the new form of thrusters.
STILL COULDNT DO IT!
I stripped the bar so it was just 45lb. Tried again.
GOT IT! I was able to do the new form. Glutes were working. EXCELLENT!
Excited I put more weight on now that it "clicked", and tried at 95lb again.
COULDN'T DO IT!
Back to 65lbs and I had it again.
What does this mean? I had to re-learn thrusters. I did them before, and did them "well", but was missing the mind-muscle connection with the glutes. Now that I established that connection though, I had to drop-weight and re-learn thruster technique and re-train the hips. Slowly but surely, the weight is coming up, and I'm more powerful than ever. [If I had learned this years ago, I can only imagine how strong I would be now!]
What is the overarching theme here?
Be mindful of how you are doing the exercise. Just because you can use a certain weight does not mean it is right. If you continue to use the wrong muscles, you either risk injury, or your peers surpassing you in athleticism and gains if they are using the right muscle connections. This requires "leaving the ego at the door" and doing the weight that is right for you, not what will get you high on the scoreboard.