By Jason Fowlks, PFT, PNC, NPC Bodybuilder
We all enter the gym ready and willing to do what we’re supposed to do to make improvements to our bodies and/or athletic performance. We snap our “check-in selfies” (no, not me), blast our music, set up our video cameras (no, not me either); we chalk up, wrap up, strap up, grunt, yell and attack the iron with all our might. We have the physical aspect down to a science. However, the MENTAL approach to training is just as important, if not more important than the physical one. In bodybuilding, there’s a term we use to describe the relationship between the brain and the body… the Mind/Muscle Connection (MMC).
MMC is another way to describe a conscious and deliberate controlled muscular contraction and/or elongation. It refers to the act of activating, or engaging a specific muscle or muscle group to resist a load, and NOT just “moving the weight”. Most of us acquire this skill over some time in the gym. This is why you can ask a beginner lifter to flare their lats and they look at you like “wtf?” while a seasoned veteran of the lifting game will usually be able to deliberately control each segment of fibers that make up those same muscles and fully “spread their wings.”
During weight training, the MMC is, in my opinion, the most underrated and neglected aspect of most people’s ability to make progress. This is because in most people’s minds, they begin to associate being able to “move more weight” with a progression in strength and/or growth, often at the expense of proper form and MMC. In other words, their EGO starts to take over their training. However, these people usually find out the hard way the importance of (one of my favorite phrases) “QUALITY OVER QUANTITY”. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t occur until after a few torn muscles, degenerated cartilage and connective tissue, and damaged joints, instead of the “gains” in strength and growth they thought they’d get.
We’ve all seen the guy in the gym with a Herculean load on the curl bar, swinging it up and down, rocking his torso back and forth, and working more of his front delts because he’s pivoting at the shoulder joint. Looks impressive to most people, but to those of us educated in exercise bio-mechanics and kinesiology, this is known as “gravitational resistance through oscillatory acceleration,” or quite simply “wasted energy”. I want so badly to help the person, but I usually just let them do what they do and mind my own business because God forbid I try to advise them on how they could be getting a much better bicep workout. I’ve learned that most people nowadays are just too “unapproachable” and/or “un-coachable.”
How about the guy in the squat rack, using more of his lower back to “uncurl himself” in order to complete the exercise? It makes me cringe, and sometimes I just have to turn away so I don’t have to witness him ruin his lower back. Hey, for all I know, maybe he’s trying to get a lower back workout too (lol). What he fails to realize is that his quads/glutes/hips/hamstrings engaging in proper unison are WAY stronger than his lower back muscles could ever be, and I’m pretty sure that those are the intended target muscles during squats anyway.
Or how about the guy on the bench, bouncing the bar off his poor sternum completely ignoring any eccentric (negative) contraction, then completing 3/4 of the concentric movement, and wondering why his chest won’t grow or get stronger?
In each of these cases, there seems to be a serious lack of MMC somewhere. As an experienced fitness coach, competitive bodybuilder, and former powerlifter, the first important lesson I try to teach people is how to control the intended target muscles before even picking up a weight. Once a person can consciously learn to engage an individual muscle or muscle group through flexion and extension (MMC), they can better and more quickly learn to perform a resistance exercise with much more efficiency, better form, and faster results. Similarly, when we stage competitors are practicing our posing for the day of the show, we are ultimately practicing our MMC through controlled, maximum isometric (stationary) contractions, symmetrical from top to bottom, side to side, front to back, without using weights or looking in a mirror. Sounds and looks easy, but those who’ve done this will tell you that simultaneously squeezing every muscle in the body with full contractions for minutes at a time, and making it look easy (usually while in a nutritionally- depleted state) is a hell of a workout in and of itself, with barely any movement, and no weights!
So no matter who you are or what your level of training is, I cannot stress enough the importance of proper fundamentals. Whether you’re using 5 or 500lbs, remember, YOU control the weights, don’t let THEM control you! Next time you’re in the gym, remember to take the proper mental approach to your training. Check the ego at the door and try to establish a good Mind/Muscle Connection with each movement performed in order to maximize your energy output and muscle fiber recruitment. You still want to work HARDER, but you also want to work SMARTER, and for LONGER. Just remember: Quality Over Quantity. Now let’s get to work!