It’s the third and last set of a client’s glute bridges:
“I still feel it in my quads…”
I shrug and I’ve almost given up. How can a hip dominant movement like this be felt in the quads?
“Let’s try this,” I told her, “let’s focus on using your glutes to lift the weight off the ground, and then focus on the glutes again to lower the barto the ground.”
5, 6, 7, 8… set over.
She looked up at me, “my ass is on fire.”
Background of the Mind-Muscle Connection
The mind muscle connection has been touted by bodybuilders for generations, and this youtube video pretty much sums up the extremely scientific approach bodybuilders take (note sarcasm):
[Favorite part: “You ain’t even worried about breathing correctly!!!”]
The idea of the mind muscle connection is activating the muscle as much as you can by focusing on it INTERNALLY. This has recently been researched and proven in the literature. EMG (muscle activation measure) is higher in the muscle when focused on using it during an exercise compared to when it’s not. And further, it seems as though research supports that focusing internally on specific muscles over the long term will increase their activitation even more- it’s a trainable phenomenon! The research for that article is HERE
However, research over the last decade suggests that external focus is superior to internal focus on performance. External focus on performance is a focus outside of one’s body. An example would be “spreading the floor” on a squat or “driving yourself away from the bar” on a bench press. Internal focus would be to focus on specific actions of the joints and muscles such as “use your butt to glute bridge.”
It seems as though the research is saying two different things…
So, were the bodybuilders right and we should focus on the mind-muscle connection?
The answer is actually both. You see, when you are training properly, there are different qualities that are to be reaped from the program such as muscle growth, strength, power, etc. So, depending upon what you are training for and where you are in the microcycle in your program, you could use either. You could also use both within a program. An example would be doing 2 sets of biceps for 3 sets of 8 as heavy as you can, then on the set 3 you can lighten the load to 60% and internally focus on contracting your bicep to raise and lower the weight.
Use the mind-muscle (internal focus of attention) when you are training for:
-Improving exercise technique
-Increasing muscle activation (where you feel the exercise)
-Increasing hypertrophy (muscle growth)
-Altering compensation patterns (like the example in the beginning of the article)
Use external focus of attention when you are training for:
-Maximum efficiency of given exercise
-Taking a set to failure (i.e. maxing out on number of bicep curls with 35 lbs barbell)
Here’s a sample program for strength as primary goal and hypertrophy as secondary
Warm up: foam roll, mobility, activation, movement preperation
A1. Seated Cable Rows 4 sets of 5 (last set is 8 reps); last set drop to 60% of 8RM and internally focus on the mid back
A2. T-Spine Dips off the Bench
B1. BB Front Squats 4 sets of 4
B2. Push Ups 4 sets of 5 (last set is 8 reps); last set drop to 60% of 8RM and internally focus on the pecs
C1. Planks 2 sets of 40 second hold; focus on bracing and flexing the abs the entire time
C2. EZ Bar Curls 3 sets of 15; use 70% of 15RM and focus on biceps and forearms
C3. Cable Tall Kneeling Pallof Press 2 sets of  5 second holds per side; focus on obliques