When you work out, do you concentrate fully on each move, or do you chat with your workout buddy, ogle the cute guy on the next machine, or think about what you're going to have for dinner? C'mon, admit it...many of us don't pay attention when we exercise.
Big mistake. Focusing on the muscle you're working is called making a mind-to-muscle connection, and it can boost the results of any exercise. "You can improve the quality of your workout by at least 25 percent by developing a mind-to-muscle connection," says Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS, PT and author of The 28 Day Body Shapeover.
The mind-to-muscle connection is scientifically called neuromuscular communication, neuromuscular control or neuromuscular concentration, says Jessica M. Bottesch, MA, LAT, CSCS and co-owner of Empower Personal Training in Durham, NC. "The concept is basically that you can develop great mind-muscle control by moving very slowly throughout both phases of a repetition while focusing your contraction on the working muscle group," she explains.
So, for example, when you do a lat pulldown, you retract the scapula then pull the weight down. You want to feel the weight pulling your shoulder blades together as you pull the weight down. At the bottom of the move, you should contract the muscle to its maximal degree. Then, during the final phase of the exercise, you want to feel the muscle lengthen and resist gravity as you return the bar to the starting position.
When you're practicing the mind-to-muscle connection, each phase — concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) — should take about five seconds. No rushing! “You get a stronger contraction but also a longer contraction because you're slowing the movement down,” Bottesch says. She also recommends pre-isolating muscle groups - that is, starting to think about the muscle you'll be working on before you even begin the exercise. If you can, do all this in front of a mirror so you can watch yourself as you exercise; this will help you concentrate on your form even more.
Creating a mind-to-muscle connection increases the probability that you're using correct form — but you need to understand which muscles you're supposed to be working during each exercise. “You don't have to be an anatomist, but you have to know the basic muscles of your body,” says Schoenfeld. “Any good book or Oxygen magazine will have pictures you can use.” If you're having trouble targeting the right muscles, schedule a session with a personal trainer who can explain which muscles you're using during various exercises.
Use the mind-to-muscle connection as you exercise to make every rep count, and instead of ogling that hot guy at the next station, you'll soon be ogling your stronger, shapelier muscles.