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The Mind-Muscle Cycle


How can attentional focus improve athletic performance?

It’s that time of year again – when many people choose a stronger focus on exercise or physical fitness as their New Year’s resolution. In terms of overall body and neurological health, I wholeheartedly endorse such athletic performance goals. However, as many of us have also likely experienced, keeping New Year’s resolutions can be challenging. Most of us ditch our new year resolve within one month – by February 1. Especially when it comes to exercise goals, many people abandon ship because they don’t see results as quickly as they’d like or suffer an injury because they started to hard, too fast. But what if I told you there are ways to train the brain to exercise better and more efficiently – potentially increasing the likelihood of results sooner and safer?

The mind-muscle connection is a phenomenon talked about most frequently among bodybuilders who channel the use of the brain to build brawn. The theory goes that proper form when lifting weights may be more important than the type of equipment used, and the number of repetitions performed. Essentially, the suggestion is that isolating and prioritizing the specific techniques used in weightlifting by maintaining a consistent mental focus on them is crucial for unlocking greater body-building strength and “gains” and reducing the potential for injury.

One consideration, and something often employed by fitness trainers, is that training one’s focus on specific muscles during an exercise movement can help correct form issues present in the person performing the exercise. American author James Redfield, who spent 15 years as a counselor to abused adolescents and went on to become a #1 New York Times Best Selling Author on human potential, once wrote – “Where attention goes, energy flows.” The simple truth is your brain is always connected to your muscle movements and every other function of your body. You’re just rarely “conscious” of that connection. The mind-muscle relationship suggests that training conscious attention on the exercise movements and the muscles performing them can result in more significant exercise benefits.

Having intention is one significant way to improve athletic performance. The clinically published science about the mind-muscle connection to fitness is a bit murky and somewhat lacking. Scientifically, however, what the public has termed “mind-muscle connection” is called “attentional focus.” It is a widely-recognized part of motor learning. Attentional focus is what a person thinks about when performing a movement or activity. Attentional focus has two primary types – internal and external. Internal attentional focus involves thinking about the muscles their body is using to perform a given movement. I, personally, think about and can be heard chanting the letters “BDNF” during some high intensity portions of my treadmill and stationary bike workouts. My hope is that it’s not only motivational, but the expectation that the high intensity work is increasing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) production and release will have a positive and additional physiologic effect. External attentional focus instructs the person’s attention to the environment outside of their body. As an example, an external attentional focus prompt during a push-up might be to “think about pushing the ground away from your body.” Some studies suggest that an external attentional focus may provide better fitness outcomes than an internal attentional focus.

So, if there is a substantial potential benefit of the mind-muscle connection on athletic performance, might the inverse also be true? Can physical activity help a person achieve better cognition? As it turns out, the science in this regard is promising. Even in older adults with cognitive impairments, including Parkinson’s Disease, exercise improves cognitive function, episodic memory, and executive functions. These studies support exercise as a non-drug strategy to reduce the damaging effects of the aging process on the brain. Some studies suggest that the positive benefits of exercise on protective brain health may be slightly higher for women than men. Multimodal combined training (aerobic and resistance training exercise) is also associated with more significant benefits on cognitive function, episodic memory, and word fluency.

Whether you want to improve your athletic performance for fitness, aesthetic, or cognitive gains – your brain is the gateway to it all. As you walk into a new year with a fresh perspective and big aspirations, remember to train your focus on the task at hand. Your brain is a powerful tool and, with some intentional direction, can help you achieve your goals – well beyond January.