The phrase “mind-muscle connection" is a common one in bodybuilding, and anyone who has ever tried to build muscle has likely heard the phrases “feeling the muscle working” or “visualizing the contraction.”

Now, in past decades, the “mind-muscle connection" was considered something of an esoteric phrase. It was a broscience term more or less before the term broscience existed. In recent years though, the study of neuromuscular function has expanded and it turns out that the “mind-muscle connection" is in fact an entirely real thing. In technical terms, it would be called “neuromuscular innervation.”

What does that mean exactly and why haven’t you given me the fix for my shitty hamstrings yet? Patience…

Neuromuscular innervation or why John Meadows loves the cattle prod

Because he’s deranged. That’s why. On a serious note though, it's time for a quick science lesson on how muscles contract, and this isn't intended to be comprehensive at all. It's just a fast rundown.

So you have nerves that run all throughout your body (hopefully, this isn’t groundbreaking news to you). These nerves all originate from the brain. When you contract your bicep, your brain is essentially sending an electric spark to that muscle to contract.

The nerves are quite literally wired into the muscle bellies themselves, and these nerves send out signals from what are called neuromuscular junctions into muscle cells. Neurotransmitters then cause the chemical changes within muscle cells themselves to expand or contract. For everyone who has seen the Terminator films (which is all the readers of this site, of course), the T-800 Terminator robot is actually an excellent example of how the human body operates. It has a processing center in the skull (equivalent to the brain), the movements are all powered by electricity and, when its joints get damaged or it sustains a head injury, it doesn’t move correctly. Obviously, it’s a robot, but its basic senses such as sight, auditory input, balance and presumably some equivalent of kinesthetic awareness are all there.

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Why is the Terminator so strong? Well, its joints are all metal and presumably hydraulic, but it also runs on electricity just like a human does. The difference is that when it “contracts” a joint, it isn't firing a muscle. It's powering a motor. The Terminator's hardware might be different, but its “software” is pretty much the same. In its case though, its “processing center/hydraulic joint” connection is super powerful.

Coming back to the human body, our muscles also contract by means of electricity, and the power of our contractions is determined by the “power” output of our brain. This is referred to as “neural drive,” and it’s the technical term for the mind-muscle connection. A strong “mind-muscle connection" basically means that you have a highly wired and charged muscle connection.

In my bastardized broscience talk, I often explain this fast and dirty as a “high voltage” connection to my clients. This sounds really cool and I like yelling “high voltage baby!!” at people while training. There ends my argument for why I use it. A strong mind-muscle connection is high voltage. A poor mind-muscle connection is low voltage. Terminators have high voltage connections.

This brings us back to the cattle prod. The cattle prod quite literally electrifies your nerves with an overload of voltage and creates an ultra intense contraction that your own body could never replicate. If you're slightly clinically insane (as is pretty much everyone on Team elitefts™), this feels amazing of course.

Now, in the interest of building muscles, what do we do if we can't feel that muscle or we have a low voltage connection?

My calves are small and I'm filled with shame

This is where most people screw up with stubborn muscles groups. They’ll look at their biceps or triceps or calves or upper pecs and assume that they need to either:

  1. Do more exercises and add volume. (This is a common “my right bicep is smaller than my left, so I’ll do eight sets instead of four on that side.” This rarely works.)
  2. Give up. ("I have bad genetics and will have little toothpick calves forever and ever." And deep down, everyone who suffers from this condition is ashamed and buries this within his soul. You all know that you do.)

Knowing what we know about the nervous system, a stubborn muscles isn’t one that “just won't grow.” It’s a muscle that isn't growing because it lacks neurological innervation. As a result, it doesn’t really get stimulated. As a caveat, I know that there is a counter argument that the stubborn muscle has never been “damaged” enough or trained hard enough. While I understand this reaction, in practice, I've seen this approach be fruitless far too often. One need only observe the endless amount of marathon arm workouts, calf workouts and shoulder workouts that are performed in gyms worldwide in pursuit of increased size yet yield no growth.

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This phenomena then isn't an issue of not training the muscle with enough load or volume but is an issue of the execution of said work. How you perform a rep is of equal importance to how many sets/reps you do. The “secret” to solving the above problem has three parts:

  1. Find a way to stimulate that muscle so you can improve its ability to contract.
  2. Find an appropriate stimulus to accomplish number one. We already know that simply repeating the same exercises don’t work, so this means that we need to get creative in our tactics.
  3. Utilize this increased feedback and connection to improve our rep execution (i.e. feel that muscle working).

Contraction as stimulus

Here's some more context and another terrible analogy. And this is where things might get somewhat complicated. We established that your muscles contract on the basis of electric signals from the brain. For the sake of understanding, lets envision the brain as a computer.

Your brain and body are the “hardware.” Your physical senses—touch, taste, sight, balance, temperature—are the “software.” They are programs that your brain uses to navigate throughout the world, and they heavily influence how it operates the software. If a muscle isn’t firing as well as it could, it’s a twofold problem. On one hand, you brain hasn’t learned how to increase voltage to engage it. On the other hand, simply knowing this doesn’t fix the problem. You have to find a way, or multiple ways, to get that muscle to engage. This is where the concept of physical sense/feedback comes in. By increasing feedback from that working muscle, we can get the brain to kick-start the contraction.

You know that old joke about how staring at a muscle makes it grow faster? That’s actually sorta kinda true. Your brain does actually increase neural drive and subsequent contractile strength in a muscle when you can see it working. One need only go to a Globo Gym to see this. How many guys do you see with freak backs, hams and glutes compared to chests and arms? There is actually some science that goes into the “mirror-muscle phenomena.”

Another example of feedback is mild compression wraps or light knee or elbow wraps. Do these wraps actually add enormous amounts of stability to a joint? Not really. The effect they have on this is fairly minimal, but they do provide “hands on” feedback to the brain any time that joint is working and have the added benefit of keeping an area warm as well. As such, the working joint “feels” much better, and this is helpful in avoiding injury as well as moving weight.

Heat balms are another excellent example. I personally have an addiction to elitefts™ Arctic Sports Balm. What do these balms do? They increase blood flow and can help minimize pain, but they also substantially increase the feedback to the brain by making your hamstrings feel as though they are on fire. A muscle that feels like it's on fire is easier to contract.

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Stretch it, isolate it, rep it, tense it, burn it, feel it!

Context now established, we'll go to the protocol itself. My strategy for increasing neural drive to a stubborn muscle is actually multifaceted but singular in intention. I have to make you feel that muscle more than you’ve ever felt it before. Here is the protocol in order:

Arctic Balm

I've tried other heat balm products and found them lacking. Before you do anything else, apply a healthy smattering of Arctic Balm to your target muscle and to both the distal and proximal attachment points of the muscle as well. Using the biceps as an example, you would apply the balm at the elbow and then at the insert of the front or posterior of the upper humerus (where the muscle goes into your shoulder more or less). Don’t forget to apply it to the muscle belly.

Isotension Pulses

This is your first exercise. This can be accomplished with a variety of movements depending on the muscle group, but there are two criteria for the movement that you select:

  • It must be a “safe” movement with a minimum amount of joint stress.
  • It should be a movement that achieves a sound degree of both muscular “squeeze” as well as “stretch.”

In essence, use a movement that works the target muscle through a full range of motion. Partial movements won't suffice. This movement can be an isolated one or a compound one. Regardless, it should significantly target the working muscle. This could potentially be a body weight movement, but again this depends heavily on the muscle being worked.

The goal with this first step is to maximize recruitment. You'll perform isopulses repeatedly over the duration of the set. Each pulse should be as close to maximal contraction as possible. During this setup, you'll contract to a mid-range position, halfway between a stretch and compression. Again, using the biceps as an example, this could be a machine preacher curl with the biceps flexed to about 80 degrees relative to the shoulder. The loading on the exercise should be heavy enough to provide resistance but not too heavy that you can't complete the duration of the set. The duration for these pulses is as follows:

  • First set, 30 seconds
  • Second set, 20 seconds
  • Third set,10 seconds

This exercise comes first because it relies on “internal” cuing as you mentally try to achieve an isometric on contraction versus an external focus of trying to move weight from point A to point B. This theme of “internal focus” will carry over into all the exercises performed in the sequence.

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Following the isopulses, you will now perform an extended set with that movement. The guidelines for this are as follows:

  • First set, 60 seconds in duration, reps should be done on tempo with a fast concentric, a paused and squeezed (1–2 seconds) contracted position, and a controlled eccentric. This tempo doesn't have to be utterly exact, but it should be controlled enough that you aren't jerking the weight, relying upon momentum or crashing the eccentric.

Following the first set, take 10–15 deep breathes (this is borrowed from rest-pause training ala Mentzer and Dante Trudel) and proceed to the second set. The internal focus during this set is to use the now heated and primed muscle to smoothly move weight through the desired range of motion. The movement selected should minimally recruit surrounding muscle groups. When executing the first set, do not relax at the top or bottom of the rep and do not allow gravity to take over the eccentric. You should at any given moment be able to statically hold the weight in any position. Do not choose the loading based upon ego.

  • Second set, 45 seconds in duration. These reps are now done in a pump style, utilizing a faster rep cadence without any pauses. Do not “relax” reps when performing this second set. You're still consciously flexing the target muscle as much as possible during this set. If this requires you to drop the weight in order to complete the set, do so.

The goal for this second exercise is to maximize the fatigue and increase the “burn” factor. This should be painful, but this feedback is increasing the neurological awareness of the target muscle. In essence, you're increasing the feel.

Stretch Time

You have two options here. To give credit, Scott Stevenson clarified these stretching options in his book Fortitude Training (a very worthwhile purchase and one I heavily recommend).

  • First stretch option: A simple static stretch of 30–60 seconds in which the muscle belly is held in an extended position. If the muscle at this point is cramping or extremely stiff, go with this first option. For example, a static stretch for the hamstring is a common figure four sit and reach.
  • Second stretch option: Occluded stretch with isometric resistance. In this instance, this is an actively resisted stretch held for 30–60 seconds. This will be painful and it is up to the trainee to decide whether he wants to do this. For example, an occluded stretch for the hamstring is a standing single leg raise with the heel resting on an elevated surface. Actively press the heel down through the contraction of the hamstring. This is obviously much more intense and may potentially be overkill for the trainee.

Whichever stretch you utilize, stretching the muscle will engage particular mechanoreceptors that detect the stretching of tissue. These mechanoreceptors are in fact free nerve endings called FNEs for shorthand. They are located in the skin in various layers (using our earlier analogy, you could consider them sensory wires). They heavily contribute to overall sensory feedback that is processed by the brain.

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Isotension Part Deux

Following the stretch, you will now maximally contract the target muscle a second time. In this instance, however, it will be done with a body weight movement. This will be 10-second contraction, during which you squeeze as intensely as possible without any break in tension.

The particular goal of this exercise is to achieve peak maximal voluntary contraction in a fatigued state. If you're curious as to how body weight movements are to be utilized for this, I'll use examples in Part II of this article series.

More Reps

At this point, the muscle will be very fatigued. To avoid possible injury and to spur greater neurological recruitment and coordination, a novel movement will be used. This means that you change exercises. If your first movement was an isolation movement, you could now use a compound movement or vice versa.

You'll only perform one set. This set will be 45–60 seconds in length. The repetitions will be performed in a more traditional pump cadence manner and the usage of momentum is permissible. At this point, “feel” will have increased significantly, so this additional exercise is furthering the fatigue factor while incorporating that “feel” into a different exercise.

Static Contraction

Yep, we aren't done yet. This third exercise should be a safe movement both in regards to joint position and loading. This isn't an isotension exercise but rather an isometric “hold” with weight.

By the time you've reached this point, the target muscle will be absolutely spent. Not much loading will be needed, and the increase in metabolic stress from the static hold will be utter devastation. The result of all this should be a muscle that now feels as if it was blow torched from the inside out and beaten like a red-headed stepchild (as my father would say).

This is insane. I'm never doing this again…

I will readily admit that this is a total kitchen sink plus the bucket approach. As such, this protocol is not something that you'll be repeating every week. My recommendation is to use this once per week. You won't need any more than that. In fact, there is a periodization scheme to it that can easily be used:

  • Week 1: Perform steps 1–6 for target muscle
  • Week 2: Perform steps 1–5 for target muscle
  • Week 3: Perform steps 1–4 for target muscle

And so on and so forth until week six when you're simply using isopulses as a warm-up before your preferred exercise.

I would like to thank and give credit to Dante Trudel, Scott Stevenson and John Meadows for informing and both directly and indirectly contributing to this protocol. This is entirely derivative of their training methods and techniques, and I simply have synthesized them into an onslaught, tactical approach for solving a common problem.

In Part II, and Part III if desired, I will lay out specific protocols for the common “stubborn” muscles like calves and biceps. If anyone wishes for further protocol on other muscle groups, please let me know.