If you don’t believe what I’m about to say here, then go do a PubMed search or corner a doctor at a cocktail party. What I’m sharing with you is real science – not “bro-science.” The mind-muscle connection has been proven in EMG experiments, and through research done by people like Bret Contreras, who actually knows bodybuilding technique and how to correctly execute those movements. The mind-muscle connection is a legitimate thing.

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Unfortunately, one of the predominant beliefs amongst functional trainers is that if you execute an exercise with good technique, you get the same benefit as if you execute the exercise with good technique while also focusing on the muscle that you’re working. This is not true! If you intentionally focus on the muscle that you’re attempting to target, you will actually get more out of the movement. It’s a proven fact. As such, here are my top five steps to help you build a mind-muscle connection that will ultimately help you get even more out of your training.

Train with Intentionality

The first thing you need to remember is to train your muscles – not your ego. Remember to ask yourself why you are training in the first place. Are you trying to push numbers? If you’re a powerlifter focusing on the “big three” lifts, then you’d better be. In this instance, you want to focus on moving the barbell from point A to point B, with perfect technique, and as forcefully as possible. This, however, is not the case when you’re trying to specifically focus on target muscles. The reason you’re doing this is to train that individual muscle, so going in with that kind of intentionality beforehand will put you ahead of the game.

Play Mental Movies

When you’re focusing on the muscle that you’re trying to target and contract, it can help to visualize success. For instance, if you’re having issues with flies, then try playing a mental movie of your chest working optimally. Arnold said it best: “Where the mind goes, the body follows.” This notion is not just true in powerlifting. Muhammad Ali played mental movies before every fight – he pictured the referee holding his arm in the air in victory. This notion even extends beyond sports: Billy Graham preached many a sermon to stumps in Florida swamps before he ever took up the pulpit; Conrad Hilton envisioned himself as a hotel owner before he ever bought a damn hotel; Napoleon pictured his troops triumphant before stepping out onto the battlefield. The same goes for bodybuilding hypertrophy. When you want to make a muscle work, see it working in your mind – and the body will follow suit.

Initiate with the Intended Muscle

You must intentionally initiate the contraction with the muscle that you’re targeting. If you’re doing dumbbell flies, for instance, don’t just think about hoisting the dumbbells into the air – think about contracting your pecs. If you don’t, then the best-case scenario is that you’re playing catch-up to get the muscle working sub-optimally, and there’s a good chance that you don’t ever catch up and hit that targeted muscle over the course of the movement. Initiating the movement that you’re executing with the muscle that you’re actually targeting is one of the best ways to build the mind-muscle connection. If you start the movement correctly, you’re better positioned to finish it correctly – and ultimately, make more gains.

Accentuate the Negatives

Think about it: You can lower a lot more weight than you can lift back up, so this is a great way to focus on the mind-muscle connections in your training. Negatives provide an amazing opportunity to add more intensity to your workouts and overload that muscle group that you’re targeting with a particular movement.

Practice Posing

One of the reasons that bodybuilders are so far ahead with regard to the mind-muscle connection (particularly those that compete), is because they practice posing. When you’re able to contract muscles individually – and you have to practice that – then you’re going to get better at mind-muscle connection. So, you can literally take up posing. If you are able to hit a lat spread, then the odds that you’re going to feel your biceps taking over in a lat pull-down are relatively low. However, if you don’t want to bust out the trunks and start posing, you can also just isometrically contract a particular muscle as hard as possible in advance of a movement for roughly six seconds. This helps engage the target body part and strengthen the mind-muscle connection.

There are plenty of other ways to feel the mind-muscle connection, but these five tips are a great starting point to help you fuel your mind-muscle connection.