A Strong Mind-Body Connection Is the Secret to Enhancing Your Workouts. Hereโ€™s How To Tap Into It


As you flow through a yoga class or a reformer workout at your Pilates studio, your instructor might encourage you to โ€œconnect your mind with your bodyโ€ as you, say, practice sun salutations or roll ups in order to truly get the most out of the movement.

Itโ€™s a concept thatโ€™s hard to grasp, especially for folks just dipping their toes into a new movement practice. But a mind-body, aka mind-muscle, connection is a real phenomenon, and tapping into it as you train can enhance your performance and help you move safely. Hereโ€™s what to know.

The mind-body connection, explained

Though it sounds abstract, the mind-body connection is part of a biological process called neuromuscular coordination, or how your nervous system and muscles work together for motor behavior, says Michael Rosengart, CPT, CES, CSCS, a certified corrective exercise and strength and conditioning specialist. Specifically, the mind-muscle connection is involved in neural circuits that activate specific muscles, he explains.

Sometimes, due to lifestyle factors, the connections between nerve branches (which send electric impulses from your brain or spinal cord) and muscles can deteriorate. It then becomes more challenging to activate certain muscles.

But with consistent use, these connections can strengthen over time, Rosengart says. To restore the inhibited or fortify the well-functioning neural circuits, youโ€™ll need to tap into another key component of the mind-body connection: an internal attentional focus.

When youโ€™re performing, say, a warrior III pose in your yoga class, a barbell back squat in the weight room, or going for a jog through the park, youโ€™re either thinking about how your movement is affecting the environment around you or how your body is actually creating the movement. This is called an external or internal attentional focus, respectively. And the latter is where the concept of mind-body connection comes into play.

Specifically, an internal attentional focus involves visualizing the desired target muscle and โ€œconsciously directing neural driveโ€ to that muscle during physical activity, per a 2016 article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. While you power through that squat, for instance, you might focus on squeezing your glutes as you rise out of the hole, which helps you more fully activate the muscle group, according to the authors. Thatโ€™s the mind-body connection at work.

โ€œ[Internal attentional focus] is a common aspect of corrective exercise strategies, as many people lose strength in the connection to several muscles, such as the abs, glutes, and rotator cuff muscles,โ€ Rosengart says. โ€œOver time, with practice, the mind-muscle connection can become robust and automatic.โ€

The benefits of a strong mind-body connection

Your body is always looking for ways to become more efficient and complete any actionโ€”whether thatโ€™s doing a deadlift or swinging a baseball batโ€”in a way thatโ€™s less metabolically costly, Rosengart says. Particularly if youโ€™re unfamiliar with a movement, your body might think, โ€œI need to lift this weight 12 to 15 times. It just has to go up and down.โ€ It doesnโ€™t care if the way youโ€™re moving to finish that task is safe or suitable for your goals.

Without a strong mind-muscle connectionโ€”in other words, youโ€™re not paying attention to how your body is moving to perform a particular actionโ€”you unknowingly may tweak your technique in a way that saves you metabolic energy but also up your risk of aches, pains, and injury, Rosengart explains.

โ€œTalking about the mind-muscle connection is a way that I can help clients understand the amount of cognitive effort thatโ€™s needed for motor learning so when they’re performing an exercise and they’re trying to maintain good form, they can understand that it takes this cognitive effort,โ€ he says.

It might take at least 1,000 reps for your body to learn a movement and 10,000 reps for it to become automatic, Rosengart adds. Fostering mind-body connection in this time is a key component to perfecting technique and consequently keeping injury at bay.

Safety aside, developing and tapping into your mind-body connection may help you better target specific muscles, if thatโ€™s your goal. A small 2016 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology on resistance-trained individuals found that when participants focused on the triceps or the pectoralis major during a bench press (using loads up to 60 percent of their one-rep max), activity increased in those specific muscles.

In a similar 2019 study in the European Journal of Translational Myology3ย also focusing on the bench press,ย triceps activity was higher when participants were verbally instructed to isolate the muscle group compared to when they were told to focus on the chest muscles or received no instructions at all.

โ€œBy consciously focusing on the muscles being worked, individuals can reform and strengthen the neural circuits, leading to better muscle activation and growth,โ€ Rosengart says.

You might see greater gains by utilizing your mind-body connection, too. In a 2018 study in the European Journal of Sports Science4, untrained participants who focused on contracting the target muscle (an internal attentional focus) during three weekly sessions of barbell curls for eight weeks increased elbow flexor thickness significantly more than participants who focused on the outcome of the lift (an external attentional focus).

According to the authors, the results support the use of mind-muscle connection to boost muscle hypertrophy. That said, changes in quadriceps thickness after consistently using the leg extension machine were also measured, and the internal attentional focus didnโ€™t seem to affect hypertrophyโ€”potentially because it can be difficult for beginners to establish mind-muscle connection with the thigh muscles, the authors note.

Whatโ€™s more, developing a mind-muscle connection in the gym may translate into improved sports performance. Imagine youโ€™re playing a tennis match. When you quickly step out to the side to smash the ball with a backhand, your body probably wonโ€™t instinctively take a step and bend at your ankle, knee, and hipโ€”flexion in three jointsโ€”in order to effectively load your hip and powerfully complete that movement, Rosengart says. Instead, itโ€™s going to move in a more efficient way, such as by lunging to the side at your spine, which puts it in a compromised position, he says. Not to mention, itโ€™s not going to give you the best swing, he adds.

To reduce the odds of that less-than-ideal movement pattern, Rosengart might have you practice lateral lunges with an added upper-body reach to establish a mind-muscle connection for the court.

โ€œI want [people] to build the mental associations through schemas, or mind maps, of how that movement pattern of the lateral lunge is applicable to their sport,โ€ he explains. โ€œIf they’re making that association during the workout, when they’re on the court, it’s going to be more available. If they never make that associationโ€”if I never tell them about it and then they’re not also mentally thinking about it during the exerciseโ€”it certainly won’t be available to them on the court.โ€

Without a strong mind-muscle connectionโ€”in other words, youโ€™re not paying attention to how your body is moving to perform a particular actionโ€”you unknowingly may tweak your technique in a way that saves you metabolic energy but also up your risk of aches, pains, and injury.

How to strengthen and tap into your mind-body connection

Developing a mind-body connection starts with the breath. Rather than thoughtlessly breathing, allowing your bodyโ€™s automatic processes to take over, Rosengart recommends practicing diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Inhale through your nose into your stomach, rather than your chest, and visualize your belly filling up with air, like a balloon.
  • Then, sigh all the air out through your mouth.
  • Rosengart suggests the physiological sigh, consisting of two diaphragmatic inhales followed by a sigh.

โ€œThat really helps to deflate tension from our body,โ€ he explains. โ€œSo if people can do that, they could really start to feel different physiological states, which then helps to explore the body more often.โ€

Ahead of your yoga practice, Pilates session, or pickleball match, take the time to complete a body scan, suggests Khetanya Henderson, CPT, a certified personal trainer, 600-hour comprehensive Pilates instructor, and 200-hour yoga teacher. Lying down or seated, close your eyes and check in with every part of your body, from head to toe. How do your shoulders feel? Do you have tension or soreness in any muscles? Do any of your joints feel achy?

โ€œThat is a way of connecting your mind and body at the very top of class,โ€ Henderson says. โ€œJust by checking in with yourself, youโ€™re able to jump [in]…If I feel like Iโ€™m tired, exhausted, or stressed, then there might be some things we need to focus on a little bit more or concentrate a little bit [more on] our form so that we’re able to support ourselves when we get to those challenging moments in class or in our private session.โ€

Itโ€™s also beneficial to incorporate muscle activation exercises into your warm-up, Rosengart says. Before a day of heavy lifting, for instance, you might practice single-leg hip bridges with a foam roller or yoga block underneath your tailbone, attempting to lift your backside completely off the prop.

โ€œYou really have to activate specific deep muscle fibers in your glutes in order to facilitate the end range of hip extension,โ€ he explains. โ€œAs we do that exercise, I will also let my clients know that it’s okay if you don’t come off the roller as long as you’re trying. We basically use that as a litmus test; you’ve activated your glutes well enough if you could just come in, get onto this roller, and do a bridge off [it]. You’ve really made that mind-muscle connection to your glutes.โ€

Once youโ€™ve established that connection upfront, youโ€™ll know how it feels and be more likely to tap into it during your upcoming squats and deadlifts.

During the workout itself, turn your attention inward, concentrating on the muscles youโ€™re hoping to stretch or strengthen. Itโ€™s also beneficial to check in with various parts of your body (Are your shoulders rolled down and back during this deadlift? Is your butt popping up toward the ceiling in this plank?) to ensure proper form, Henderson says.

After a set, tune into the targeted musclesโ€”are they burnt out and in need of a lighter weight, or can they handle something more challenging? Asking yourself these questions throughout your workout will help strengthen your mind-body connection.

Also important: tuning into your breath, Henderson says. Make sure you arenโ€™t holding it as you power through the hundred in Pilates or sink deeper into your forward fold.

Who should work on mind-body connection?

Regardless of preferred movement method or experience level, everyone can benefit from working on their mind-muscle connection, Rosengart says. That said, some folks may want to prioritize it more heavily.

People who spend a lot of time sitting generally end up using the back of a chair to keep themselves upright and their internal organs as a โ€œpillowโ€โ€”which is much more energy-efficient for your body than activating the postural muscles throughout your posterior chain and core, Rosengart says.

โ€œThe body just says, โ€˜Oh, I can be in this position and I can do less,โ€™ especially if my brain is really focused on something mental, whether thinking about relationships or thinking about whatever problem I’m working on,โ€ he explains. โ€œ[The brain thinks,] โ€˜If this is what my life is, how can I make it easier for me to survive here? Okay, I’m just going to fall into the environment more.โ€™โ€

That often leads to poor posture and over-stretched or shortened connective tissue in every situation, not just at a desk job. Over time, itโ€™ll become more difficult to fully activate those now-dormant postural muscles, Rosengart says. But training your mind-muscle connection, and tapping into it during your workouts and work days, can be one valuable step toward preventing or correcting this problem.

A strong mind-body connection can be helpful for individuals who deal with high-stress situations, as it can be used to down-regulate the body.

โ€œIf we’re exercising and we’re building this mind-muscle connection, then when we’re having a stressful moment at work, we can just scan the body and say, โ€˜Oh, this is what’s tense,โ€™ and then maybe do progressive relaxation.โ€ Rosengart says. โ€œIn a world where people are very stimulated with lots of technology and distractions, giving them the empowerment around knowing mind-body connection, mind-muscle connection, might help them to be able to detach from things and let go more often.โ€

โ€œMindful movement is everywhere. To me, itโ€™s just a combination of coming back to the simplicity of breathing: How do I feel inward and outwardly? How does that support me, challenge me, empower me?โ€ โ€”Khetanya Henderson, CPT

Mind-body connection myths and misconceptions

Though elements of the mind-body connection are often brought up in yoga, Pilates, and meditative settings, any form of movement can foster and call on it, Henderson says. Martial arts, basketball, HIIT, and every modality in between can benefit from inward concentration, she adds.

โ€œMindful movement is everywhere. To me, itโ€™s just a combination of coming back to the simplicity of breathing: How do I feel inward and outwardly? How does that support me, challenge me, empower me?โ€ Henderson explains. โ€œThen there’s movement attached to that, and you do the same thing: How can I slow this down? What am I physically doing? How am I physically doing it? What has affected me? What can support me? What can challenge me or empower me through it?โ€

That said, having an external attentional focusโ€”focusing on an external movement objective, such as driving the floor away from your bodyโ€”instead of concentrating on mind-muscle connection can be valuable. The former has been linked with greater force production and movement efficiency and, in turn, can boost performance when the goal is to lift as heavy as possible (think: powerlifting), jump high or far (think: basketball players, track and field athletes), or improve running economy, according to the above 2016 article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

FAQ

Why do I have poor mind-muscle connection?

Poor mind-muscle connection might come down simply to where youโ€™re directing your attention. If mind-body connection is the goal, youโ€™ll need to tap into how your body is creating movement, specifically the muscles that are firing up.

But the adage โ€œuse it or lose itโ€ also applies. If youโ€™ve been leaning into body compensations and havenโ€™t been activating, say, your posterior chain muscles for quite some time due to a sedentary lifestyle, you may have trouble tapping into your connection with them.

How do I activate the mind-body connection?

To make use of your mind-body connection, practice diaphragmatic breathing, body scans, and targeted muscle activation drills ahead of your preferred movement method.

As you move, continue to divert your attention inward, concentrating on the muscles youโ€™re looking to activate in a particular exercise, visualizing them working, and tuning into your breath.

What does the mind-to-muscle connection feel like?

The mind-body connection feels different depending on what youโ€™re hoping to achieve. For example, if your goal is to effectively target your rear deltoid muscles during a reverse fly, you might imagine pulling your shoulder blades together as you lift the dumbbells up to the ceiling and, in turn, feel those muscles โ€œsqueeze.โ€

On the flip side, you might feel your core tense when you envision someone punching you in the stomach, which helps you stay upright while you tackle balance-challenging yoga postures like tree pose.


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.


  1. Schoenfeld, Brad J. PhD, CSCS, FNSCA; Contreras, Bret MA, CSCS. Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development: The Mind-Muscle Connection. Strength and Conditioning Journal 38(1):p 27-29, February 2016. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000190

  2. Calatayud J, Vinstrup J, Jakobsen MD, Sundstrup E, Brandt M, Jay K, Colado JC, Andersen LL. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Mar;116(3):527-33. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7. Epub 2015 Dec 23. PMID: 26700744.

  3. Paoli A, Mancin L, Saoncella M, Grigoletto D, Pacelli FQ, Zamparo P, Schoenfeld BJ, Marcolin G. Mind-muscle connection: effects of verbal instructions on muscle activity during bench press exercise. Eur J Transl Myol. 2019 Jun 12;29(2):8250. doi: 10.4081/ejtm.2019.8250. PMID: 31354928; PMCID: PMC6615069.

  4. Schoenfeld BJ, Vigotsky A, Contreras B, Golden S, Alto A, Larson R, Winkelman N, Paoli A. Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jun;18(5):705-712. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020. Epub 2018 Mar 13. PMID: 29533715.






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