Turning Up the Mind-Muscle Connection

by Matt Schifferle on March 4, 2014

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Matt Schifferle PCC

“You must be crazy! How can I possibly have weak glutes and hamstrings?!”

I’m at the chiropractor and I’m finally throwing in the towel on my lower back pain. I’m not a model patient.

“Do you know how much I deadlift and use kettlebells? Those things are like glute and hamstring blasters.” Then he told me something that changed everything about how I used exercise for the next 10 years; “Matt, exercises don’t work your muscles, only your brain can do that.”

I thought he was nuts but then he hit me with the science of what he was talking about.
“It’s simple; the signal instructing certain muscles to contract and how they work doesn’t come from a weight or a special exercise. Your brain creates a signal, it travels through the nervous system and eventually reaches the muscle fibers as your mind instructed. Everything about how the muscle behaves comes from your brain.”

Mind Muscle Connection Chart

Everything about how the muscle behaves comes from your brain. Diagram © Matt Schifferle 2014

It was a simple lesson, but over the years it has completely enveloped my entire approach to all aspects of my training. From calisthenics to bike racing and even walking has taken on new meaning due to this mind-muscle connection.

Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in how the mind-muscle connection has changed my calisthenics training:

#1- Distraction dilutes the mind-muscle signal

Anything that pulls your thoughts away from the exercise literally dilutes the signal you’re sending to your muscles. TV, talking, smart phones, even some types of music are now training enemy #1.

No TV, no smart phones, just a horizontal base and a truckload of focus.

No TV, no smart phones, just a horizontal base and a truckload of focus.

#2- Mind-muscle signals become habitual

Habit is simply repeating the same mental signals over time. This repetition causes those signals to become easier to create and more powerful in their application. Of course habit can be both a great benefit and a massive detriment to your training. If your usual signal is to use your lats while doing pull ups you’ll use them in other activities as well. However, if you’re not in the habit of using them, they won’t turn on no matter how many pull ups you do.

#3- The signal can change at various points during the range of motion

It’s not uncommon for a signal and thus a muscle contraction to change during an exercise. At some points during the range of motion, it may be stronger and other points it may be weaker. Some common examples can include triceps relaxing at the bottom of a push up but contracting very powerfully at the top and glutes to shut off at the bottom of a squat while they may kick in halfway up towards standing.

Working to maintain the signal throughout the full range of motion makes a huge difference in the strength of the muscle as well as the integrity of the joints.

#4- It takes practice to get the muscle to do just what you want it to do

It’s common to not really feel a muscle turning on the first few times you try to use it more during an exercise. Sometimes it takes some time for the signal to develop and beat a neurological path to the muscle. I found this to be the case with my abdominals during the leg raise progressions. At first it felt like my abs were hardly doing anything, but the more I focused on turning them on, the more they eventually got into the game. Now hanging leg raises result in a deep abdominal burn and more powerful contractions even though the actual workout hasn’t changed much. Don’t be discouraged if nothing feels different at first. Keep concentrating and things will change very soon.

#5- Small and stubborn muscles may be due to a weak mind-muscle connection

My shoulders have always been a weakness for me. It didn’t matter how many shoulder exercises I did, they just wouldn’t grow and really develop. Once I started working on the mind muscle connection with my shoulders I was surprised to find how weak the signal was. Once the signal became stronger my shoulders grew like crazy. This was also the case with my hamstrings as I mentioned before.

It’s hard to believe that Matt ever had small shoulders!

It’s hard to believe that Matt ever had small shoulders!

#6- Exercises, and tools are simply templates for developing the mind-muscle signal

One of the biggest lessons about the mind-muscle connection was that there’s nothing in there about supplements, gadgets or fitness dogma. The root cause of all things muscle comes from the brain, not a product you can buy in a store.

As for a particular exercise, each movement places a certain demand upon a set group of muscles, but it’s a rough template for where the tension needs to go and how hard the various muscle contract. It’s up to your own focus and skillful concentration to refine the tension and direct it to the target muscles.

The million dollar question is: how can you develop and refine the mind muscle connection?

There are many techniques, but the common element is simply trying to build and control the tension in a select number of muscles through your own focus and concentration.

When I’m trying to really dial in my mind muscle connection I use what I call the P.T.R (Peter) method. Here’s how it would work with a classic push up.

Step 1- Set your Position

The first thing is to take your time setting up your position for the exercise you wish to do. This should be a pretty relaxed thing to do. In the case of push ups, I like to start my push ups laying on the floor so all of the muscles are relaxed. I then take my time placing all of my limbs and joints in the most perfect position I can. I check the position of my hands, elbows, shoulders, spine, hips, neck, even the placement of my fingers is something I really focus on getting just right.

Step 2- Set your Tension

Once I’m in position, I fire off the mind-muscle signal by tensing the muscles I want to involve during the exercise. I’m still laying on the floor, all of the tension is entirely proactive. I’m just flexing the muscles I want to engage as hard as possible. This can include my chest, shoulders, hands, lats, abs, triceps, quads and forearms. Lately I’ve been focused on getting my triceps more involved with my push ups, so I’ve been focusing more on tensing up the triceps.

Step 3- Apply Resistance

Once the tension is set just the way I like then I slightly lift myself off the floor and begin my set. Once the resistance is applied, the tension in the muscle grows much more, only now it’s flowing along the channels already established in step 2. So if I’m working to get my triceps more involved they now carry more of the resistance of the exercise.

The P.T.R method conditions you to really dial in the tension of any exercise you choose. It builds your ability to direct and alter the tension in your muscles at will so you can modify that tension however you wish.

P.T.R. works with any technique. Matt builds his lats with pull-ups.

P.T.R. works with any technique. Matt builds his lats with pull-ups.

Contrast this with simply dropping down and firing off push ups as fast as possible. The position and tension your body uses is going to be much more reactive rather than proactive. If you’re used to using your shoulders more than your triceps during the push up then that same pattern of signal will be generated. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that it’s much more difficult to focus and change the mind-muscle connection and thus how your mind is asking your muscles to perform. Your old movement habits will take over both good and bad.

In closing I want to leave you with a couple of mantras I’ve used with my clients to reinforce the awareness of the mind-muscle connection:

– Muscle follows mind.

– Exercise doesn’t work muscle; your focus and concentration works the muscle.

– Nothing different happens in your training until you chose to make it different.

– Exercise technique is more than just keeping your back straight or toes pointing forward. Technique is about refining the mind-muscle signal. Thus technique isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

– Effecting training isn’t just about blood sweat and tears. It’s about learning how to engage and use your body in a more effective way.

Yours in strength,

-Matt Schifflerle

****

Matt Schifferle a.k.a. The Fit Rebel made a switch to calisthenics training 5 years ago in an effort to rehab his weight lifting injuries. Since then he’s been on a personal quest to discover and teach the immense benefits of advanced body weight training. You can find some of his unique bodyweight training methods at www.RedDeltaProject.com.

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  • Jack Arnow

    A short time ago I finished my morning workout, and just now read this article. This article is fantastic because it highlights the importance of the mind muscle connection, and gives one way to achieve it, and explains the science of it too. I’m training to regain a one-arm chin by constantly trying to increase my mind muscle connection, and reading what Matt wrote will enable me to be even more conscious and focused. I’d like to mention an additional technique. Create a short document which describes what muscles you are going to use, and how you are going to use them. Read this document just before you begin the exercise. Read it again immediately afterward to see what you didn’t do, or could do better. As time goes by, you will edit this document to make it clearer because your technique will get better from your practice. Some years ago I had just regained a one arm chin and wanted a photo of it, but when my friend had his camera ready I couldn’t do the one-arm chin. This happened a few times until I realized that my mind was on the photo, not in my muscle. Matt, thanks for your great article!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Huge props to ya Jack for getting that one arm chin up. I love your idea of keeping sort of a check list with the muscle you want to engage. I use a similar thing with clients with a muscle anatomy chart on my tablet. being able to see a picture of the muscle helps to keep a visual perspective on it and where it is on the body thus enhance that connection.

      Good luck getting a pic of that one arm pull up. Post it when you do, I would love to see it.

  • Darlene Ellenburg

    I really like this article and research. I’m bookmarking it on my FB so I’ll have it when I want to refer to it. It immediately brought to mind what Tim Ferris said about doing contractions even if you could not leave the dinner table, getting good at isometrics. He goes on to relate the better results with the effect of GLUT-4 translocation. I felt if you do those contractions like that, you do engage the brain more, I think. Now I’m amusing myself with thinking yoga teachers shouldn’t just be calling breathing cues, but also contraction and release cues in the focused muscle from time to time, too.

    • Matt Schifferle

      You are so right about using isometric contractions to improve that mind-muscle connection. Whenever I have trouble getting something to fire off I’ll keep contracting it throughout the day to lay down that mental track. Using contraction cues during a class is also another brilliant idea. It will do a lot to bring more benefit to the students for sure!

  • Amazing article!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thank you very much Carter! Be sure to let me know if you have any questions about this in the future.

  • Burtchellr

    This was an amazing article. I read it before hitting the gym yesterday, and had to do some serious rep scheme changes to all my movements. Sadly, I also had to drop back a few progressions of my pull-ups and squats, but it’s well worth it.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks so much Burtchellr! Your experience of needing to dial back a bit is very common with this sort of training. While other’s might look at it as a step back I look at it as a massive leap forwards. Just think, with better tension control you are getting more out of a single set of pull ups than you did in all of the pull ups you may have done up to that point. The cool thing is, while it may seem harder now, your strength will grow very quickly in the next month or two and you’ll be breaking new PRs with the added tension.

      • Burtchellr

        That actually makes a lot of sense. I’ve spent so much time focusing on getting movement patterns right and moving either my body or back when I used weights, from point A to point B never realizing I was never really maximizing my training.

  • The Fit Rebel rules. A great article from a coach who REALLY knows how to use the PCC “toolbox”, not just for strength, but also for bodybuilding and muscular training.

    Way to go Matt, I’m proud of ya!!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thank you very much Coach! It never ceases to amaze me just how far someone can go with those tools. Been on this journey for 6 years and still feeling like I’m just scratching the surface.

  • Ryan Graczkowski

    This is so cool! It reminds me of Convict Conditioning, actually, moving slowly and learnin’ your muscles how to generate that tension. As someone who first began strength training on machines and learning isolation patterns, this is a really big deal to me.

    So, if you don’t mind me asking, how long do you hold these contractions for? And do you tense all the muscles at once or are you just tensing one at a time?

    • Matt Schifferle

      You can hold the tension for any amount of time really. You can even hold it for 20 seconds or so and make that your warm up. You may also need to hold it a bit longer to get the muscle to fire if it’s not used to kicking on. That said, you’ll usually just hold for a second or two before applying the resistance.

      You’ll typically tense all of the muscles at once but you might also want to go into a systematic way or tensing things up. With pull ups I like to start with my hands and work my way down. I’ll tense my hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, traps, lats, glutes, hamstrings and calves. If you have a particular muscle that’s stubborn to get into the game you might want to devote some time where you focus on just getting that to work harder and let everything else do it’s normal thing. I did that for my rear deltoids for a week or two with my pull ups. Now my deltoids fire off like mad whenever I do any sort of pull ups.

      And you’re right about those isolation style machines. They can actually de-train you remind away from this sort of mind-muscle connection. Trying to turn one group on but another group off not only keeps you from working the support muscles but it also causes less tension to flow through the target muscles. The best way to get your biceps to work like mad is to get the shoulders and back involved as much as possible.

  • Leo

    Dear Paul Wade,
    I met the progression standard for jackknife pull ups with both 90 degrees and 45 degrees bent legs. I also met the beginner st. with straight legs (in a perfect jackknife angle).
    Problem is, I am stuck at one set of 12 reps (neutral grip). I just can’t do more.
    Any ideas?
    Should I already begin step 4 or practice some flex or dead hangs (maybe negatives too)?

    I will soon begin hanging knee raises, but haven’t practiced hanging from a bar. Should I follow the first two grip series steps (CC2) to get there?

    Will the new e-book be available soon, also CC3? 😉
    Leo

    • Leo! Great to hear from ya, kid! Glad your training is going well–if you want to move on to the next pullup progression, sure you can. Some people respond less well to reps than others…just bear in mind that just gritting yer teeth and pushing for that next rep, even when you seem stuck, is often the time you make the most progress…even if it dont feel that way! And if you are working hard at jackknifes hanging from a bar for the knee raises won’t kill ya kid. As ever, just start easy!

      Bless ya for your interest in the ebook and CC3. Both have been delayed–I am slow as hell when it comes to writing, Al Kavadlo could write a masterpiece in the time it takes me to write my friggin address. But they are coming soon, oh yes!!!

      • Babu

        Eagerly waiting for CC3. By the way CC1 was best.

  • Leo

    Should I do the jackknife pull ups once or twice a week?

    • Jerry

      I would do once.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Depends on how much you’re doing them and what you’re looking to get out of them. I think Jerry is right though, once a week is fine, but maybe bump it up to twice a week if you continue to struggle with them after a month or two.

  • dhairya

    Hi Mac you look like a big Vin Diesel…! Nice body..
    I just would love to share with you that this article is just the 5% of the big topic MAXALDING.
    They were not muscle controllers only they were extreme calisthenic performers- One leg squats, one arm pushups were all done.
    I with my experience can tell you that if you are really interested in mind-muscle connection then you must see M-A-X-I-C-K and his great work.

    • dhairya

      I have written mac inplace of MATT… sorry.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Maxick was the man! It’s amazing how so much of the “old” physical culture folks used a deep focus on mental control. They really understood how important the development of the mind was and it’s relation to developing the body.

  • jpujjayi

    Matt. nicely written, clear and to the point… i find similarities in yoga with pcc/calesthenics… we begin a session/yoga with meditation.. then movement/asanas… in yoga we say..mind follows breath/breath follows mind.. there is a breathing technique…ujjayi breathing.. similar to diaphramatic breathing with an added constriction in the throat to create a ‘sound’.. has been called ‘darth vader breathing’…!!! this breath is kept thru the session and the inhale/exhale move the body..stills the mind.. also we use a ‘focus’ point for all poses.. called dristi.. it’s where one looks/focuses on.. so the eyeballs dont take us around the room or away from the muscular/mindful effort of the pose.. i use this whenever i ‘workout’.. starting (and ending) with mediation and ujjayi breathing/dristi focus throughout.. since i attended the pcc last june, i’ve found this helpful no matter what the activity… i like the mental focus and processes you’ve elicited from your research… thanks for putting the article together.. jim perrry

    • Matt Schifferle

      I love the breathing and visual focus techniques there Jim! You’re so right about needing to focus the breath to focus the mind. I find that when my mind is scattered by breathing is likewise. Thank you so much for making me more aware of this!

  • This is such an important concept, Matt and I love the way you’ve presented it (bias towards cool charts). So many well meaning folks just “go through the motions” when so much of the real learning/progress happens when we really focus and feel what’s going on. Great stuff!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks so much Adrienne! You’re right about going through the motions. Whenever I dig deeper into the activation of a particular move I’m amazed with how much I was unaware of how much I was going through the motions.

  • Kofi

    Awesome article Matt, I especially like how you explained your method for achieving your mind-muscle connection, simple and easy to follow, I got my Convict Conditioning book at the beginning of this year and even though I have seen some gains and improvements I realize I haven’t been utilizing my mind-muscle connection, I’ll definitely be borrowing your method for my workouts.

    P.S. Thank you Mr Paul Wade for such a great book!

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