Feel the Burn! How to Teach the Mind-muscle Connection

Seated Row

By pursuing a career as a personal trainer, movement and exercise is probably something that comes naturally to you.

Neuromuscular control and body awareness are not things that you have to think about. It may come as a surprise to hear that some people simply are not able to actively contract certain muscles or feel when they are working.

In a push and flexion dominant society, the most common areas that people have trouble controlling are the muscles in their back and the glutes. These muscles have the most trouble getting consciously stimulated because of lack of use.

Our bodies like to be efficient. If it finds that a muscle isn’t being used very often, it learns to shuttle its resources to areas that are being used.

The term gluteal amnesia is used to describe the phenomenon of poor glute activation. I often joke about how the glutes are muscles and not just padding for people to sit on.

According to Stuart Mcgill, gluteal amnesia is no joke. In his experience, poor glute control leads to overuse of the hamstrings and back extensors, which is a factor in low back pain.

Why the mind-muscle connection matters

The brain controls the rest of your body through a network of nerves. This includes your muscles. The more you can feel a muscle during an exercise, the more it is doing the work.

The term isolation is used to describe single joint exercises that target a particular muscle. For example, the bench press and the fly are both exercises that target the chest or pecs.

The bench press is a compound movement, as it causes motion at two joints: the shoulder and the elbow. This means that in addition to the pecs, the triceps and other muscles are also involved to extend the elbow.

The fly is considered to “isolate” the pecs more because only the shoulder joint is moving. However, does that mean other muscles aren’t involved in the movement? With the fly, other muscles in your shoulders and arms are also involved in helping the pecs perform the movement.

The point is that all of our muscles are connected. One muscle group cannot be contracted without also stimulating adjacent muscle groups. The mind-muscle connection matters because it allows you to focus on muscles that you want to target rather than having more dominant muscles take over.

Prevent muscle imbalances

The most common example of not working the right muscle is during rowing exercises. The lack of control that people tend to have in their back causes them to use their biceps more than their back. Most people need to do more rows to counteract all of the flexion that occurs in their lives. However, a program full of rows is not very effective if clients are treating them as an arm exercise.

Incorrect row where mostly the arms are being used
Incorrect row where mostly the arms are being used

 

Correct row where scapular retraction is visible, indicating proper muscle activation
Correct row where scapular retraction is visible, indicating proper muscle activation

Avoid injury

As mentioned above, poor glute control is a factor in low back pain and injury. When clients complain of back pain, they always think that it is because their back is weak. This is not necessarily the case. It is more likely the opposite: their back is actually quite strong. The problem is that because the glutes aren’t functioning properly, the back ends up taking more of the load and become overworked. Overworked muscles become tired muscles. Tired muscles get injured.

After an injury, physiotherapists often use electrical stimulation on weak muscles to help them strengthen and contract. When you help clients improve their mind-muscle connection, you are strengthening their brain’s own electrical signals to the muscles. The stronger and more effective the signal, the greater the muscular control.

How to help clients improve their mind-muscle connection

As someone who may not have this problem, it can be difficult to know where to start when trying to teach someone how to contract a muscle that they can’t feel.

It can get quite frustrating for yourself and for your client. Simply saying “just do it” doesn’t work (believe me, I’ve tried). Here are 3 things you can do to help your clients develop a stronger mind-muscle connection.

  1. Touch the area that you want your clients to contract. This will help them locate exactly where the muscle is that they should be feeling.
  2. Use isometric holds. Get your client to hold the top of the movement for a few seconds. Tell them to really “squeeze” the muscle to give them a better sense of what it should feel like.
  3. Lots and lots of repetition is what clients need. It is important not to get frustrated. Don’t spend too much time on it during any single session, but make sure that they are practicing a little bit each day.
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