Tuesday, December 11, 2012

So, you've lost say 20 lbs, your clothes fit better, and you can push, pull, and squat a respectable amount of weight. Now what?


If you've got a baseline level of good fitness and nutrition is on point, the next step might be to focus on creating some more visual detail in specific muscles. This may sound like more of the same, but it requires a bit more focus on muscle contraction than the average person is used to. Moving weights from point A to point B is helpful to burn calories and build strength, but a strong mind-muscle connection is a great next step.

Often times I find that if they are not actively thinking about what muscle they are training, people have no idea what a particular exercise is even supposed to target. (And when cued, most people aren't paying any more attention to that then when they leave the weather channel on as background noise!) In order to really train a muscle to it's maximum potential, one should be able to feel it working and actively contract it with or without a weight. This requires a lot of time and focus. For instance, the next time you're doing a squat, try to actively feel each muscle of the leg contract individually. The quads will push the top end of the motion, while the glutes and hamstrings will provide the main drive from full depth below parallel (assuming good form and proper mechanics). Many trainees will just bob up and down and count wrong until sweaty and out of breath, but never really feel the muscles working until they're sore the next day. Similarly, on a bench press, many people just unrack the bar, lower it to the chest (hopefully to full stretch and under control!) and hope for the best while they attempt not to get smushed. BUT, in order to fully activate the target muscles, one should try to feel them do the work, not just move the bar around. The pectorals should start the movement from the chest, while the triceps and anterior deltoids assist with the top end of the press.

Aside from just lifting the weights, its actually beneficial to try and contract a stubborn muscle without any resistance. This is a common practice used by physique atheletes such as bodybuilders to develop a better mind-muscle connection. While it appears to be a simple act of vanity (and it sometimes is...), flexing and contracting the target muscle by itself is a good way to learn to focus on it while lifting.

It should be noted that single-joint isolation movements tend to work best to develop a solid connection to a particular muscle, at least initially. When only one muscle is working, it is easier to focus on it instead of trying to pick it out of a crowd during a compound lift. Exercises such as triceps pressdowns, leg extensions, chest flyes and lateral raises are good options if trying to focus on a particular muscle. Also helpful is having a lifting partner or trainer stimulate the muscle as you train it by applying pressure during a lift. Try having a friend press on your tricep next time you do a pressdown and contract the muscle against their hand - you will likely feel it working much better.

So, next workout, try focusing on feeling each movement in the target muscle in order to get the most out of each rep. If you don't know what a particular exercise is supposed to target, ASK!

-Steve Decker

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