Feel the Real- Muscle Intention

By: Josh Bryant

Functional trainers sportin’ physiques that rival Richard Simmons like to stand on a soap box and preach “mind-muscle connection” is on par with membership in the flat earth society! They claim as long as an exercise is executed with proper technique, the same training effect will take place, regardless of intention.

News flash……..

The mind-muscle connection is real and 100% backed by science—and you better get in tune with it or you are leaving gains on the table! Or you can just keep “Sweatin’ to the Oldies”.

To review, the mind-muscle connection is the conscious and intentional contraction of a muscle when executing a resistance-training exercise, a concept I call “muscle intention”. The focus becomes activation of the specific muscle you are targeting, not just moving the weight from point A to point B.  

Your ability to execute muscle intention exercises correctly will increase with proper practice but it will decrease over time if you develop bad habits.  Being able to focus your mind on a specific muscle comes down to neuromuscular control and proprioception, which will be developed by using the strategies I am going to present to you.

EMG experiments performed by famed researcher, Bret Contreras, show that even with identical technique, advanced trainees that intentionally focus on the muscle they are targeting while lifting weights get a much higher EMG reading of the specific targeted muscle.  Other EMG studies in the literature duplicate these findings showing that if trainees simply focus on a specific muscle before doing a movement, they activate a higher percentage of the targeted muscle fibers.  

EMG is just one useful tool but it is not infallible in demonstrating what exercises are most effective for hypertrophy.

For example, if you are sitting in a chair and your lower legs are unsupported and pointed straight out in front of you with your knees locked and you decide to contract your quads as hard as possible, this isometric contraction will produce a very high EMG reading.   This example helps with muscle activation and over time perpetuates a slight hypertrophy stimulus; regardless, it still ain’t going to produce Branch Warren-like quads. 

Brad Schoenfeld’s lab dug deeper with a study published in the European Journal of Sports Science entitled “Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.” The study showed that over eight weeks, subjects that focused on their elbow flexors when executing bicep curls, nearly doubled the gains in elbow flexor thickness of the subjects that did not. The study concluded  “The findings lend support to the use of a mind–muscle connection to enhance muscle hypertrophy.”

Still don’t believe? Do a Pubmed search or corner a doctor at a cocktail party!

Enough science and salesmanship, let’s get down and dirty and see how to enhance your mind muscle connection.

Train Muscles not Your Ego

Lose the mentality of pushing the weight from point A to point B. One of the most common reasons why people fail to develop the right mind-muscle connection is because they are obsessed with how much weight they are moving, not muscular tension. So, decide your objective ahead of time. Are you pushing numbers like a powerlifter does on a squat, bench press and deadlift or targeting a specific muscle? If it’s targeting a muscle, focus intentionally on quality repetitions—not how much weight you are moving. 

Mental Movies

Arnold said it best, “Where the mind goes, so goes the body.”

Muhammad Ali said he watched mental movies of himself before each fight. Ali would repeatedly watch a movie of the referee lifting his arms victoriously  above his head.  Billy Graham preached thousands of sermons to stumps in Florida swamps before ever taking the pulpit, Conrad Hilton saw himself as a hotel operator long before he was one and Napoleon played out different scenarios in the theatre of his mind before ever stepping on the battlefield!

Dr. Srinivasan Pillay book, Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, says we use the same part of the brain to visualize an action as we do when we perform that action. So. as you are performing a dumbbell fly, do not recklessly swing the dumbbells using your shoulders or any other muscle that will help, intentionally bring the origin of the muscle closer to the insertion, visualize your chest filling with blood as you work the muscles with dumbbells in your hand.

See yourself doing right and you will do right. Instead of scrolling on Facebook and looking at pictures of people you don’t even like, use this time to watch mental movies of optimal muscle contractions so you can contact every ounce of your chi into the muscle you are training.  Doing this five minutes a day will have a gigantic effect.

Contraction Initiation

Sticking with the dumbbell fly, if the movement is not initiated with pecs, in a best-case scenario, this leaves you playing catch up!  This is suboptimal pec work and will leave you chasing your tail not building a stage ready physique be it the bodybuilding or Chippendales stage!  Change your intention!  Stop thinking about moving the dumbbells first, start thinking about contracting your chest first then everything else will follow suit.  CONTRACT—move—grow!

Accentuate the Negative

You can lower more weight than you can lift!  Because of this, most lifters are extremely lazy on the eccentric portion of the lift and all their eggs are placed in the concentric basket.  One of the quickest ways to develop a proper mind muscle connection is to slow down the negative and feel the targeted muscles working.  So, next time you are not feeling the muscle you are targeting, throw in a three to five-second eccentric with extreme muscle intention and watch things magically change.


Scientific weight training pioneer, the late Dr. Mel Siff, in his ground-breaking book Supertraining talked about “loadless training”.  This is just flexing muscles independently, like bodybuilders do when they pose.  By practicing bodybuilding poses, you will automatically be more in-tune with your mind muscle connection.  A skilled bodybuilder can hit a lat spread at the drop of a hat, while most green in the weight room do not stand a snowballs chance in hell, this is because practice.  Logic would dictate the bodybuilder skilled at a lat spread is much less likely to have her biceps “takeover” when doing lat pulldowns than the novice. Another strategy that works well as an activation prior to performing an exercise is isometrically contract the muscle you are targeting for six seconds, then perform the exercise and voila enjoy the enhanced mind-muscle connection. 

Author, Josh Bryant, Explains “Mind Muscle Connection”

Final Thoughts

When building strength in big, compound movements, externally focus on moving the weight from point A to point B with great technique as forcefully as possible with great technique in a Compensatory Acceleration Training Style.  This all changes when you are targeting a muscle with an isolation exercise; intention is everything and you internally focus on the muscle you are targeting.

Want to learn the in-depth methodology Josh uses with athletes to build size and strength, and in the process become certified by the #1 personal training certification ISSA in the process? Click HERE.