By Dr. Jeremy Girmann
I recently received the following question from a Performance Press reader named Dan: “What is one thing that many bodybuilders fail to do in their quest for progress?”
Coincidentally, I read this question immediately following a workout during which I was astounded by the lack of engagement demonstrated by the trainees around me. I had been deeply engrossed in my workout, performing a set of bench presses to exhaustion, when someone walked directly into one end of the barbell while meandering around the gym, eyes fixated on their cell phone. After racking the weight and being offered a rather apathetic apology, I glanced around and noted the three individuals nearest to me – all staring at their cell phones between sets of exercise!
This seems to have become a common scene and a common theme. Within the past week I noted someone chatting on their phone while performing sit-ups, another person watching TV, neck turned as far as his spine would allow while performing leg raises, and even an individual reading a book while performing calf presses.
While accomplishing the important first step of making it through the gym doors, all of these people performed their exercises in a cursory manner – they were merely going through the motions.
What then is one thing that many bodybuilders fail to do? They fail to be engaged in their workouts. They fail to be mindful and to use imagery in every last rep. I find that individuals are often frustrated by a lack of results after a significant investment of their time in the gym. Often these are the same individuals that cruise through their workouts in the same way that they travel to work – with a lack of mindfulness. We can all imagine the morning car ride: we pull out of our driveway and 20 minutes later we arrive at work. Everything in-between was automatic. It was without conscious thought. We sometimes wonder how we make it to our destinations unscathed. The reason for this is because our neurologic systems attempt to hardwire habits. This makes for easier processing and less energy demand from our brains. Once routine activities become automatic, we then search for additional ways to entertain our brains while the cruise control is set. If we’re not careful, the same tendencies will prevail in the gym.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane were two bodybuilders who were known for their exceptional focus in the gym and for the imagery that they employed. Arnold has been known to say that he would imagine his biceps were mountainous peaks, filling the entirety of the gym during bicep curls. He would “go inside of the muscles” during a set, imagining the splitting of the muscle fibers. Likewise, Frank Zane would focus on the contraction of each muscle involved in a given movement, recruiting every last fiber in the process.
This sort of conscious participation in exercise is what many people refer to as the mind-muscle connection. Routinely investing effort to strengthen this connection will create neuromuscular adaptations that will greatly accelerate results.
Dr. Brian Clark, one of my former medical school professors and researcher at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute at Ohio University, performed a study in which two groups of participants underwent wrist and hand immobilization for a period of 4 weeks. One group performed mental imagery of strong muscle contractions in the immobilized arm for five days/week while the other group did not. Following the period of immobilization, the group that had performed the mental imagery was noted to demonstrate significantly less strength loss relative to the group that had not engaged in the mental imagery. In other words, simply thinking about moving the immobilized muscles was enough to preserve strength.
There have been several other examples of phenomena similar to this in the scientific literature, all highlighting the power of the mind.
In order to take advantage of mental influence and to optimize my mind-muscle connection, there are several things that I do in preparation for and during my workouts. Often, I will stare at one of my anatomy textbooks before heading to the gym. This allows me to better visualize the muscles, their origins and insertions, their orientation, and their relationship to surrounding muscles and joints. When I then begin a workout, having been reminded of the specific anatomy, I envision a bolt of electricity firing from my brain to the muscle, causing it to jump into action. I then allow my mind to go inside of the muscle as Arnold did. I imagine the actin and the myosin clinging together to create the muscular contraction and then being ripped apart. I picture blood rushing into the muscle with each contraction like water being forced from the spigot of a well. Once a set is over I imagine the muscle quickly soaking up oxygen and nutrients, reloading its supply and reinforcing its army of fibers in preparation for the battle of the next set.
This sort of imagery and connectedness provides peak performance and demands no disruption. It leaves no room for casual conversation, texting, or television. Without such mental investment, trainees are often left dissatisfied, disoriented, and dissociated from the results they achieve. It’s no wonder that so few people make such little progress over the years. Champions recognize the opportunity be intentional about everything they do. They devote themselves to being always engaged and are therefore are the ones that ultimately realize their goals.