It goes without saying that when performing an exercise, you should focus on the move and not daydream about something completely irrelevant. If your mind wanders, there’s a good chance your form will break down and your effort will be mediocre at best.
Poor focus is a waste of your time.
OK, focus is obviously important for exercise, as it is for most of the other things you do. The more you focus, the better you will perform. But it turns out that how you focus during an exercise can actually improve your results.
Strength and hypertrophy (i.e., muscle growth) experts Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras recently published a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research about the mind-muscle connection.
The main takeaway: your mind impacts how much your muscles activate during an exercise.
The researchers distinguish two types of focus, internal and external. “With an internal focus, the individual thinks about bodily movements during performance. Alternatively, an external focus directs the exerciser’s attention to the environment,” Shoenfeld and Contreras explain.
As an example of internal focus, they cite “squeeze your glutes as you ascend” on the Squat.” Basically, you pay attention to the action of a specific muscle group.
Several studies have examined how focus affects muscle activity; and when subjects lift with an internal focus, the results have been intriguing. Across the board, focusing on a muscle during an exercise increases muscle activation in that muscle.
Schoenfeld and Contreras conclude that when attempting to build muscle, focusing on the targeted muscle should in theory improve muscle size.
However, this seems to apply only to muscle-building workouts in which light to moderate weights are used. As you get closer to your max weight, the effect of focusing internally decreases. In fact, during near max-effort exercise, such as a heavy Squat, external focus is more effective.
In his STACK article “Coaching Cues That Actually Work,” Nick Winkleman, Director of Training Systems and Education at EXOS, provides three examples of external focus—explode off the ground, push the ground away and sprint away from the line.
“We have found—and hundreds of published papers have confirmed this—that instructing an athlete with an external cue, rather than referencing his or her body, is far superior,” says Winkleman.
Based on this information, you should use both types of focus in your training and sport activity. If you’re looking to build muscle or trying to add strength, internal focus is your best bet. For example, when doing Bicep Curls, think about squeezing your biceps throughout the exercise.
For any near-max-effort exercise, whether it’s a heavy lift, an explosive movement or the execution of a sports skill, an external focus will yield superior results.