The reason why you aren't building muscle might be simpler than you think

Science says strengthening the 'mind-muscle connection' can help build muscle faster

Sports woman lifting weights at the gym
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Let's face it: many people who go to the gym won't see results, maybe ever. Some will give up on their efforts prematurely, but others, even those who stay dedicated and put the work in, might not get as big as Arnie was in the 70s. Why? Science says it could be because they don't focus on their muscles as they work out. Your gym bros were right: the mind-muscle connection is real!

What's the mind-muscle connection, you might ask? It's the act of focusing solely on the muscles you're trying to work by dedicating all your attention to them as you perform the exercise. You'll see many bodybuilders staring at the mirror while they curl those dumbbells and barbells – they concentrate on their muscles just as much as they admire their physiques.

'Do you even focus, bro?'

And if a relatively recent study (opens in new tab) is to be believed, these lifters might be onto something. The research saw 18 resistance-trained men perform a one-rep max (1RM) test during the first session. In the second session, three different bench press conditions were performed with intensities of 20, 40, 50, 60 and 80% of the pre-determined 1RM: regular bench press and bench press focusing on selectively using the pectoralis major and triceps brachii, respectively.

To translate, participants were asked to do three sets of bench presses, focusing on different areas each time. They did one set without doing anything special, while during the second and third sets, they had to pay attention to their chest muscles and triceps, respectively.

During the sessions, surface electromyography (EMG) signals were recorded for the triceps brachii and pectoralis major muscles. Subsequently, "peak EMG of the filtered signals were normalized to maximum maximorum EMG of each muscle", the research paper says. Essentially, the researchers monitored electrical activity in the muscles.

Young African American male exercising from home concentrating while squatting with a dumbbell in living room, workout at home

It's worth paying attention to your body when you work out

(Image credit: Getty Images)

"In both muscles (pectoralis major and triceps brachii), focusing on using the respective muscles increased muscle activity at relative loads between 20 and 60 %, but not at 80 % of 1RM", the paper says. Better still, "the increased activity [in a specific muscle group] did not occur at the expense of decreased activity of the other muscle, e.g. when focusing on activating the triceps muscle, the activity of the pectoralis muscle did not decrease. On the contrary, focusing on using the triceps muscle also increased pectoralis EMG at 50 and 60 % of 1RM."

What does this mean? Bodybuilders who work with light to medium-heavy weights will benefit greatly from concentrating on the muscles they are trying to work. Powerlifters and other athletes won't see much of a difference, although they might benefit from paying attention to what's called an 'external focus', such as the weight  they're trying to move. The meta-study on this can be found here (opens in new tab).

So next time you head down to the gym, don't just fling your arms around like a madman; lift and press those not-too-heavy weights slowly, and pay attention to what you're doing. That way, you might see results sooner.

(via T-Nation (opens in new tab))

Matt Kollat
Matt Kollat

Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar (opens in new tab) and Fit&Well (opens in new tab), and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym Reviews (opens in new tab).