Obstacle Course Training | Mindful Training: Strength
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Mindful Training: Strength

Training of any type is all about trying to figure out WHAT to do, WHEN to do it, and HOW to do it. Which exercises? Which workouts? How long? How frequent? What intensity? Which progression model? Should I use an “altitude mask”?

Those are (almost) all valid and important questions, but there is one important consideration that is rarely talked about. It’s something we used to ask all the time about everything when we were 4 year-olds, and it’s time to bring it back: WHY.

WHY are you doing this?

You need to know why you are doing every one of your exercises and workouts. Only after answering that question can you fully engage your mind into directing the focus of each of your training sessions. Before any workout, you should be able to answer the question “what is my goal here?”.

Research and practical experiences have shown time and again that your mental focus and intention have a real effect on your body, results, and performances. You only have so many hours per week you can give to training, so make them count. Here is a quick look at how what you are thinking can have a real impact on your strength training.

How Muscles Work

Don’t worry, this will be brief and to the point – no discussions about actin-myosin interactions.

Most people think of a muscle contracting and causing a movement i.e. your biceps contracts and bends (flexes) your arm at the elbow joint). Strength training is then simply doing that movement repeatedly against resistance. That is essentially correct, but so oversimplified that some important considerations get buried. Here is “simplified muscles version 2.0”.

Muscles can generate force by contracting. The first obvious consequence of this is that muscles can only pull, not push. It follows from this that in order to be able to move usefully about a joint, you need at least a pair of muscles. A simple example is the hinge joint we call the elbow. It is flexed by contraction of the biceps, and extended by contraction of the triceps.

skeletal-muscle-13-638_crIt is almost always more involved than just one pair of muscles. Most joints can move in several ways and so will have several sets of muscles able to pull it every which way. Many times you will need to stabilize a part (or several parts) of your body in order to accomplish a movement. The squat is a common example: the obvious muscles creating the movement (prime movers) are the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. However, without your calf muscles, hip adductors, and core muscles the squat is impossible. All those other muscles act as stabilizers or synergists (helpers).

Ok…we’ve progressed from 1 muscle = 1 movement to realizing that almost any movement will involve many muscles: prime movers, synergists, and stabilizers. Isolation of a single specific muscle is very, very difficult, and also utterly impractical for real-world applications. The exceptions would be in rehab/prehab exercises or body-building. But there’s more to movement than just groups of muscles.

Muscles will only contract (normally) in response to stimulation from the connected nerves, which are in turn stimulated by your desire to flex that muscle/perform that movement. By and large, you and your brain control what your muscles do. Here we have further expanded the model from a muscle to a neuromuscular (nerves and muscles) system. There is more to it than just this (reflexes, inhibition, etc) but that’s a story for another day: thinking of a combined neural and muscular system is all we need right now.
MindMuscleConnectionChartObviously you can tell your muscle to contract weakly or strongly or anywhere in between. Therefore, in order to challenge and fatigue a muscle, you need to have the neural drive (will) to do it. You cannot do strength training on autopilot, you cannot zone out: you need to focus your attention on the movement and muscles that you are trying to work. Sometimes it is the muscle that will be the limiting factor, but often it will be the mind/brain. Thinking about your muscles and movements makes a difference.

Strength Training: all reps are not created equal

For strength training, one of the most important things is to perform the movements correctly. This will minimize the risk of injury and help target the muscles that we want. However, getting the movement down correctly is only half the battle. If you want to maximize your strength training, you need to have an awareness of and a focus on the muscle(s) that you are trying to activate.

This is not some touchy-feely mind-body connection thing: it is a hard fact that has been tested and re-tested in the lab and the gym. Here is a perfect example from the bodybuilding website T-Nation. It’s perfect because it looks at the gluteus maximus muscle (which we love) and a very common movement; the deadlift. Furthermore, it is not done under controlled laboratory conditions, but in a gym with real bodybuilders doing real reps and being supervised by actual personal trainers.

What’s very important to understand is that during each exercise, the load, cadence, and mechanics were kept nearly identical. Stances and grip-width and positions were kept identical, bar and movement paths were unchanged, and joint ranges of motion were kept constant. The typical personal trainer, serving as a “referee,” wouldn’t have noticed any differences between the two styles of lifts for each exercise.

We used four different exercises for the lower body: squats, Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusts, and back extensions. We used a barbell load of 135 pounds for squats, RDL’s, and hip thrusts, while we just used bodyweight for back extensions.

Our intention on each exercise was to not use the glutes. In the case of squats, the intention was to instead target the quads, and in the case of RDL’s, the intention was to instead target the hammies. We then performed the tests again, this time with the intention of heavily utilizing the glutes.

The numbers in the table below refer to percentage of maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) as measured by electromyography (EMG). To clarify: EMG is basically like a heart rate monitor to measure the level of muscle activity, and MVIC is the maximum activation you can generate in a muscle.

Lower Body Movements Glute Max Biceps Femoris Vastus Lateralis Lumbar Erector
Squat Quad Focus 10.61 11.19 109.67 48.73
Squat Glute Focus 25.30 12.78 94.33 54.63
RDL Hamstring Focus 9.13 21.07 30.80 60.67
RDL Glute Focus 32.13 22.67 35.97 54.33
Hip Thrust No Glute Focus 20.90 6.80 33.43 70.83
Hip Thrust Glute Focus 52.67 18.40 52.60 61.53
Back Extension No Glute Focus 6.05 43.63 2.17 52.53
Back Extension Glute Focus 38.13 52.70 2.69 47.87

The above excerpt is super-relevant to us, as the glutes are a very common problem area for our desk-bound culture, and this shows that just doing “glute exercises” is not necessarily going to help.

Here is the full article:

Here is another good read showing the same thing:

The important take-away message is that just going through the motions during strength training is not the optimal way to do it. Your mental focus and intention can and do make a significant difference, because as we have seen it’s a neuromuscular system that creates movement: not just muscles.

If you are unsure of the primary focus of any exercise in any of our programs, please ask us.

Peter Dobos

Peter is the Community Manager at ObstacleCourse.Training and brings a unique blend of writing, sport science, and 16 years of "extreme" racing to the table.

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