Activating the Mind-Muscle Connectionby Alexander Cortes on October 14, 2015
Activating the Mind-Muscle Connection
By Alexander J.A. Cortes
The MMC is crucially important for bodybuilding, and it takes time to develop. At the same time, almost everyone had a bodypart that they struggle to “feel” working, and having a tactic to improve activation would definitely be useful.
So how do rapidly activate the MMC?
Sometimes “one thing” IS the answer
This question is best answered with a reductionist question and premise;
“If you could only perform ONE exercise to establish a MMC, what would that exercise be?”
This creates an immediately effective criterion. The exercise would have to fulfill the following
– Be a common movement that can be done in any gym environment
– Immediately creates tension in the target muscle group
– Have a very low learning curve, with no special instruction or cueing required
Now, this criteria leads to an easy “answer”. All of these points can be fulfilled by static and isometric exercises, something the Mountaindog method already utilizes.
Static and Isometric contractions are the ideal “activation exercises” as they can create neurological drive within a relatively “inactive” muscle with poor innervation.
They can be performed anywhere, they require little complicated equipment, and they are “felt” almost immediately. The learning curve is very low.
That said, lets get to exercises themselves
Hacking the Major Muscle groups
Starting from the top of the body and work on down
1. The Trapezius
Exercise – Meadows Shrugs-These are the infamous dumbbell shrugs with the DBs held in slightly in front of the thighs. On every rep, you will hold the peak of the contraction a full 4 seconds before lowering back down.
Why its effective – Most people simply have never put much work in actually contracting their trapezius (especially upper traps). Shrugs are often done fast with a jerky cadence. When you have to hold a peak contraction repeatedly, the innervation happens quickly
Best in sets of 3-4 for 15 reps. Perform with a full 4 count each set is over 60 seconds long. If you’ve never truly felt your traps work or struggle to get them to grow, these will do it. Credit to John Meadows for being the originator
2. The Deltoids
Exercise – Standing DB Crucifix hold-this is a static movement, holding light dumbbells at shoulder level with the arm outstretched, ala a crucifix position. Do not fully lockout the elbows when doing this movement. Tilting the DB down slightly, as is pouring water drops from it, will elicit posterior and medial delt activation. Do not let the shoulders rotate in or allow posture to collapse
Why its effective – Shoulders can be a stubborn muscle group, and not everyone feels them working while shoulder pressing. Its also uncommon people utilize high reps or prolonged time under tension. If your shoulders don’t grow from heavy pressing, and you have difficult feeling them work period, perform this movement to get them fully firing. Lateral raises are often improperly done as well, and in practice, training the shoulder with applied intensity can be surprisingly hard.
Aim for a 60 second hold, with a minimum of 30 second. 2 sets are generally enough. This can be done as an activation or a finisher movement on any upper body pressing workout.
3. Rhomboids/Mid back musculature
Exercise – Chest supported DB row on incline bench. Setting a bench to between 30-45 degrees, position the body so the head is over the top of the bench, and the chest and torso are resting on the bench. The feet will braced against the floor. Assuming a neutral grip on the DBs, drive with the elbows and pull back. Hold each rep for a full 2 count pause, then lower. If grip is an issue, use straps. This is a back movement, not a grip exercise. John likes using a kettlebell for these also as you can then then get an extra few inches of range of motion at the top.
Why its effective – Most rowing movements are done with some degree of momentum. With the body inert against the bench, its purely the rhomboids, lower traps, and teres major and minor doing the work. There is no way to cheat this exercise at all, you cannot use your arms, momentum, or body English of any kind to help you. Especially for people that are used to heaving weight, this can be very humbling to do the first time out. Its also very joint friendly and suitable for any level of training, especially anyone whose low back health may be a concern.
High reps work best, simply for creating a pump and prolonging the time under tension. 2-3 sets of anywhere from 12-25 reps.
4. Latissimus dorsi
Exercise – Single arm pulldowns with cable or band from a half kneeling position. Not a primary exercise obviously, but lats can be notoriously difficult for people to feel. These can be done seated, but you have to position yourself sideways generally. To get in position, position the body at a 90 degree to the pulldown handle. When you take a knee, the working side knee will be down (so right arm is pulling, right knee is down) with opposite site foot planted. The handle should be set higher than you can reach so there is constant tension through the movement. When pulling down, drive the elbow tight to the waist, and you can use the opposite hand to palpate the lat and feel it working. Do not allow the shoulder to get too elevated when releasing the weight back up, your scapula should stay depressed the entire time.
Why its effective – My merit for these is that by being perform one side at a time, and from the kneeling position, is that all of the internal focus can go into the working side lat and getting a full stretch and contraction on every rep. Especially with having the opposite hand free, you can actively feel the lat working and cue yourself.
Do 2-3 sets of about 15 reps. That lats can take quite a few reps before a MMC begins to develop, this is one movement you’ve got to perform slow and controlled. I don’t assign a specific tempo to these, just slow enough that tension never dissipates or you cheat by pulling with the arm.
Exercise – Tricep Pushdowns, with a 3 second negative. I’m obviously not trying to reinvent the wheel here, pushdowns are a mainstay movement for a reason. I prefer a V-bar pushdown handle being used, as it allows for a comfortable biomechanical positon with the grip and the rest. I favor a more relaxed style of keeping the elbows in front of the body with a slight forward lean and hips back, this allows for a greater stretch, especially of the long head. The concentric portion of the rep can be performed on a natural tempo with a peaked contraction at the lockout, and the eccentric is done on a full 3 count.
2-4 sets of 8-15 reps. A controlled eccentric can surprise the hell out of people who are accustomed to fast and furious reps, quality reps > quantity of reps
Why its effective – In practice, I’ve never encountered someone that couldn’t feel their triceps readily doing simple banded pushdowns, barring some sort of neurological injury to the arm. Rather, an issue with training triceps is often feeling it more in the “bone” of the elbow versus the belly of the muscle. Triceps movements also have a tendency to be done sloppy, and ask any older lifter about their elbow health, and they almost always advise you train lighter and for the love of God, don’t get weight happy on skullcrushers. The crucial technique difference I’ve observed, there is a difference in contracting the triceps versus locking out the elbow; for people that aren’t conscientious when doing direct arm work, they often to mistakenly focus on what the joint is feeling, versus feeling the muscle work.
Exercise – 21’s performed with DBs or individual cable handles. Again, nothing fantastical here, these are a classic, and they WORK. Curl the DBs with a supinated grip half way up for 7 reps. Then curl for 7 reps through the top half of the rep. Then curl for 7 reps full range of motion.
2-3 sets of 7/7/7 reps with moderate load
Why its effective – Again, no need to reinvent what already works excellent. In my time training people, the number one issue with training biceps is most people simply rush their reps. They get caught up in getting stronger at curling, so they cheat reps and then claim they can curl the 50lb dbs. Which they kind of can, but cheat curling the fifties with 12 inch biceps doesn’t really add up when you think about it. If you cant feel the muscle working doing the exercise strict, you don’t get to cheat it. And 21’s absolutely force you to “feel” it.
Exercise – Farmers walks with heavy DBs. Pick a pair that you can reasonably carry for at least 30 seconds until your grip gives out. Perform 2-4 sets of walking with the DBs for time
2-4 sets of 30 seconds+ of continuous walking with both dumbbells
Why its effective – Forearms can be a stubborn muscle group for many, but the forearm muscles also rarely get worked to the point of fatigue. This is because these muscles are much more responsible for grip strength than they are curling. One can only moderate bicep development but very muscled forearms if they have a grip intensive profession. Farmers walk work the most basic function of grip strength, being able to “crush” and hold on to load.
Exercise – Deadbug. Also known as a reverse plank, this movement is very simple. The legs are lifted off the floor till they are straight up above the hips, and the upper torso is curled upwards as high as possible. The rectus abdominus is engaged from top to bottom, and this position is then held isometrically as long as possible.
2-3 sets of 30-60 second holds work best. These also can supersetted with near any other ab movement for a great training effect.
Why its effective – The trend towards “functional” training has largely neglected the most basic function of the abdominal wall and muscle; flexing the torso forward. Focusing on rotational movements or dynamic stabilization is rather pointless if someone doesn’t even possess the abdominal strength to sit up straight from lying down on the floor. A dead bug requires a contraction from both the “upper” and “lower” sections of the abdominals. If someone has trouble feeling their abs work, performing dead bugs is a perfect way to prompt abdominal engagement.
Exercise – Banded Static squat – This movement does require a light exercise band. Loop the band twice around your knees. It should provide enough resistance that you must actively contract against it, but not so much that you cannot spread your legs at all. Take a slightly wider than shoulder width foot stance, then lower the hips down to a just above parallel squat position. Hold for 30-60 seconds
1-3 sets of 30-60 seconds
Why its effective – The MMC to the glutes can be absolute zero, and getting the muscle to fully engage is often very difficult due to the compensation patterns that people have developed. By using isometric tension through the use of the band, the gluteus medius are forced to engage to keep the legs from closing. Holding a position just above parallel then takes advantage of this engagement by increasing recruit from the gluteus maximus to hold the position
Exercise – Everyone is likely familiar with these. Partial contracted position reps on lying leg curl-In this movement, the trainee will be using the lying leg curl machine. Set the pad to right above the ankles, and select a moderately challenging weight. Lying flat on the pad, curl the weight all the way to the contracted position. From this position, perform partial 1/3 range of motion reps. Aim for 40-50 repetitions. Follow that with 8-15 full range of motion reps.
Why it works – Hamstrings are notoriously difficult to feel. By performing partial reps, the hamstring muscle is forced to engage concentrically over and over again, increasing neuromuscular drive. The full range of motion reps that follow strain the eccentric position, and allow the blood that has built up to flood the length of the muscle. This exercise has a tendency to make peoples hamstrings cramp up, but it incredibly effective for creating a MMC from scratch.
Exercise – Static Wall squat. Quads are another muscle that a typically trainee will rarely struggle to feel working, but it does happen. To engage the quads, a static wall squat held at parallel will always do the trick. This movement is both low back and knee friendly, and can be intensified by going below parallel as well. It can be used for activation, or supersetted with practically any other kind of leg exercise.
1-2 sets of 45-60 seconds will usually be all that is needed
Why its effective – The primary function of the quadriceps is knee extension. By holding a prolonged static contraction, the muscle is forced to engage. The accompanying burn sensation is also excellent for increasing neuromuscular feedback and feeling the muscle working.
Exercise – Isometric calf raise-This is best performed barefoot or in minimalist footwear. Rise up on the toes as high as you can, pressing through the big toe. Sustain this elevated position for as long as possible, continuously flexing the calf as hard as possible.
1-3 sets of 60+ seconds
Why its effective – Calves get derided for being a “stubborn” muscle group, but most trainees have a poor MMC to them. If you cannot feel them fully contracting and stretching on every single repetition, they are not likely to grow. Similar to the other isometric and static movements, having to hold a contraction for long periods of time will always increase neurological drive to a muscle.