Brain Power: The Key to Maximizing Your Workouts
The mind is a powerful thing.
There is no doubt that that phrase has been overused and become cliche, but there is so much truth to it, nevertheless. Weight trainers, both recreational and elite, are often characterized by critics as being mindless, but what they fail to realize is the highly important role that the brain plays in most lifts.
In reality, the brain has to send out many, many messages, simultaneously, to different parts of the body to signal the desired movements. It acts as the composer in a symphony, guiding the muscles (in this analogy-- the orchestra) to hit the right notes. In cases where a person is doing more advanced Olympic-style lifts, more moving parts and emphasis of producing powerful movements at precise times means there are more signals sent out by the brain.
Nevertheless, these things do not happen overnight. With committed drills and consistency, learning new exercises can feel more like second nature in a matter of days, weeks, or maybe months.
THE LEARNING PROCESS
When a person comes into the gym for the first time, he will most likely have a lot of difficulty with most multi-joint exercises and move straight to the machines. This is because free weight exercises, like squats and deadlifts, require several movements among the joints occurring, simultaneously, and the timing and extent of each movement playing a major role in performing the exercise safely and correctly.
For example, when performing the back squat, the goal is to have the barbell to travel vertically in the descent and ascent while being aligned with the middle part of the foot (from the side view). In order to do this successfully, the individual’s hips will slide back and the torso will lean forward at the proper angle, all the knees and ankles are being bent until the person has descended to the proper depth.
Learning to do all of these movements to perform squats with good form can take weeks or months. With consistent drilling and repetitions, the brain will slowly put together the elements and, eventually, be able to properly instruct the muscles to act accordingly. As the proper technique becomes a habit, the brain remains highly active, but the individual no longer has to consciously think of movements.
OPENING UP LANES
If you can recall the first couple of months when you took up resistance training, it is likely that you were able to stack more weight at a much faster rate than you do these days. This is not because your muscles were getting a lot stronger in the early days, but, rather, that a more solid channel of communications between the mind and the working muscles was being established.
Whenever I explain this phenomenon, I use the analogy of construction on an interstate highway. When you start lifting weights, think of it like you are driving down a highway at rush hour-- while you will still be able to get from point A to point B, it is going to take a long time to get there. Adhering to a consistent training schedule, it is like new lanes are being constructed, thereby making travel far more productive. While the actual strength within the muscles does not increase much after a couple weeks, the new channels of communications between the mind and muscle does increase quite rapidly for beginners, which means they are able to lift more weight.
ENVISIONING THE MECHANICS
Picturing your muscles contracting and relaxing during each repetition is a very helpful way to train the body to work the targeted muscles with more effectiveness.
For example, when I introduce the ipsilateral curtsy single leg deadlift to new clients, after demonstrating the exercise and asking them to perform a few repetitions, I ask them what muscles they felt were doing the most work. The exercise is supposed to work the hamstring, as well as the gluteus medius (this is the muscle on the back side of the hip). Most of the time, the client may say they feel a different muscle being stressed, and, typically, it is corrected with simple technique advice. Nevertheless, I go through a second demonstration, but, this time, I tell them to put their focus on the hamstring and gluteus medius stretching during the descent, picturing an image of the muscles in their head, as well as imagining those muscles contracting in the ascent.
Practicing mental imagery is shown to be highly effective, and, in my experience training clients, it has been incredibly helpful in helping them understand what it is that I am asking. It is also key to establishing a strong mind-body connection because the client is led to focus on the target muscle/muscle group and making it do the work.
It is understandable that some only view exercise as a purely physical act, and without considering that the brain plays a major role. For you to learn to do basic exercises, like the squat or deadlift, or complex Olympic-style lifts, the brain has to process many, many things as it sends the signals to the working muscles. Using mental imagery as a learning strategy can help ease and shorten the process, ultimately, improving technique and overall performance.