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Bodybuilding is far more cerebral than many have been conditioned to believe; it’s not just a bunch of chimps slinging weights around for no reason. Proper bodybuilding requires intense levels of concentration and hours upon hours of practice to achieve a heightened awareness of one’s micro- and macro-physiology. The term “mind-muscle connection” was most popularized by 7-time Mr. Olympia Champion Arnold Schwarzenegger and has been utilized for decades as a method of syncing an individual’s body with their conscious perception. Professional bodybuilders use this deep focus on the internal workings of their musculoskeletal system (along with massive injectable cocktails of illegal synthetic hormones) to produce exponentially better and faster results.
The results are unquestionable
It sounds like some kind of hippie-riddled pseudoscience, but I can tell you firsthand that the feeling is tangible and the effects are unquestionable. To properly develop this connection, you must funnel every ounce of your focus into contracting an individual muscle rather than simply moving a weight.
The weight is but an extension of your arm. All it can do is add resistance. The muscle fibers themselves are what move the weight.
Take an example
If you’re doing lat pull-downs, for example, you shouldn’t be thinking about pulling the bar to your chest; you should be trying to contract your back muscles so hard, and at such a cellular level, that the bar has no choice but to come down to your chest.
This contraction is referred to as the concentric phase of the movement, whereas the return from full flex to starting position is the eccentric phase. The individual muscle fibers you wish to target should commandeer your entire thought process throughout these concentric and eccentric portions.
Don’t be counterproductive
It sounds obvious, but trust when I say that I watch guys doing dumbbell curls every day, flailing around like some kind of rabid, silverback ape dodging tranquilizer darts in the parking lot of the San Diego Zoo. It’s absolutely incredible. And by incredible, I mean incredibly counterproductive.
If you wish to avoid the tectonic-plate-level progress that is all but guaranteed with this style of lifting and want to start making real, measurable gains, then check out the actionable steps below to read how you can begin developing your own mind-muscle connection.
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Where to start with squeeze, surrender, stretch
Developing a heightened mind-muscle connection is mandatory for anyone looking to burst through the plateaus commonly experienced after achieving their “newbie gains” (the unusually rapid improvements in strength and size during the initial months of new weightlifters), and the process can be drastically accelerated by adopting my framework of squeeze-surrender-stretch.
Squeeze refers to the concentric phase, which you now understand as the flexing portion of a movement that shortens the muscle. Before your next set of preacher curls, close your eyes and envision yourself diving directly into your bicep muscle fibers. Don’t move the weight. Squeeze the fibers. Squeeze them all. Squeeze them as hard as you possibly can. Squeeze them like a python choking out a gazelle. Squeeze them like you’ve got half a dab of toothpaste left in the tube, and in spite of the fact that your breath smells like you’ve just spent the weekend serving as the head taste-tester of a French onion soup competition, there’s someone in the other room looking to make out. You need that toothpaste, brother. So squeeze it. And when you’re at the peak of the movement, squeeze even harder.
Only once you’ve considered the very real possibility of your biceps exploding like a bag of BBQ chips under a hydraulic press may you move on to the surrender and begin the eccentric phase of the movement.
When following the squeeze, surrender, stretch sequence, you must now surrender to the weight. Relinquish your squeeze as slowly as you can, tenaciously battling gravity while still allowing it to overtake you, as you retreat to the starting position. When performed correctly, the surrender is the most difficult part of any exercise, and therefore the most critical. Your body so badly wants to run from the pain, begging you to stop fighting and fully relax all tension. One of the main reasons that so many guys find themselves plateauing for months or even years at a time is because they are repeatedly giving in to this urge. Stay in the fight until the very moment you reach the starting position.
In the last phase of squeeze, surrender, stretch, let the weight completely dominate you as it pulls your muscle fibers, ligaments, and tendons apart. This will create an excruciating burn that you will soon come to crave. For bicep curls, this is with arms fully extended. Block everything out except for the pain. Let the arms inch so close to flaccidity that the weight nearly falls from your fingers.
Muscle fibers are surrounded by a rigid layer of connective tissue, called fascia, which acts as a mechanical barrier to muscle expansion. Because this fibrous network of fascia is so tough, following up each contraction with a skin-splitting stretch is utterly imperative if the underlying muscles are to have any chance at increasing in size.
You just performed a single quality repetition, one which likely felt distinctly more intense than past efforts. Good. Building muscle tissue is a painstakingly slow process, and simply going through the motions is never going to allow you to create the body you desire. If you repeat this process for every solitary rep from this moment forward, I assure you that your results will be worth every ounce of suffering.
Set the rhythm
To further expedite the hypertrophic process, take note of the natural cadence that coincides with the squeeze-surrender-stretch technique. Capturing this cadence is essential but may take some time. An easy way to make this tempo become a habit is to over-accentuate your breathing pattern.
Before beginning a set, take a massive nasal breath from your diaphragm and hold. Exhale through the mouth just as you begin the squeeze, blowing forcefully and steadily through pursed lips. Imagine you are trying to blow out a candle sitting four feet in front of your face. Your lungs should completely empty just as you finish the squeeze and prepare to surrender. Now inhale through the nose once again, starting and stopping the breath concurrently with the duration of the surrender. Inhale as if you were assessing the damage of an emergency enchilada-induced bowel movement in your brand-new girlfriend’s apartment after realizing there’s not a can of Febreeze within a square mile.
Finally, maintain the stretch position with a full set of lungs for as long as you prefer, and then repeat the entire process.
Forceful, oral exhale. Squeeze.
Deep, nasal inhale. Surrender.
Hold. Stretch. Repeat.
In a trance
Executing this deep, rhythmic breathing style over the course of just a single set can very easily bring you to a euphoric, meditative state. As you enter this trance-like zone, allow the abundance of apprehensions infecting your consciousness to silently drift away, leaving nothing to compete with this physical reality. Feel the air expanding your lungs as sweat droplets amass along your forehead. Take note of the searing, fiery burn emanating from your exhausting muscle tissue. Face this pain in its entirety, unwavering and unafraid, for it is this pain that lets you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are alive. Live in this moment a human being, capable of perceiving the full spectrum of pleasure and pain. Ignore the impulse to succumb as you bestow YOUR will upon the world. Bring yourself to the edge of your very existence.
Now THAT was a proper set.
Do the research
Understanding musculoskeletal anatomy is crucial to developing a strong mind-muscle connection. Before your next weightlifting session, check out these diagrams and try to spot the different muscles you plan to isolate that day. Find the hinge(s) the muscle acts upon. Learn the planes (x, y, z) in which the muscle moves. Identify the cooperating and opposing muscle groups. Failing to prepare is the same as preparing to fail.
Find the pump!
Warm up with 4 or 5 sets of medium weight with an emphasis on merely swelling the muscle with blood. Learning the squeeze-surrender-stretch technique is significantly easier when you already have a bit of a pump.
This deliberate, exaggerated style of lifting is going to feel strange at first. You are going to recruit considerably more muscle fibers than ever before, so don’t be surprised if your movements seem spastic or if you don’t quite grasp the concept right away. Don’t worry about your breathing or tempo yet. Focus on squeezing, surrendering, and stretching with every rep.
If you are new to this method, then you may be shocked at how sore it will leave your muscles, perhaps even for several days. Lifting creates thousands of microtears along our muscle fibers, and anaerobic respiration leaves painful lactic acid in its wake. Hydrating, stretching, and consuming the proper quantities and proportions of macronutrients are mandatory ingredients if these tears are to generate new, healthy muscle tissue.
Ramp it up
Once you develop a baseline mind-muscle connection, start incorporating the breathing cadence and incrementally increasing your weights. This is a skill that you will never perfect but can always improve upon, so take joy in the process, not the result.
About the Author
RN, BSN, CCRN
After a brief stint in the Men’s Physique competition realm, and even winning first place in his final show, John decided to use his expertise to help normal, everyday people create the body they’ve always desired. His book, “The Busy Body: Principles for Building a Great Physique without Missing out on Life” is the culmination of over a decade of honing his craft. John is currently an RN in the Cardio-Thoracic Surgery ICU at Duke Hospital.
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