I love it when I stumble upon a fitness influencer who can teach me something “new” about a movement I’ve been doing for years. It’s the perfect ah-ha moment, where suddenly the movement I thought I’d been executing correctly gets a lot more intense, and I’m seeing better results.
What I’ve picked up on over the years is that all of those “ah-ha moments” usually have to deal with some element of muscle control that I hadn’t picked up on before.
A lot of people think if they want to get shredded, or lean and toned, they need to do some crazy fast, impossible to keep up with, HIIT routine six days a week, that’s a lie.
Have you ever been in a Down Dog during yoga class, sweaty fingers and burning shoulders, and the instructor adjusts your hips and suddenly the pose makes sense? This is what you should keep in mind when you're doing forty glute bridges or walking lunges. Is there too much pressure on your knee? If that’s the case, then you need to slow down and do it right. It will probably burn more. That’s a good thing. Do it even slower.
“The idea is that slower sets give you a longer time-under-tension (TUT), which creates more muscle damage and encourages more muscular growth,” says askmen.com fitness writer Anthony Yeung.
The goal is for you to continuously make sure you can hold the proper form throughout an exercise. Form will always take precedence over higher repetitions and speed, for a number of reasons. The biggest reason being that if you’re working out at a pace that compromises form, then you’re engaging the wrong muscles, (a.k.a. those bridges you’re holding aren’t doing a darn thing for that bucket list peach you’re trying to grow.)
Have you recently switched it up from a regular glute bridge to a single-leg bridge? Did you take the time to research how to do the exercise properly? If you haven’t, you should, or you’re not going to see the results you want.
De La Rue explains that the incorrect way to do this move [single-leg glute bridge] is to move the standing leg too far away from your torso, which limits the amount of support you have. She adds that by not engaging your core, you might not get the full strength from this workout. The correct method, she says, involves engaging your core and bringing your supporting leg close to your body, so your ankle is directly under your knee.” - Health.com
If you can’t exercise with proper form for twenty-five repetitions then do less, because if you keep going past the point where you lose the ability to engage the right muscles, you’re not going to get the results you really want. If you’re new to a movement do it even slower than you think you should. Prime example: try doing a sit-up, but when you lower yourself down to the floor, do it vertebrae by vertebrae. It’s going to feel like you’re engaging more core muscles than it did on the way up. You’re going to get a lot more definition when you exercise if you do it slowly enough to create tension and hold form. Muscles grow because of tension, that tension leads to the micro-tearing of the muscle tissue that will heal and grow stronger. Washboard abs anyone? Move mindfully and you’ll get there.
What this all builds up to is mind-muscle connection. Knowing what muscle the movement is meant to engage and learning the proper form, slowly. Repeating, until muscle failure but not past “form failure”.
Mind-muscle connection isn’t just a concept that should be tossed around the weight room, but during body weight routines too. Our bodies are made up of muscles that we absentmindedly engage during everyday tasks: like walking. These muscles are engaged without thinking (muscle memory) so our minds can toil away at other things: like over thinking your last zoom meeting while you make your way to the fridge for the fifth time that day. Helpful, until it isn’t, and you get injured, or never reach the endurance level you want, or muscle tone you desire. For example, next time you walk to the fridge notice if you’re slouching. If you are, you probably have some weak muscles in your back, and well just plain bad posture, but you can work on that.
Here's another example: have you ever been in the employee break room and seen the safety posters saying lift with your legs and not your back? It’s because of injury prevention, of course, but it also points to the fact we have to be reminded of what muscles to activate for heavy lifting. Our first impulse is to engage our back muscles, it seems easier, but when you hinge forward and pick something up with your arms, chances are you’re going to wake up the next morning with a very cranky sore back. You didn’t use your supporting muscles when you moved that crate of water.
It’s the same concept while lunging, it’s easier to lean forward too much, letting our stronger muscles engage more. Let’s be honest it’s easier even if it’s causing sore knees, but is it worth it?
If we allow ourselves to exercise with only our dominant muscles, we never work the muscles we need to get the results we want. You have to slow down, do less, and learn.
Unless you’re a fitness instructor, professional athlete, etc., you probably don’t start your training session by reminding yourself to focus on the mind-muscle connection. It’s probably easier to find yourself thinking about how you have to make it through a grueling forty minutes, rather than focusing on form. If that’s the case do a twenty minute workout instead. Working out should be gratifying, so you want to do it again, and it should be done in a way that’s worth your time. Don’t worry about showing off how fast, or how many, or how heavy. Just enjoy your workout, you’ll see the results.
Mind-muscle connection, is about making sure you are activating your stabilizer muscles and utilizing those more movement dominant muscles the right way, and you're going to get the performance results you're seeking.
If you don’t know what a stabilizer muscle is, think about doing a squat: you’re performing the exercise to engage your peach and the front of your thighs. But what’s helping you to not fall over backwards is your calves, back, and core. While executing a squat the calves, back, and core are acting as STABILIZER MUSCLES. If you were doing calf raises then your calves would be the dominant muscles you’re engaging, but you’re still stabilizing yourself with your core.
Having strong stabilizer muscles is important for having good balance and coordination. When playing sports or performing unilateral exercises, you want your entire body to stabilize your movement from your ankles to your knees to your core. Strong stabilizer muscles make you more agile and quicker to accelerate and decelerate.[...] allow you to handle greater loads during training. No matter how strong your primary movers are during an exercise, if your stabilizer muscles are lacking, the movement will be dysfunctional and not as much force can be applied.” -setforset.com
If you drop your forty minute HIIT routine down to twenty minutes, do yourself a favor: make every single movement count. Keep your breath in mind, the tension you’re creating in your muscles with your workout pace. Are you holding the right form?
Twenty minutes is only 1.4% of your day, keep that in mind.
Holding and contracting your muscles at the top and bottom of the movement can be incredibly effective in inducing a pump by establishing a mind-muscle connection. A mind-muscle connection and pump are inter-connected. Hold a rep for a couple of seconds and squeeze the living hell out of your muscles at the contraction point to help ignite new muscle growth. You should also consider using lighter weights and focusing on your muscles if you’re not able to set-up a mind-muscle connection.” -generationiron.com
So when you’re approaching a new workout program or not seeing the results you think you should be, then invest in slowing training. Do shorter workouts, make a point of moving muscle by muscle. Really connect to the movements you’re executing. Once you think you understand mind-muscle connection and form, run through a HIIT workout or long jog. Your muscles will be stronger, your stabilizer muscles will be there to support, and you’ll be getting the results you want. You'll be faster, more explosive, less prone to injury.