A little while back, I wrote an entry on Crossfit that came out of seeing lots of bad form at the gym. The types and variations of bad form I see in the gym never cease to amaze me. Now, to be fair, I’m sure that some of these individuals have bad form and just don’t know it. Maybe someone never taught them how to do that exercise correctly or they never had anyone teach them at all. There is, however, a different category of bad form, and that’s what I like to call ego-based bad form.
This is the kind of form that comes out of either trying to lift more weight than you really can, doing more reps than you really can or doing more intense cardio than you really can. The first kind – lifting more than you really can is demonstrated by those gym goers who use momentum to do their reps. They use their bodyweight and/or gravity to help them complete each rep. Sometimes, if you’re unable to finish your LAST rep without momentum, then I get it. If you need it for rep number one? Step the weight down, friend.
Then you have those who do more reps than they should. They do half reps instead of a full range of motion in order to rack up the rep numbers. Imagine someone going bicep curls, but instead of them going all the way back down to starting position, they go to 90 degrees and count that as a rep. It’s definitely not a full one, buddy, and it’s not engaging your entire muscle.
Then you have the cardio folks who think they’re killing the stair master or elliptical by increasing the resistance way up high, but they hold onto the machine! They hold onto the monitor or sides of the machine, lifting themselves off of it and effectively making the exercise much easier. Sure, you might be “running stairs,” but if you’re clinging to the machine for dear life, then you’re not elevating your whole body with every step.
So, why do I bring this up other than to rant? Because form is really important. Hopefully you’re not one of the above offenders, but even if you’re implementing perfect form, there’s something you probably aren’t doing that’s really important. It’s called mind-muscle connection (or MMC for short). I know it sounds like some hippie theory or wizard concept, but it’s seriously real. It’s pretty much what it sounds like, and there’s a bunch of research to prove it. So, what is it?
MMC is the connection between the exercise you’re doing and how your brain is engaging the muscles it should be engaging while doing it. A simple version of this is when a trainer says “now concentrate on using your X muscle while you’re doing this exercise.” The general concept behind it is to use your neural pathways to engage and contract the muscle you’re intending on targeting.
So why is it important, and how does it factor into your lifting regimen? Our natural physical reaction to resistance is to recruit whatever power we have from our most able muscles to complete the task most easily. Every one of us has certain muscles that are stronger than other ones in our bodies. Imagine doing a squat. A squat is intended to engage all of the muscles in your legs. However, it’s likely that one of the muscle groups in your legs is stronger than the others. Let’s say your quads are the strongest muscle in your legs. Maybe it’s genetics, or maybe you’ve trained your quads the most, but for whatever reason, they’re the dominant muscle in your legs. When you do a squat and things begin to get difficult (toward the end of the set in particular), your quads will step in to carry the load. So, what happens? Your quads get all of the benefit of the exercise, and your glutes and hamstrings are relieved of the load – thereby not gaining the max benefit of the exercise. And the problem there is that you aren’t trying to make your strongest muscle stronger; you’re trying to make gains in all of the muscles in the muscle group.
That’s where MMC steps in. By actively focusing on what muscle you’re targeting, you can shift the load back to the intended muscle or muscle group. I have to do this all the time. I actually used MMC today when squatting, because I could feel my quads taking on the load, and I’m trying to build my glutes in particular. I used it when I did hip thrusters – reminding myself to squeeze my glutes and engage my hamstrings instead of letting my quads get recruited to carry the brunt of the load. A lot of people have to do this for bench press when their chest starts to get fatigued, because their triceps will try to lighten the load.
Whatever the exercise, make sure that not only your form is good, but that you’re focusing on what muscle should be contracting. It’s important to remember that our muscles don’t just magically grow because we were able to do a certain number of reps at a certain weight and can brag about it somewhere. Just moving the weight up and down doesn’t make our muscles grow. Maximum muscle contraction is what makes for the muscle gains.
That might mean you have to drop the weight you’re using, do half as many reps as usual or lessen the resistance on the stair stepper, but I promise you – doing it right will pay off so much more in the long run. You can’t fake hard work.