I can’t tell you how often I see people at the gym going through their routine focused on the number of repetitions they are completing instead of the quality of the movement they are performing. Sure, reps are important. We want to be consistently pushing our limitations, so creating and meeting rep/weight goals are an important part of that. But I can tell you that if you aren’t paying attention to what muscles you are contracting, to the quality of those contractions, and to what muscles are stabilizing the whole process, then you are missing out on one of the best things you can do to advance your training.
Whether you’re a yogi class calling it “mindfullness”, a professional athlete calling it “the zone”, or a strength trainer calling it the “mind muscle connection”, the fact is there is a very real (if not somewhat esoteric) component to effective strength training that goes a beyond endlessly counting off reps and checking off completed exercises.
Still not sure of what I’m getting at? Take the example of a squat. What do you feel happening to your body when you squat? Is your lower back taking a lot of the weight and fatiguing? It shouldn’t be, if your spine is stacked correctly. What’s going on? Is your dominant leg taking the brunt of the weight and doing the majority of the work? If so, you are further strengthening the dominant side, neglecting the weaker side, and wreaking havoc on your spine. Make a conscious effort to back off of the dominant side and give the other side a chance to work! What if you (or someone observing you) notices that at the bottom of your squat repetition, one cheek dips lower than the other. Chances are you have a lack of flexibility in your hips and/or a weak glute on that side. Again, make a conscious effort to focus on that glue during each contraction of the rep. At the bottom of the squat, make sure to keep your quads and core (including your glutes) tight. Don’t let those muscles take a “micro rest” at the bottom of the repetition! Maintain the focus on the contraction of these muscles and maintain control throughout. Can you contract that flute on demand? If not, maybe it’s time to do a few extra glute bridges or donkey kicks on that side to wake it up! Glutes are notorious for “having amnesia” and going to sleep if you don’t give them a little extra attention on a regular basis.
This example is of course a simple one, for the purpose of getting the point across. The truth is that giving your body the full attention that it deserves is a lifelong discovery process. I realize that this can sound hokey or make me sound like I’m full of granola, but I’m not. Virtually all the best athletes in the world will attest to being in “the zone” when performing their activity. So take a hint from the best in the world and start getting into your own “zone” every time you workout.
Quieting your mind and dedicating this moment to the task at hand (a given exercise) doesn’t come naturally for everyone though. Especially in today’s fast paced, on-demand world where people feel like there getting nothing done if they aren’t doing 6 things at once. If this sounds like you, then it’s all the more reason to really work on this aspect of your strength training. It will add infinite depth to the process, and your body will thank you for it!
Alex Cromartie CPT, CHC