Being in the moment, it’s a phrase that you hear a lot when it comes to meditation and being more mindful. It’s usually not the first thing you think of when it comes to strength training. Yet if you want to get the most out of your workouts it needs to be an important part of your time in the gym. 

So what does being in the moment during your workout mean? And how can it help you become stronger and move better? 

Being in the Moment – Exercise version

Strength training is all about challenging a set of muscles to move a resistance from one spot to another. If it’s done right then those muscles will grow and become stronger. If it’s not done right then there is a high chance of injury. While “done right” has many different definitions with exercise, including number of reps, sets, rest period and choice of exercises for your skill level, in this article I want to talk about ‘done right’ by what you are doing in the moment.  

Every exercise you do in strength training is designed to focus on one or more specific muscles. A chest press is meant to make your pectorals and triceps stronger. A squat is built to strengthen your quadriceps and glutes. A Lat pulldown is a movement to increase the pulling strength of your latissimus muscles. Yet your body will not always use the primary muscle for the exercise. This is where being in the moment comes into play. Focusing on the specific muscles for a specific exercise will help you build strength where you want it. 

Being in the moment in strength training makes you stronger

How to be in the moment during your strength training – the Mind Muscle connection

First off you need to know what are the main muscles you are trying to work for the movement you are doing. An easy example would be a barbell chest press. Two main muscles used are the chest muscles (pectorals) and the Triceps muscles (back of the arm). The pectorals pull the upper arm towards the midline of the body (This short video shows this movement ) and the triceps extends the arm  (This short video shows how this muscle moves the arm ). When put together you will push some resistance away from your body. 

Now that you know what primary muscle(s) are used for the exercise, you can start focusing on those muscles for that exercise. Let’s continue with the chest press movement example to illustrate this idea. For this example I’m going to focus on the primary movers, the pectoralis muscles.

Mind muscle in action

Let’s start by laying on the bench, arms extended, chest muscles fully contracted holding the barbell over your chest. To start you are going to slowly and consciously un-contract the chest muscles letting the bar move slowly towards your chest. At the bottom of this movement you are going to actively and consciously contract the chest muscles to push the weight back to its original starting point. If you have done this correctly you will notice that your chest muscles are doing most of the work and the movement will feel smooth. This is what the mind muscle connection is. It’s also what it means to be in the moment. You’re focused on your body, your breathing and the muscles you are using in the movement. 

You’re focused on your body, your breathing and the muscles you are using in the moment. 

You can’t do this if you are not focused on the muscles. If you are not focused on these muscles then you are going to unconsciously use whatever muscles that are part of your learned movement pattern.  With the example of the chest press a common complaint is that the shoulders become fatigued before the chest muscles. This usually happens because the common learned movement pattern for the chest press is to rely too much on rolling the shoulders forward and using those muscles to assist the chest.  This adds extra stress to your shoulders increasing the chance for injury.  By focusing on the contraction of the chest muscles you automatically take the shoulders out of the equation. 

How does this help become stronger and move better?

The goal with strength training is to stress the muscles so that the body has to build more muscle to compensate for the stress and make it easier to move the weight in the future. By focusing on the muscles that are the primary movers of the chosen exercise you are able to put the stress of the resistance on the correct muscles. This then allows the body to build more muscle for that movement making it easier in the future. 

What if I can’t feel the contraction? 

This conscious contraction of muscles can be difficult to feel at first. It’s like any new skill the more you work on it the easier it becomes. Yet by being in the moment and  focusing on the right muscles for the movement then over time you will start to get better and better at controlling the muscles around that movement. 

Mind muscle connection and focus

I’ve spent the majority of this post explaining the practical aspect of practicing the mind muscle connection. Yet being in the moment with your strength training has another added benefit, the practice of focus. In meditation it’s your breath. By focusing on your breathing you are attempting to reduce your thoughts from jumping all over the place and to be in the moment. This can be very difficult and frustrating. With the mind muscle connection in strength training you are still practicing your focus on being in the moment yet the focus is just for the time it takes to complete one repetition of the exercise. It’s more difficult (though not impossible) to have random thoughts intrude. Once you finish the movement you can release the focus. Then as you set up for the next repetition drop back into that focus.  The intervals are shorter compared to 5 minutes of continual meditation, but it’s still training your brain to focus. 

Conclusion 

Strength training isn’t mindless; Or strength training done right isn’t mindless. By knowing what muscles are primary for the movement that you are doing, and by focusing on contracting those muscles you are getting the most from your training. Additionally, by taking the time to focus on your movement you are building a stronger habit of focus. So before your next gym session, start to pay more attention to your movement and the muscles that you are trying to work.