Don't lift heavy weights: build your 'mind-muscle' connection first, according to experts

Thinking about the rep and "squeezing" your muscle can help you build muscle with lighter weights

man doing bicep curls with a mind-muscle connection
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There's no way you can build muscle just by thinking about it. Right?

Well, yes and no. Sure, you can't build muscle without taking in lots of protein (such as our best protein powder for weight loss) and doing lots of resistance training using equipment like adjustable dumbbells and barbells. However, you don't need to be lifting too heavy: you can increase your muscle activation during these exercises by developing a "mind-muscle connection". 

Recently, online fitness legend Jeff Cavaliere, former strength coach to the New York Mets and founder of the YouTube channel Athlean-X, released a video talking about the mind-muscle connection, and how it can help you in your quest to build muscle even if you just have small weights to hand. 

 "Don't just move [the weight] from point A to point B, you need to contract the muscle," said Cavaliere. "I pretended that on every single rep, someone was asking me to make a muscle, so to do that, I had to really squeeze the muscle as hard as I possibly could.

"When you translate that into every rep that you do, you get better."

Cavaliere goes on to say that if you're doing barbell curls and chin-ups to build your arms, but you're not seeing much success, it might be because you're not contracting your bicep effectively. So learning how to think about contracting your muscle with small weights can be more beneficial than lifting big with improper form.

He argues that learning to do this with a very small weight, or no weight at all, is a great way to learn to "squeeze" the muscle throughout the exercise, increasing the level of muscle activation during your workout. You should be doing this anyway, but really thinking about the muscle you're contracting is called the "mind-muscle connection", and can help your muscles tone and grow. 

There is science to back this up: in 2016, researchers from Copenhagen (opens in new tab) found that developing the mind-muscle connection can increase muscle activity during a workout.  However, the research does mention it's most effective when training with around 60% of your one-rep max, helping you make the most of smaller weights.

This second paper from City University of New York (opens in new tab) agrees, finding that muscle tension and stress "are increased when the exerciser focuses their attention internally, which could ultimately result in greater muscular development for a given exercise and load. The effects of this strategy seem to be particularly beneficial when training with relatively light loads."

So if you're lifting relatively light, or doing lots of reps, try really squeezing the muscle throughout, thinking hard about flexing the muscle through the entirety of the exercise, moving through a full range of motion. 

Paying particular attention to the exercise is especially effective when training with resistance bands. As they're comprised of elastic, they're constantly working against you, trying to pull themselves back to their original shape. 

As a result, moving through a full range of motion slowly and under control becomes more challenging, and it's tempted to just let them snap back to their original form between reps. Don't do it, and focus on that muscle. Try this trick during the best chest workouts with resistance bands.  

Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.