Most of us hear mind-body fitness (or, body-mind, depending on who you ask) and automatically connect it with practices like yoga, tai chi or Pilates. That’s a good start.
But there’s more to making that connection than focused, controlled floor work—like the benefits of putting “your mind into your muscle” during cardio and strength training.
Smarter, Safer, Stronger
When we lift weights, for example in a bench press, our brains will naturally focus on the action required: pressing the barbell up and lowering it. If instead you can shift your concentration to the muscles doing the moving (say, flexing and releasing of your chest and the front of your shoulders) you’ll not only be focused on form, you’ll be recruiting from the right muscles more effectively. All that helps you get better results, plus avoid uneccessary wear and tear on your joints, and reduce your risk for injury.
The reason for better results? Research suggests it’s due to the increased muscle activity that happens when you think about your body as it’s working during exercise. In one study, participants were broken into three groups: those who were instructed to think about the muscles they were using, those who thought about the weight they were lifting, and those who thought about something else entirely. They measured the most muscle action in those that concentrated on their muscles. And that action leads to more gains.
Do the Right Thing
Avoiding improper or imbalanced movements, and making sure you’re not compensating, or “cheating” during exercise, is another way to benefit from building a strong connection between body and mind. It’s easy enough to resort to using the stronger parts of your body in everyday movements without realizing it, so during training, it makes sense to pay extra attention to things like equally distributing your weight, using small muscles as supporting players not just big ones, and so on. Runners, for example, benefit from focusing on their foot strikes and their posture, not just their thigh muscles, speed or distance.
Mindfulness is also helpful for developing weaker muscles versus the more dominant ones, especially in movements that could be performed by more than one muscle. This is true of a lot of strength moves, sports moves, and body weight training. One example is a classic push-up: if your upper body dominates your core strength and stability, you’re missing out on results. Another example happens during a twisting motion, such as a swinging a golf club or baseball bat. Using “all arms” produces a very different result than being able to call on your abs and other muscles that support the spine.
Build It Yourself
It’s not easy to block out distractions when you’re at a busy gym with other exercisers all around you, but that is a worthy goal during any workout routine you participate in.
Even in group fitness classes, where you are focused on choreography and the instructor’s commands, make sure you give the rest of your attention to your own body: how does it feel, how is it working, how tired or tight are you, etc.? This kind of mental check is useful during all your gym time. It will help you avoid distractions like comparing your performance to others or worrying about your appearance. Instead, build your mind-body connection and get the most from your muscle!