Attentional focus is what we’ve come to know as the famous “mind-muscle connection,” and is actually quite an interesting training strategy for physique- or performance-oriented athletes. It can be defined as essentially what individuals think about when performing a given movement or exercise.
There are two main categories of attentional focus strategies we know of and employ quite often: internal and external. An internal focus can be described as an individual thinking about bodily movements throughout an exercise or during performance. An external focus is when the individual’s thoughts are directed towards their environment and surroundings. A great example of an internal focus would be cueing an athlete to “squeeze your glutes” at the top of a hip thrust. An external focus would involve cues such as “drive through the floor,” or something encouraging the individual to simply get the weight up.
Both internal and external attentional focus strategies serve a purpose. Specific goals require specific protocols, as we know, and intentionally training coincides with this as well. Research shows a distinct difference between the use of internal and external focus when it comes to performance-oriented tasks – external focus being the favored strategy to use in order to improve one’s motor patterns and enhance overall performance.
While it’s one thing to move weight and perform efficiently, this may not be the best for muscular hypertrophy. Seeing the application and results of an external focus can lead us to speculate that perhaps an internal focus would be best suited for more physique- and hypertrophy-related goals – those that aim to increase muscle activation and target specific muscle groups. In this present study, Schoenfeld and colleagues aimed to compare external and internal focus strategies in order to gain some insight on their impact on hypertrophy and strength.
30 untrained males participated in this study (27 of whom completed it). The men were pair-matched based on their baseline muscle mass (values taken from their biceps and quadriceps) and were then randomly split into one of two experimental groups. These two groups consist of the two types of attentional focus strategies: an internal focus group and an external focus group.
The internal focus group focused on contracting their targeted muscle group during the training session, while the external focus group kept their attention on the outcome of the lift during training sessions. This can basically be thought of as comparing the action of squeezing your muscles versus just getting the weight up and completing a specific exercise.
As for the diet, subjects were told to maintain their current dietary habits. 5-day food records were taken at two different points during the study period and subjects were also supplied with a protein supplement on training days to consume following each resistance training session (25g protein, 1g carbohydrate).
The men were trained under supervision 3 times per week for a period of 8 weeks. Training sessions were placed on non-consecutive days and consisted of two movements: the barbell bicep curl and machine leg extension. Single-joint movements like these were chosen due to the fact that single-joint exercises make it easier for individuals to direct focus towards performance of these movements during training.
During each session, subjects in both groups performed 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions for each exercise to maximum concentric failure, otherwise defined as not being able to complete another repetition with good form. Specific cues were given to subjects in each group in order to reinforce the type of focus they should be employing during the working sets. For the internal focus group, subjects were cued to “squeeze the muscle!” on each rep, while the external group was cued to “get the weight up!”
Key findings and considerations
Following the 8 weeks of training, superior gains in bicep hypertrophy were observed for the internal focus strategy compared to external, though any change in the quadriceps was not affected by either focus strategy. This somewhat shows us that we can enhance or optimize muscle hypertrophy through the use of mind-muscle connection. We can say “somewhat,” because the researchers discuss the possibility that the quadriceps, being a much larger muscle group compared to the bicep, was harder for subjects to keep focus on through working sets taken to failure. Additional studies support this idea in that the upper extremities are more suited for fine motor skills and maintaining greater control of them in general. Training status is also important to keep in mind here.
In addition to this, there were no significant differences between the two groups for strength measures, although it is noted that a small magnitude in strength gains do favor the external focus group here. As for the diet, many discrepancies were noted within the food logs, making it difficult to decipher if and how any dietary measures could impact the subjects’ results.
Now, trust regarding the diet is not the only limitation in this study. While research team supervised each training session and ensured to cue the subjects appropriately, we still cannot know for sure that the subjects were really focusing on what they needed to. There’s no way to actually measure this variable, which leaves a lot of room for the results to be impacted differently. With that said, the differences between the groups’ bicep thickness do show a good sign that an internal focus strategy can strongly influence outcomes for those looking to maximize muscle gain in the biceps.
Application to the athlete
A large majority of people can benefit from training smarter, rather than reaching for their next big PR. Lifting heavy weight is fun, of course, but if you take a minute to really pay attention to each working set and notice that you’re just not “feeling it” like you need to be (granted your goal is predominantly hypertrophy-related), it’s probably time to drop the ego and focus on the execution of the movement instead. You’ll more likely be getting the most out of each exercise this way. Once you start going into your training sessions with intention and a plan for what you need to illicit from said session, you stop spinning your wheels and can focus on the areas you want to improve on over time.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Vigotsky, A., Contreras, B., et al. Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training. European Journal of Sport Science. (2018), DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020