If your goal is sheer performance — think about lifting a maximal amount of weight, running as fast or jumping as far as you can, or juking a defender out of their drawers — then research soundly backs using external cues to elicit best results. A few examples of external cues might be “Squeeze a quarter between your glutes,” “Spread the floor apart with your feet,” “Drive the bar through the ceiling,” or “Squeeze oranges in your armpits and try to make juice” (a Tony Gentilcore special for activating the lats during a deadlift). External cues are outcome oriented, and they sure do makes ya want to do some shit, don’t they?
Internal focus or cueing, on the other hand, brings attention and awareness to specific body mechanics. A few examples: “Squeeze your glutes,” “Activate your lats,” or “Extend your hips.” These are less stellar for performance. Why? Because our bodies are smart. Barring injury or other considerations that may lead to malfunctions in our inner circuitry, our systems automatically call upon the most effective sequencing of muscle firing to complete the physical task at hand, regardless of what that task is.
With a few key exceptions, I’ve been Team External Cue for as long as I’ve been coaching. Hell, for as long as I’ve been physically active, because to me, performance has always been paramount.
But when it comes to building muscle size, however, external cues are no slam dunk. In fact, research indicates that internal cues may be superior in this context.
Internal cues lead to greater internal focus, which leads to more muscular recruitment and activity, and while that may be inefficient for performance (where you want to get the job done with as little effort as possible), it can be pretty spectacular for making #gainz.
The exact mechanisms behind this are still being studied, but legions of bodybuilder types will tell you the mind-muscle connection is a critical piece of the muscle-making magic.
Essentially, internal cueing has its place, and that place is in your biceps…and glutes..and hamstrings…and so on. And so on. It’s called the mind-muscle connection, and those serious about building muscle swear by it.
It wasn’t until I was training with Kourtney Thomas one night last fall at The Movement Minneapolis, Heart Radio blaring on Pandora and lights dimmed, that I witnessed how this really works in action.
She seemed to savor every rep, clearly and singularly focused on the specific muscle groups she was working.
Basically, this really was her face during biceps curls:
But seriously. It was a lightbulb moment for me, and in an instant, she changed the way I approached each session. Scratch that — each rep. It was a game-changer, and all it took was a focus on feel.
My results got an immediate bump. With this new focus on how each lift felt — and where I was feeling it — that my muscle gains started coming fast and furious. It felt like the missing link.
In our group of 40-plus women who have already completed this program, the mind-muscle connection, that focus on feel, came up again and again as an aha moment for people. Here’s how one conversation went: “The mind-muscle connection gives you the chance to recruit the right muscles and see better results. I’d like to recommend it to anyone starting out, because you can truly concentrate on feeling what muscle group you’re working. It has really helped me to make sure the right groups are firing when i want them to be.”
Building big muscles involves striking the right balance between workout volume, training frequency, exercise selection, amount of weight you use, and rest times — plus developing a solid mind-muscle connection.
And that just takes checking in with what’s going on with you. Good advice in and out of the gym.
Find out when you can get Big again by joining the waitlist for the next round of The Bigness Project, the 14-week muscle-maximizing program by Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, and Jen Sinkler.