Marta Montenegro: Flex Your Brain for a Better Body

Andrew Meade Photography, Inc.

 (Andrew Meade Photography, Inc.)

“Imagine the thighs melting downward into the blankets,” says a yoga instructor. “Think like if you were pinching a pen to fully contract the muscles around the scapula,” says a trainer.  “Keep your hands as if you were holding an egg,” says a runner coach.

What do all these guidelines have in common?

Beyond the exercise component, they all promote a body-mind connection.

How we think and what we think can have a significant impact on our muscle and fitness development, weight loss, and exercise adherence.

“Whenever anyone has a thought or conjures an image while daydreaming, certain chemicals are released in the brain that cause reactions locally and through the body, including the muscles”, says Charmaine Defranceso, Ph.D., associate professor of movement science and sports psychology at Florida State University.

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Flex the Brain

If you don’t believe that just thinking on how your biceps muscle shortens and lengthen as you perform a curl will activate more muscle fibers, look at this research from Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D. about perception and daily exercise.

In her research, Langer found that on average, hotel maids exceeded the U.S Surgeon General exercise recommendations—but they didn’t perceive themselves physically active though. However, one month after knowing their actual activity level, they decreased systolic blood pressure, lost weight, and reduced their waist to hip ratio in compared to the previous values reported. So to reap the full benefits, it was important to think they were active.

Despite that the results were attributed to a change of perception on their physical activity, other techniques, such as mental imagery, factors into the mind-muscle bridge.  Researchers have consistently demonstrated that thoughts as simple as imaging your abdominal muscles contracted when doing a plank pose stimulate brain and muscle activity.

Indeed, Brad Schoenfeld, MS, CSCS, 2011 NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year, and author of The MAX Muscle Plan, indicates that in a study where researchers had two groups perform the lat pull downs, the group that used the mind-muscle practice reported greater activation of the lats compared with the control group.

Conscious Workout

When something is about to fall off a shelf, certainly you don’t think about the muscles you use—you just use them.

“Muscles can contract in two ways,” says Pete McCall, exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise. “As a reflex, in where you automatically create a signal from the brain to the muscle for the desired contraction-muscle action, or as the result of a cognitive thought in where you consciously think about contracting a muscle and send a nervous system signal to that muscle for the desired action-action response.”

McCall adds that this mind-body sync can benefit all types of exercise—from holding a yoga pose where you engage specific body parts to support the position to how entire muscle groups contract when you run or do any strength-training move.

To engage this affect involves self-talking, says McCall. “It’s the process of talking yourself through a movement and remembering to maintain position and use specific muscles. For instance, during a run consciously thinking about foot placement and foot strike can help maintain a more effective pace and stride rate.”

Body-Mind Brake-up?

Imaging how your abdominals contract when doing crunches may help to achieve your goals faster, but the same results may not be accomplished when competing.

Generally, during competition, Mc Call says the athlete has to use conscious thought to consider an opponent’s actions and/or how to execute a specific play. However, Schoenfeld comments that “if the goal is to enhance muscle development then developing a mind-muscle connection can definitely help to enhance results. Similarly, the mind-muscle connection can be very important when rehabilitating from an injury.”

Feel it Right

You probably think you already use this technique based on the “I feel it right here” type of thought that goes through your mind when doing an exercise. (Think of doing a squat.) But this “I feel” type of mind-set must be connected to the right muscle, joint, and overall right pattern.

“An exercise can ‘feel’ right as far as targeting a given muscle, but the joint may be moving in a way that it is not intended,” says Schoenfeld. “Thus, it is important to not rely solely on mind-muscle as a definitive gauge of proper technique.”

Before putting the body-mind technique to work make sure you know how to perform the exercise correctly, what are the dos and don’ts of each move, and what muscles should you focus on. By doing so, you’ll be able to produce a greater neuro-muscular response, which will translate into improved strength, greater body mass, increased muscle tone, and/or faster fat reduction.

Not engaging mind-muscle can even diminish your workout results. Says Schoenfeld: “If the goal is to maximize muscle development then not using mind-muscle techniques can result in secondary muscle movers taking over in the performance of the lift. This shifts emphasis away from the target muscles, thus decreasing results.”

Thinking When Doing

How can you turn on the mind-muscle connection? Here are some tips from McCall when doing some common resistance exercises:


Push your hands into the ground while doing the movement, rather than just letting the body fall back to the ground. Grip the ground with the fingers and pull your body towards the floor


Think about using your butt by pushing the hips back

Engage spinal stabilizers by holding the chest up (tall) and bracing your stomach muscles (like preparing to be punched in the belly)

Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground; when standing, think about pushing the ground away from the body


The hip (butt) muscles should do most of the work; keep your chest lifted to keep the spine straight

Brace your stomach and push the foot into the floor when returning to the top of the movement

Shoulder press

Rather than letting the arms fall back down, think about pulling the elbows back towards the body (this uses different shoulder/back muscles)


Squeeze your butt and thighs and contract/brace your abs (like expecting a stomach punch) to increase stability

Keep your chin tucked in and hips/shoulders at the same height

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website,, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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