by Mitch Muller Iron Magazine
I’m going to share with you some valuable information that I wish I would have received earlier in my lifting career. It would have spared me many countless wasted hours in the gym thinking that I was “building muscle” when I really wasn’t. Once I figured out this concept, my muscle gains went through the roof, and since then I’ve never looked back.
I like to refer to this concept as “Neuromuscular Shaping.” Later I’ll explain exactly why it’s called that and exactly how you can apply it.
I want you to start by knowing this sentence inside and out:
It is not the weight pressing down or adding stress to the muscle that makes it grow, it is the combination of resistance AND the CONTRACTION taking place AT that muscle.
Did you get that? This is where 99% of guys in the gym will completely go wrong. Here I was thinking this whole time that if I just lifted weights, I would get bigger. After all, what were we all told when we stepped in the gym for the first time?
LIFT THE WEIGHT, BRO!
The popular belief among young weight lifters is that you have to do what the “Pros” do. Guys will look up to idealistic bodybuilders and athletes and see how they perform certain exercises and rep ranges, and then mimic the exact routine for themselves thinking that it’ll work for them too. Unfortunately, this just opens up a can of worms for your muscle gains in the long run. The problem lies in the fact that the programs are tailored for THEM, not for you.
Your uniqueness sets you apart from programs designed for other athletes. Merely lifting the weight will not completely get the job done by itself.
The big difference that you can apply right now is to understand that muscles perform movements by contractions. I’ll go ahead and spare you the Anatomy-101 lecture, and instead I’ll use another scenario:
Let’s pretend you’re doing curls with some dumbbells…
Your mind says lift the weight, so you do. The mind says lower the weight back down, so you do, and repeat. I want you to think about what’s happening with your muscles as you move the dumbbells up and down over and over again. For the majority of guys trying to build muscle, they’ll see a much larger and muscular individual lifting enormous amount of weights and their immediate reaction is to think, “Whoa, I need to lift heavy weights to get big.”
I’m sorry guys but lifting heavy weight isn’t the right answer. Do you ever notice that a lot of guys lifting heavy look like crazy people when they push for every rep? How often do you see someone put 315lbs on the bench press bar and lower it to their chest in a controlled motion and back up again without it bouncing, or letting the legs swinging out from under them during the process?
It just doesn’t happen.
Let’s start changing that today shall we? This is your first take-home lesson:
You MUST know the reason why you are performing the exercise and what specific muscles will be targeted.
From this point on I want you to forget about the weight. YES, forget it. Believe me it’ll save you the frustration later on. IT DOES NOT MATTER how much weight you can lift to impress your buddies. From this point on you are not a weight lifter – you are a bodybuilder. Weight lifters pick up heavy things and carry them around just to say that they did it. If you’re looking for that then you’re in the wrong place! Your primary reason for training is to stimulate more muscle fibers, thus making the muscle grow larger.
When you perform exercises, your new goals are to:
KNOW WHAT MUSCLE(S) YOU’RE TRYING TO ACTIVATE
MINDFULLY CONTRACT AND STRETCH THE MUSCLE(S) WITH EACH REP
USE A FULL RANGE OF MOTION
Here’s an analogy I like to use a lot when referring to neuromuscular shaping:
Suppose your goal is to climb a mountain that you’ve never climbed before. In fact, neither has anyone else. There are no trails or easy ways to the top. Your only option is to forge your own path until you reach the peak. The first trip is the hardest, and takes a long time to finally reach your destination, but somehow you get there. It’s a long walk back down but you try to follow the same path that you took.
So now that you’ve climbed it once, do you think it would be easier to climb it a second time? After all, you made your own trail in the first round. All you have to do is trace your steps back up the mountain again, right?
Let’s suppose that you did this same routine every day for a year, or 5 years, or even 10 years?… How do you think your trail would look after all that? I’d say it would be pretty easy to get to the top with a clear trail to navigate, wouldn’t you?
You see, we are trying to shape and direct the neuromuscular pathways to your muscles. In order for a muscle to contract, it must first receive a signal from the brain to do so. When this same signal is repeatedly sent back and forth between the mind and muscle over time (climbing the mountain), MORE neuromuscular pathways are created to enhance the strength of the contraction. It’s safe to say that this is an exciting piece of information to have, especially when your main goal is to add some serious mass to your frame!
I want you to practice some of this “mind-muscle” connection on yourself…
From a sitting position on your chair or bench that you’re on right now, try to mindfully contract your hamstring on the right side WITHOUT contracting the quadriceps. Be sure to place one of your hands on top of the quad to make sure it doesn’t move.
How did it go? Did it work?
More often than not, if the hamstrings aren’t developed correctly, the signal from your brain will make its way down your leg but will not have a CLEAR path to dictate what muscle should contract; therefore the signal is sent to the stronger muscle of the two, the quadriceps!
Now try repeating this signal over and over again to the same right hamstring, and see what happens…
Are you able to contract it without the quadriceps moving? It’s funny how this system works and it really makes all the difference with how much muscle is stimulated during exercise. This same concept can be applied to every major muscle of the body.
Once a thorough neuromuscular connection has been established to your major muscles, it’s time to put them to the test.
Remember, this process is ongoing. You will create a stronger connection with your body as time passes. Not all of it will come at once; but if you keep at it, your body will reward you.