The Simple Truth About Muscle And Training Mindfully

I recorded myself doing dumbbell military presses recently, and as always, I was surprised. My wrists were slightly bent, which I never would have noticed otherwise and could cause issues.

When I saw the recording, I realized I needed a cue to keep my wrists neutral. “Knuckles up” does the trick, and I filed it away to be used in my next workout. This cue will be one more technique in my invisible toolbox that helps me push harder, safely. Call it lifting mindfully or whatever you like, but it can be the difference between getting results with strength training and getting frustrated and giving up.

I believe you can tell who is lifting mindfully and who is not. Every time I walk into the gym, I see people flinging weights around, losing tension between reps, using momentum, and rushing through sets.

People who are lifting with purpose – feeling every contraction and focusing on the muscles working – are hard to spot. But they stand out from the crowd because (a) they’ve achieved some impressive physique goals, and (b) they’re lifting weights differently from everyone else.

While recording myself doing military presses, I became aware of two auto-pilot ways I push harder and stimulate more growth:

  1. Tensing my entire body during every lift. When you let your muscles go slack between reps, you’re missing out on one of the most important mechanisms of building muscle and strength – constant tension.
  2. Letting the dumbbells “float” in my hands. This helps me feel my front and lateral deltoids working, prevents my hands from fatiguing as fast, and lets me push harder. In other words, I’m actively feeling the muscles working instead of powering my way through.

Lifting on auto-pilot is a two-headed monster. If you know how to do it well, it benefits you. If you get lazy, it’ll take over and waste your time. It’s obvious who’s using it well and who is not.


Don’t Let Auto-Pilot Lifting Cheat You

When you lift on auto-pilot in a good way, you’re so familiar with proper technique that you don’t have to focus on it too much. You know what an exercise should feel like and which muscles it should activate so that you can push hard safely.

As my example shows, you may still need work on your technique. The only way to determine this is to hire a (good) trainer or record yourself. (If you record yourself, you’d best know what you’re looking for.)

When you lift on auto-pilot in a not-so-good way, you’re just going through the motions.

Let’s zoom in on the gal doing bicep curls a few feet away. She’s letting her arms fall slack at her sides between every rep, losing muscular tension in her biceps. Her weights even swing a little at the bottom.

First of all, losing tension is a terrible habit that cheats you out of gains. Second, your weights should be under control at all times – no swinging or moving them outside their narrow path of motion.

Of course, you could say that these mistakes are form issues. But to me, it’s all about mindfulness: Are your movements careful and methodical or careless and rushed?

I know – it’s more difficult to be mindful. You’re in a hurry, and does it really matter that much if you feel the muscles working? 

Look at people who lift mindfully versus those who don’t, and you’ll have your answer.

Mindful Lifting for Gains

Back to letting the dumbbells “float” in your hands during military presses. This technique helps you feel the muscles that should really be working while preventing excessive fatigue in your hands.

It’s easy to clinch the weights and try to force them overhead with your hands. Anyone can do this. But how strong and sculpted will your deltoids really get?

When I say that feeling which muscles are working is important, I’m not throwing around touchy-feely yoga room talk. It’s hugely important and something that most people don’t do. 

That gal (or guy) doing the bicep curls? If she focused on the eccentric motion – lowering under control and maintaining tension – she would feel her biceps a heck of a lot more. A nice pause and squeeze at the top and her biceps would feel a lot more fatigued. In other words, her biceps would be getting bigger and stronger.

Studies have even suggested that self-talk and visualization between sets can increase strength and performance gains. Mindfulness is only now gaining the spotlight, but bodybuilders have known this for years.

As I always say, if you’re going to spend time lifting weights, go the extra mile. Be mindful in your training and pay attention to the muscles that should be working. Are they working? Or are you just “getting through it?”

Mindfulness is the difference between getting results and just wasting your time, getting frustrated, and eventually quitting. 

I’d say it’s worth it to go the extra mile, wouldn’t you?

This article originally appeared on

12 thoughts on “The Simple Truth About Muscle And Training Mindfully

  1. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS !!!!! I call it mind muscle link but same thing! It is so crucial not only for progress but not injuring oneself. If you let the mind wander while lifting & not paying attention to form & feel, not good! I am sooooooooooooooooo unapproachable in the gym & proud of it!!!

    Great post Suzanne & you are looking fantastic!!!!


    • This, yes! The mind-muscle link needs to gain the same importance as in other sports. Weightlifting has become so mainstream and will only continue to grow. As we talked about elsewhere (I think), injuries will become epic if that link isn’t learned. (Plus, well, GAINZ ;)).


  2. I like the concept of mindful exercise. Because of injuries my workouts are almost completely bodyweight, and that’s a great way to be mindful, especially if you’ve been lifting for a while. There are lots of creative bodyweight exercises, which almost force you to be conscious of your movements. You can probably get the same effect with weights by trying different exercises. But for me the bodyweight ones have completely changed my mindset about working out.


    • I like your perspective, Kris and agree with you. Bodyweight training is tough. I like it though, because as you say, it requires strong mindfulness. I’m so happy you’ve found something you love!


  3. Nothing wrong with a little “touchy-feely talk”. 🙂 Weights have always been a form of mindfulness for me and I coach my clients to think of their gym time that way. They need to leave the world outside, focus on the the muscles they are working and breathe.


  4. Thanks for the great tips! (just discovered your site!)
    You are one epic woman!!!
    I won’t forget the “Knuckles up” as I’m the same, I’m very weak in my wrists and find that my wrists aren’t always neutral!
    My partner Ben is always on me about keeping tension throughout the exercise. I used to be :that girl” who would relax after each rep, I’ve seen a bigger difference i my “gains” when i do things properly, i think sometimes its just a lack of knowledge.


  5. Great article reinforcing the mind and muscle!
    There has been no greater realization for me than realizing the power of the mind as it relates to physical transformation. You can easily witness the absence of mind in the gym anytime someone musculate while carrying on prolong phone conversations


  6. I do think that recording yourself doing certain exercises that you have been doing awhile or even just starting or having someone watch you can be a good tool as you may not realize you are not using correct form. It is important to be mindful of every move. Great information, thanks for sharing!


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