Want to Lift Weights with Less Effort? Think Outside the Bod

Shifting attentional focus away from muscles may make weightlifting seem easier.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

The secret to lifting longer and heavier may be to focus on moving the weight itself and shifting the focus away from your muscles, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living

The main takeaway of the analysis on optimal attentional focus when lifting weights? Think outside the bod.

Samo Trebizan/Shutterstock
Source: Samo Trebizan/Shutterstock

"The higher overall muscle activity with an internal 'muscle focus' is not specific to the muscles mentally isolated during lifting," lead author David Neumann said in a news release. "Rather, it seems to represent increased activity of non-target muscles, too. It appears that this external focus allows automatic control processes to operate, removing the attentional demands and mechanical inefficiency of conscious muscular control."

This systematic review of 16 different articles showed that when weightlifters focus their attention on the external aspect of their efforts and away from internal aspects of their efforts, it can improve strength-training economy during the movement and reduces perceived exertion during the effort.

Neumann speculates that the key to maximizing an athlete's weightlifting performance is to shift the focus away from the muscles and to focus more on moving the weight load. He also views this external-focus technique away from the body "as a potential complement to 'dissociative' focus strategies, like listening to music, for promoting exercise adherence in those who are less active."

That said, the recommendation to "think outside the bod" when weightlifting comes with a few caveats. Neumann points out that it's still up for debate whether or not any particular type of attentional focus strategy affects strength gains or reduces muscle fatigue.

Tatyana Vyc/Shutterstock
Source: Tatyana Vyc/Shutterstock

Also, many of the studies used for this analysis have limitations such as small sample sizes and a demographic that was "young, Western, male, and experienced in weightlifting." Neumann emphasizes the need for larger, more extensive, and demographically diverse studies to investigate attentional focus during weightlifting before drawing any set-in-stone conclusions. 

Neumann also says that increased awareness of proper form and how each muscle is engaged during resistance training is especially important for beginners who haven't hardwired the muscle memory of "automatically" using correct weightlifting form.

In the paper's conclusion, David Neumann sums up his recommendations: "To maximize muscular efficiency, an external focus of attention is more optimal than an internal focus of attention or no specific focus in most cases. The challenge remains for researchers to further explore this effect and determine under which conditions it may be magnified. This information will assist in [future] research that can allow athletes to reach a higher level of performance than might otherwise be possible."

References

David Neumann "A Systematic Review of Attentional Focus Strategies in Weightlifting." Frontiers in Sports and Active Living  (First published: August 9, 2019) DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2019.00007

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