Sunday, May 15, 2016

The 10 Most Effective Mind-Muscle Connection Exercises for Your Upper Body

By James Harris and Travis Pollen

Hey! James here. A question I have long pondered is whether or not it matters if you “feel” a muscle actually working. I've had many trainees ask me this question over the years and I’ve always expressed my doubts in response. Well, now the research is out and Travis and I are here to talk about it.

Today, in the first of a two part series, we will be discussing muscles of the upper body that many trainees complain they don't feel. We’ll also talk about whether or not feeling it matters, and how to create more of a brain connection to the muscles you’re working in order to get a good muscle pump going.

Reminder: Don't forget to stay tuned for the next installment -- The 10 Most Effective Mind-Muscle Connection Exercises for Your Lower Body -- this Wednesday on!


Over the years, trainers and trainees alike have evolved in their understanding of the human body. We hear about the new research and immediately all jump on the bandwagon. 

Low carb diets work the best.
No! High carb works the best!
High volume, lighter workouts for muscle growth!
No! Low volume, heavier workouts for muscle growth!

You get the idea.

Here's the thing: there is no one right answer. Most things in fitness need context. Except rounding your lower back during a deadlift. That's unanimously agreed upon to be a bad idea.

Similarly, “feeling” a muscle work is not always necessary to create muscle growth. However, having a good “mind-muscle connection,” or mental focus on the muscle being worked, has been shown to be hugely beneficial for maximizing more muscle fibre recruitment.

To maximize the effect of the release of muscle-building hormones (HGH, Testosterone), we want to create a lot of microtearing in the tissue, which is what stimulates their release. This creates an anabolic effect (building new muscle), allowing us to see appreciable gains after working out. Building a stronger mind-muscle connection can only improve the amount of muscle contraction, leading to more micro-tearing and more hormone release.

Ways to Increase the “Feel” in the Exercise

Something to take into consideration when trying theses exercises is that you might not get it right the first time -- that's okay. Keep trying.

Think of it this way:

A Honda takes 4 hours to build, while a Bentley takes 6 months. If you want quality, you have to build it over time. Don't beat yourself down for not getting it right the first try.

Without going too much into the science-y stuff, let's talk about ways to give you the best chance for success here.

1. Mostly, Use Full Range of Motion. Sometimes Use Partial ROM.

As it goes with muscle fibre recruitment, the more range of motion used, the better. Meaning, if you do a chest press and struggle to feel your chest actually working, you may not be using enough range of motion. By adding more ROM, you push more blood into the muscle, giving you the feeling of a “pump” which creates more of a noticeable feel to the exercise.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, sometimes partial reps can be used to keep more constant tension on the working muscle, as is the case with an exercise like “21’s” for biceps. In general, though, full range of motion is best for stretching muscles into their most elongated position, which certainly helps with the mind-muscle connection.

2. Concentrate on Proper Form

It's no surprise the people who feel their muscles working the least also tend to be the ones not using the proper form. Don't miss a single detail when it comes to learning good form. If the exercise description says “create external rotation when pulling,” don't skip that step. It's important for maximum muscle fibre recruitment.

3. Slow Down and Drown Out The Distractions

It's just you and your weights in the gym right now. Nobody else is here to distract you. Each rep is the most important rep. Don't do another rep until you've maxed out the potential from the previous one. It's not a race, so take your time.

Common Upper Body Muscles People Struggle to Create a Mind-Muscle Connection With

Below are some of our go-to exercises for re-sparking the mind-muscle connection to lacking muscles (two exercise per muscle group).

Color code:
James = Blue | Travis = Red

Note: James provided his explanations within his videos, whereas Travis opted for write-ups underneath the videos.

Muscle #1: Lats

To properly teach lat activation, we need to understand the movement. Here are two quick videos to help you maximize your lat contraction.

Half-Kneeling One-Arm Cable Lat Pull-down

Armpit Towel Squeeze

If you were to survey a random sample of gym goers, I can almost guarantee that at least half of them would have no idea where their lats were on their body. And they almost certainly wouldn’t know how expansive a muscle they are. Fortunately, this article now exists to set the record straight.

The armpit towel squeeze is as simple as it sounds and looks. Roll up two towels and wedge them in between your upper arms and your torso. Bend your elbows at 90° angles, and take a deep breath in. On the exhale, ball up your fists for irradiation and squeeze your elbows in towards your ribs. Relax on the subsequent inhale, and repeat this procedure for 3-5 reps.

One of the best parts of the armpit towel squeeze is that there’s no need to poke or prod the lats into firing because the towel itself provides the tactile cue. Plus, touching people under their arms can tickle!

Muscle #2: Lower Traps

Lower traps are one of the most common blame-points for poor overhead mobility and shoulders issues. Here area couple of ways to make them fire up.

ITYW Raises

Alternating Wall-Facing Wall Slides with Lift-Off

When the topic of traps comes up, most desk jockeys are quick to tell you they’re the muscles that are chronically knotted up between their neck and shoulders. These folks certainly aren’t wrong, but there’s actually quite a bit more to the traps -- namely three subdivisions: the upper traps, mid traps, and lower traps.

Most people have no problem working their upper traps. In fact, as I mentioned, many of us live in a state of constant tone in that area. Where we run into trouble is when the upper traps start taking over for the mid and lower ones. (Additional shrugs in the gym certainly don't help matters!)

So how do you know if your upper traps are working overtime for your lower traps? Simply raise your arms up overhead and note the position of your shoulders with respect to your ears. A certain degree of elevation is normal, but if you’re fully shrugged, then your lower traps may need some special attention.

To perform the 'alternating wall-facing wall slides with lift-off,' stand about a foot’s distance from a wall, facing the wall. Assume a split stance (one foot in front of the other, see below), and place the forearms on the wall with elbows at shoulder height and palms in.

Lean into the wall with your body weight, and simultaneously push yourself away from the wall by protracting your shoulder blades. (Protraction engages the serratus anterior, another important muscle for proper upward rotation of the scapulae, which enable full overhead mobility.)

Now for the actual movement. Slide one arm up the wall. Continue leaning into the wall while pushing away through the forearm of the stationary arm. Here’s where the magic happens: at the top of the range of motion, subtly lift the hand off the wall and focus on the muscles contracting along the middle of your back (your lower traps!).

Slowly lower the hand back to the starting position and repeat on the opposite arm. Perform 6-8 reps slow and deliberate reps per side.

Muscle #3: Rhomboids

Ever wonder what those muscles directly between your should blades are called or what they do? Rhomboids. No, not Rambos. Well, they're kind of the Rambos of your body since they are one of the prime movers in any rowing exercise. In order for you to get the most out of your back exercises, you need these puppies working.

V-bar Cable Row (With Scapular Retraction)

Batwing Row

In addition to the mid traps, the rhomboids are the keys to scapular retraction (i.e. pulling your shoulder blades back). If you’re unable to coax your scapulae into strong retraction, there’s a decent chance you’ll wind up with cranky shoulders at some point.

Fortunately, batwings rows are the perfect solution. Drape yourself chest down on an incline bench, and grab a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells. Initiate the row by pulling your shoulder blades back -- even before bending your elbows. Continue to hold that retraction as you pull your thumbs in towards your armpits. Hold the “in position” for a two-second count, then lower and repeat for 8-10 reps.

The secret to the batwing row (and any row variation) lies in the initiation of the movement via the shoulder blades. Any meathead can crank out rows with their elbows and biceps, but it takes a seasoned lifter to understand the nuances of the scapulae and rhomboids.

Muscle #4: External rotators

Supraspinatus actually isn't an external rotator of the shoulder, but this is the best pic of the infraspinatus and teres minor on the web.

How many times have you looked at yourself in the gym mirror and thought, “Man, I slouch a lot.” You try to fix it by continually working out your external rotators. What you need to keep in mind when working this muscle group is the posture you use while doing them.

Band Upright Row to Rotation

Band W

External rotation is like the bastard stepchild of strength training. Most people don’t care about it, and even if they do, they usually go about training it all wrong, as demonstrated in the pictures below. All wrong, I tell you! But his abs are so right…

A little external rotation training -- done correctly -- will work wonders for shoulder health. Because all of the large muscles of the upper body actually internally rotate it (pecs, delts, and even the lats!), supplemental external rotation is a must for just about everyone.

The good news is that training the external rotators is not hard. For band W’s, simply grab a resistance band, and set up with your elbows tucked lightly in towards your sides. Brace your abs, then pull the band apart, so as to make a letter ‘W’ from hand to shoulder to opposite shoulder to hand. Perform 12-15 reps just like so.

This exercise will absolutely light up your external rotators -- so much so that you might not even need the band. Yup, I’m sitting here right now doing "air W’s" and feeling the burn.

The biggest mistake people make on this one is losing the integrity of their core by allowing their ribs to flare up. When this “scissor” posture occurs, they wind up substituting movement of their spine for the intended shoulder rotation. Keep the ribs down during W's to reap the benefits.

Muscle #5: Posterior deltoids

Don’t skip this part. What's the most common lacking piece in a lifter’s physique? Definitely the posterior delts. Most lifters pay a lot of attention to the anterior and medial delts while completely overlooking and under-developing the posterior delts. Here are two ways to maximize the effectiveness of your delt training.

45° Elbow Overhand Inverted Rows

Half-Kneeling Pull-Apart Press

The posterior delts are actually one of the three muscle responsible for external rotation. Therefore, everything I wrote above for the external rotators applies here for the posterior delts as well. In addition to external rotation, the posterior delts are also responsible for horizontal abduction of the shoulder (i.e. the opposite of the bench press motion).

Almost no one trains horizontal abduction, except maybe for a few sets of token face pulls that usually end up looking more like rows or perhaps a few sets of bent-over rear delt flys that typically resemble ugly lateral raises.

The best exercise for pure horizontal abduction is without a doubt the band pull-apart. The pull-apart press does you one better than the traditional pull-apart, even, by re-orientating the line of action of the pull of the band such that the posterior delts have to work harder during their peak contraction. Moreover, the press adds an anti-rotation component for the torso (a la a Pallof press), making the exercise even more delicious.

To perform the half-kneeling pull-apart press, anchor a band to something sturdy, and set up with the inside knee down and the outside knee up. Grab the band and pull out along a horizontal plane. When the arm is fully horizontally abducted, press the inside of the band straight ahead with the other arm. Perform 6-10 reps per side.

Thanks for reading! Click the link below to continue on to the second installment -- The 10 Most Effective Mind-Muscle Connection Exercises For Your Lower Body:

About the Guest Co-Author

James Harris is the owner and head writer for, a website offering online personal training service to the public. You can subscribe to his blog where he writes about strength training, muscle gain, biomechanics, and lifestyle tips. Seeing people become the strongest, healthiest, and most pain free version of themselves is what drives him. You can follow him on Facebook and YouTube here.

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