How a Simple Mind Trick Can Make You Stronger in Seconds

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*Learn how changing what you think about during your workouts can boost your strength in seconds.*

There are very few shortcuts in life that actually work.

If you want to get big and bulky, you need to eat big and lift heavy.

If you want to lose fat, you need to eat less and exercise more.

However, there are many small tricks that can make these larger goals easier to achieve. Every once in a while, researchers uncover a little nugget of information that makes dieting suck less or your training more effective.

This article will teach you a simple, easy, and research-backed mental trick that will make you stronger instantly. It can also improve your performance in other sports, or almost any task.

Most of the research we’re about to discuss comes from two reviews.1,2 If you want to dive further into the science on this topic, feel free to read both papers here and here (the first one is free). If you don’t feel like spending several hours reading through over 30 years of research, don’t worry. You’ll find more articles about this topic on Imprüvism soon.

What You Think About When You Exercise Matters

What do you think about when you lift?

Do you focus on your arms?

The bar?

The cute girl in the squat rack? (Or guy, I don’t judge).

Where you place your focus matters more than you think. It’s obvious that focusing on your workout is going to produce better results than thinking about a distressing email, your car payments, or the squat girl. However, you can do better.

The Crucial Difference Between an Internal and External Focus

Assuming you’re already focused on your workout, you can divide your focus into two categories: internal and external.

An internal focus of attention means you’re thinking about your body movements. Your legs when squatting, your arms when doing chin-ups, your chest when benching, etc.

An external focus means you’re focusing on something in your environment that’s relevant to your task. If you’re squatting, this would mean focusing on the bar or on pushing the bar towards the ceiling.

This is an incredibly subtle difference, but it can have a huge impact on your performance. In some cases, researchers will give one group instructions that only differ by one or two words.

In a study using a vertical jump test, here were the instructions:

Internal focus: “Focus on your fingers.”

External focus: “Focus on the rungs.”

The latter option is better. Research has consistently shown that an external focus improves motor learning, strength, coordination, and performance across a wide range of activities and ability levels.

We’ll cover this topic in obsessive, nerdy detail in later articles. For now, let’s take a look at how we can use this information to get some “stremph.”

There are three primary ways using an external focus helps you move more weight:

  1. Increased maximal force production.
  2. Improved neuromuscular efficiency.
  3. Greater full body coordination.

Let’s look at each of these in turn. Then I’ll give you several examples of how you can use this information in the gym.

1. Increased Maximal Force Production

Put simply, people who can produce more force are stronger.

In many studies, subjects are asked to perform a strength test, like pushing against a bar. They almost always produce more force when using an external focus, like focusing on the bar rather than an internal focus on their hands, arms, or chest.

In fact, the group that’s told to focus on their body parts often does worse than the control group that’s not told to focus on anything, or is told neutral instructions like “move the weight.”

Studies have also found that using an external focus can improve:

  • Sprint speed.
  • Power output.
  • The length of time people can wall-sit.
  • Vertical jump height.
  • Standing jump distance. 
  • Discuss throwing distance. 
  • Rowing performance.
  • Kayaking performance.

Researchers think these results are largely due to greater motor unit recruitment, which increases force production. However, that’s not the only reason.

2. Improved Neuromuscular Efficiency

An external focus seems to improve your ability to recruit not only more muscle fibers, but to recruit muscle fibers at the right times and in the correct muscles.

For maximum strength production, you want your movements to be as efficient as possible. If you’re trying to squat twice your bodyweight, you want all of your energy directed at raising the barbell.

When people adopt an external focus, they often have lower muscle activity (measured by EMG) using the same weight.

An external focus can also help reduce co-contractions. When you make any movement, some muscles have to relax while others contract. If some muscles contract at the wrong times, you won’t be able to lift as much weight.

Focusing on your body movements increases co-contractions (bad).

Focusing externally decreases co-contractions (good).

3. Greater Full Body Coordination

To maximize your strength, you have to be able to coordinate multiple muscle groups throughout your body.

When people use an external focus while performing a vertical jump test, they are better able to coordinate their movements to produce maximal force. Their ankle, knee, and hip angles all adjust in harmony — just enough to optimize their movements and no more.

On the other hand, the group that used an internal focus changed their joint angles disproportionally — their movements got sloppy, and they didn’t jump as high.

The change in joint angles in the group that used an external focus was associated with their jump height, which suggests this was not a coincidence. The group that used an external focus also had less EMG activity in the stabilizer muscles, which again suggests their movements were more efficient.

Using an external focus seems to help you coordinate your entire body to optimize your strength.

This Trick Isn’t Perfect (But it Doesn’t Have to Be)

This trick will not add 100 pounds to your back squat in a single workout. Sorry.

While the strength improvements in these studies are generally significant, the absolute differences aren’t drastic.

The studies on this topic also have several key limitations, but overall, the evidence supports the idea that an external focus is going to improve your strength and power more than an internal focus.

The best part about this trick is that it’s free, easy, and immediate.

You have to think about something during your workouts, so using an external focus is worth a try. Here’s how.

How to Convert Your Internal Foci into External Foci

Here are a few examples of how you can change an internal focus to an external focus, based on different lifts:

Squat

Push your knees apart -> Push the floor apart.

Push with your feet -> Push your feet into the ground.

Push with your legs -> Push an imaginary line off of your thighs.

Extend your hips -> Push your hips toward the wall in front of you.

Stand tall -> Push the bar towards the ceiling (my personal favorite).

Deadlift

Pull your shoulders back -> Pull your shoulder blades towards the ceiling.

Push your knees apart -> Push the floor apart.

Bench Press

Push up with your arms -> Push the bar towards the ceiling.

Chin-Ups/Pull-Ups

Pull your body up -> Pull your chin over the bar.

Pull with your arms -> Pull the bar towards the ground.

Contract your back muscles -> Pull your head into the ceiling.

Overhead Press

Push up with your arms -> Push the bar towards the ceiling.

Move your head forward as you push the bar up -> Slam your head into the wall in front of you as it passes under the bar.

If you have a specific cue that you’d like converted into an external focus, leave a comment below and I’ll help.

Use This Simple Mind Hack to Get Stronger

If you want to be strong, you need to lift heavy. If you also want to get big, you need to eat a lot, too. Everything else is far less important.

However, using an external focus is a simple, effective, ridiculously easy way you may be able to add a few percentage points to your lifts. It will probably also improve your technique, which might reduce your risk of injuries as well as improve your strength.

Changing what you think about during your workouts doesn’t cost you anything, and it’s likely to help.

The next time you lift weights, use an external focus instead of an internal one.

Do you have a question about this trick? Leave it in the comments section below.

> Did you enjoy this article? [Click here to check out my book, *Flexible Dieting](https://evidencemag.com/flexible-dieting-book)*. Want an even more in-depth education on how to lose weight, build muscle, and get stronger and healthier? [Join Evidence Mag Elite](https://evidencemag.com/elite) and get member’s-only reports and interviews.

### References

1. Marchant DC. Attentional Focusing Instructions and Force Production. Frontiers in Psychology. 2011;1(210). Full Text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153816/.

2. Wulf G. Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2012;00:1–28. Abstract: https://goo.gl/IFBA5 | Full Text: Received from author.

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