There are no shortcuts.
If you want to become a better [athlete](https://evidencemag.com/ironman-bodybuilder), you need to work hard.
However, every now and then, [science](https://evidencemag.com/self-experimentation-podcast) uncovers a nugget of data that makes your hard work more effective. In this case, it’s a subtle change in what you think about when you work out.
So far this technique has been proven to work for just about every sport or motor skill that’s been tested. It’s also remarkably consistent, and can help both beginners and advanced athletes.
### The Crucial Difference Between an Internal versus an External Focus
Assuming you’re already focused on your workout, you can then adopt an internal or external focus.(1)
An *internal* focus of attention means you’re thinking about your body movements. Your legs when squatting or running; your arms when doing chin-ups or swimming, etc. A common example is when bodybuilders say they’re “feeling the muscle” when weightlifting.
An *external* focus means you’re thinking about something in your environment that’s relevant to your task. If you’re squatting, you might focus on the bar, or on pushing the bar towards the ceiling, rather than on your legs.
This is a small difference, but it can have a huge impact on your athletic performance or any kind of motor skill.
### Why Using an External Focus Makes You a Better Athlete
Virtually [every](https://sportwissenschaft.de/fileadmin/img/publikationen/BuT/aktuelles/Wulf_target_article_2007.pdf) [study](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153816/) on this topic has found that people who use an external focus become more skillful and learn movements faster.(1,2)
Using an external focus, rather than an internal one, can improve:(1,2)
– Sprinting speed in both straight sprints and in more complex movements, like running in an “L” shape.
– The number of reps people can perform with 75% of their one rep max on bench presses and squats.
– The accuracy of volleyball serves, soccer kicks, soccer throws, basketball free-throws, bean bag throws, dart throwing, frisbee throwing, and juggling.
– Running economy.
– Peak torque during weight lifting.
– Vertical jump and standing long jump distance.
– Discuss throwing range.
– Swim sprint speed.
– The length of time people can maintain a wall sit.
– The accuracy of golf putting, pitching, chipping, and driving shots.
– Balance on ski simulators, stabilometers, inflated rubber platforms, pedalos, and during exercises where people have to control their posture.
– It even helps people make fewer mistakes playing the piano, and other [researchers](https://www.sportwissenschaft.de/fileadmin/pdf/BuT/hossner_wulf.pdf) think it could help improve doctor’s surgical skills.(3)
### 3 Reasons this “Trick” Works
1. Your strength increases. Using an external, rather than an internal focus, generally increases your maximal force production on strength tests. This trick allows you to recruit more muscle fibers at a faster rate.(2)
2. Your movements become more efficient. An external focus helps you produce force at the right times and in the right amount during your movements. People also tend to use less energy performing the same movements if they use an external, rather than internal focus.(1,2)
3. You develop greater full-body coordination. When you use an external focus, your nervous system does a better job of synchronizing your different body parts into one fluid movement.
In a [vertical jump test](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20409600), for instance, people’s hip, knee, and ankle joints all adjust in harmony — just enough to optimize their movements and no more. Each joint makes small adjustments to create one smooth jump.
On the other hand, people who use an internal focus [change their joint angles disproportionally](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19846388) — some joints end up moving more than they should, while others are neglected. Some muscles also fire harder than they need to. This makes their movements sloppy and less efficient, and they can’t jump as high.(4,5)
For a technique with this much scientific support, it’s surprising how few people know about it.
### Most People Don’t Use This Technique, and They’re Missing Out
Most people will naturally adopt an internal, rather than external focus. Coaches, trainers, and instructors also tend to give more internal cues than external ones.
A [recent survey](https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234036732_Focus_of_Attention_and_Verbal_Instructions_Strategies_of_Elite_Track_and_Field_Coaches_and_Athletes/links/0fcfd50e70a08168ac000000) found that 84.6% of elite track and field coaches give instructions that promote an internal focus. Sixty-nine percent of the athletes also said they usually used an internal focus when competing.(6)
Sometimes people will say that an external focus is harder to follow, but even then it [still tends to improve their performance](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18608831). Most people also [prefer to use an external focus](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11770783) when they’re given both options. The people who don’t prefer this technique still perform better, however.(7-9)
Even people who are told that an internal focus is superior will still [perform better](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3214735/) when using an external focus.(10)
People coping with [illnesses](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19074619) or [injuries](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17207684) also perform and learn better when they use an external focus.(11-16)
“Together, these results provide evidence that an external focus speeds up the learning process, thereby enabling performers to achieve a higher level of expertise sooner,” writes Dr. Gabriele Wulf, the lead author of [the most comprehensive review](https://sportwissenschaft.de/fileadmin/img/publikationen/BuT/aktuelles/Wulf_target_article_2007.pdf) on this topic to date.(1)
### Whether You’re a Beginner or an Advanced Athlete, This Trick Makes You Better
Using an external focus improves the performance of beginners and experienced athletes. Advanced athletes generally [don’t get as much benefit](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18816943), if any benefit, but that’s expected since they have less room for improvement.(1,17)
Not all studies have found this to be the case, but several of them have an interesting confounder: The better athletes were already using an external focus.
Whether intentionally or subconsciously, it seems that many skilled athletes have already found that an external focus works better through trial and error.
For instance, soccer players who focus on the ball’s relation to the cones [perform faster](https://journals.humankinetics.com/jsep-back-issues/jsepvolume28issue1march/attentionalfocusdispositionalreinvestmentandskilledmotorperformanceunderpressure) than athletes who focus on their technique.(18)
There are a few [studies](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20727824) that seem to show that beginners perform better when using an internal focus.(19) However, most of these studies had major confounders, such as…(1)
– The instructions weren’t relevant to the task in both groups or the external focus group.
– The groups were given too many instructions or multiple tasks to perform at once, which might have negated any benefit of using an external focus.
– Sometimes, the people were given vague instructions that probably didn’t ensure their attention was focused internally or externally.
– The internal and external groups were told to focus on different tasks (e.g. the target or the golf swing), which isn’t a fair comparison. The point of this technique is to change how people focus on the same element of the task.
In general, novices and experts tend to perform better when they use an external focus, though the benefits are often smaller as you get more advanced.
### The More External Your Focus, the Better You Perform
There’s some research showing that the more external you can focus your attention, the better your performance will be.
In a study on kayakers, those who focused on the finish line were significantly faster than those who focused on the boat movements.(1)
Other studies have shown that a more external, or “distal” focus improves [balance](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12589447), [dart throwing accuracy](https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1612197X.2012.682356), [golf shot accuracy](https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10413200902795323#.VEVKu5PF_Tg), and [jumping distance](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22067252).(20-23) In some cases, the subject’s performance is also proportional to how far away their focus was.(20)
Here’s why this technique seems to work.
### Why External Cues Work Better than Internal Cues: The Constrained Action Hypothesis
The main reason internal cues seem to hinder your performance is that they “constrain” your motor system.(1,3)
Your brain is better at directing your movements when you focus externally. This allows your brain to respond to other important stimuli throughout the movement, instead of getting stuck on only one element.
Thinking about your body’s movements not only makes those specific muscles less efficient, the effect seems to “[spread](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16182938)” to other muscles as well.(4,24-26)
When basketball players focus on their wrists (internal), rather than on the hoop (external), they miss more shots and have higher electrical activity in their arm muscles.(24) Despite being less accurate, they were expending more energy shooting hoops. The same thing is true for [dart throwers](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20541275).(25)
It’s as if your muscles are having a conversation with your brain. As you’ve experienced before, forcing a conversation by over thinking what you’re going to say makes the dialogue awkward and choppy. If you focus on the other person, externally, it’s usually much easier to have a smooth chat.
### How to Use an External Focus to Improve Your Athletic Performance
This trick seems to work with just about any motor skill, whether it’s throwing darts, playing soccer, or learning a musical instrument. However, the same principles apply in every case.
Here are three steps you can use to put this information to use.
1. Focus on your training. Before you can divide your attention into internal or external foci, you need to pay attention to your workout. Ignore your phone, your friends, and the pile of work on your desk.
2. Identify what cues you already use to perform different movements. Everyone uses reminders to help them execute different tasks. Pinpoint which ones you already use, and write them down or commit them to memory.
3. Convert internal cues into external cues.
Focus on your environment rather than your body parts. Modify each cue just enough to direct your attention to objects around you that you can see or feel, instead of your breathing, how hard you’re contracting your muscles, or how you move your limbs through the air.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you want to improve your bench press.
Right now you focus on contracting your pecs and pushing your fists upwards. In both cases, you’re focusing on your body parts — internally.
In this case, you might change your cue to “push the bar into the ceiling,” which would direct your attention to the barbell and the ceiling, rather than your chest and fists. Focusing on the ceiling also puts your focus even further away, which might improve your performance even more.
### Test it Yourself
Using an external, rather than internal focus has been shown to improve your performance in just about every motor skill that’s been tested.
You might not enjoy this technique at first, but most data indicates you’ll become a better athlete in less time by focusing on your environment, rather than your body parts.
**What cues do you use in your training? Would you like help converting your internal cues into external ones? Let’s chat in the comments.**
*Did you enjoy this article? To get an even more in-depth education on how to build muscle, lose fat, and get stronger, [join EvidenceMag Elite](https://evidencemag.com/elite). You’ll get a new report every month along with exclusive interviews.*
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