Today's co-authored post comes from Travis Pollen, also known as the Fitness Pollenator. He is a recent graduate of the University of Delaware with his Masters in Biomechanics and Movement Science.
Hey, Travis here. (You may remember me from the interview I did with James last year.) The other day after a tough workout my friend and I were chatting about lifting technique – or lack thereof – among the general exercising masses.
“Call me crazy,” he said, “but I like to slow down and really feel what’s going on when I workout.”
“No way, man – that’s not crazy! Everyone should lift like that,” I replied.
In fact, my friend is far from crazy – just perhaps a bit of a freethinker in a modern gym culture that often prioritizes speed over quality. As it turns out, though, the science supports the former approach as compared to the latter. That is, an intense focus on the muscle actually increases muscle activation, which likely leads to a higher degree of muscle hypertrophy (i.e. more #gainz).
Of course, bodybuilders have long known about the importance of the mind-muscle connection. Says Arnold Schwarzenegger:
“The body is very important, but the mind is more important than the body. We have to visualize what the body ought to look like in order to make it win.”
Sadly, though, many modern trainees have either lost the desire to concentrate so intently during training or, worse, flat out lost the ability to create a strong mind-muscle connection. In many trainees, muscles like the glutes, deep hip flexors, lats, and lower traps exhibit poor activation upon attempted recruitment, likely as a result of disuse. Hello, pancake butt!
Thus, an important goal of training should be to reignite these forgotten or neglected pathways, an undertaking often accomplished through isolation-style training. No, this doesn’t mean we’re ditching compound exercises altogether in favor of bicep curls and chest flys. Rather, we’re using isolation as a stepping stone towards reintegration.
In the first edition of this two-part article series, we described ‘The 10 Most Effective Mind-Muscle connection Exercises for the Upper Body’. (Hint, hint: read that now if you haven’t already!) Today, we have the corresponding list for the lower body.
When performing these exercises, be mindful of going slowly and deliberately. Pay careful attention to feeling the target muscle. You can even go as far as to poke the working muscles (or have someone else poke them if you’re comfortable) to ensure they’re contracting.
In terms of exercise order, place these exercises earlier in workouts or superset them with more heavily loaded exercises that are intended to work the same muscles. Finally, do not go to failure on them; you just want to feel a gentle burn.
James = Videos | Travis = Explanations
(Note: James provided his explanations within the videos, whereas Travis opted for write-ups underneath the videos.)
Muscle #1: Glutes
What do squats, deadlifts, lunges, and jumps all have in common? This one’s easy: hip extension! And what muscle is primarily responsible for hip extension? This one’s a bit harder. Although the answer should be the gluteus maximus, many exercisers with poor gluteal engagement rely on their hamstrings, adductors, and low back instead. When the connection is there, though, the glutes are an extremely powerful muscle. Therefore, it’s crucial that we get those puppies engaged.
Full Range of Motion Hip Thrust with an Isometric Hold
4-Way Mini-Band Walk
The 4-way mini-band walk can either be performed by walking around in a square or walking side-to-side, doing a quarter turn, and walking forwards and backwards. Although the hips flex and extend on the forwards/backwards portions, the exercise is actually primarily for hip abduction, which requires the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus to work to prevent the knees from collapsing inwards.
The keys to this exercise are to keep the hips level the entire time (no waddling!) and to maintain constant tension on the band by keeping the knees spread apart and taking short steps. We perform this exercise in a quarter squat for injury prevention purposes, as these are the joint angles at which knee injuries tend to occur.
Beware: the 4-way mini-band walk is harder than it looks, so don’t be a hero. Take 8-10 steps in every direction, and use a green mini-band above the knees to start. To progress, lengthen the moment arm by placing the band below the knees or switch to a blue band.
Muscle #2: Hamstrings
The hamstrings are another one of those muscles that people seem to have a hard time feeling work, especially in an exercise like the Romanian deadlift. For this reason, many people use excessive range of motion with “deficit RDL’s,” going way lower than they should in an effort to lengthen their hamstrings more and feel the burn. The trouble is, they almost inevitably put their back in a horrible position when they do so. Here are two exercises that are much better for getting the hamstrings engaged.
Hamstring Progressive Angular Isometric Loading (P.A.I.L.) on Bench
Toe-Elevated Romanian Deadlift (TERDL)
One subtle tweak (not twerk) to the normal Romanian deadlift is to elevate the toes on small plates, which puts the ankle in a few degrees of additional dorsiflexion. Although elevating the toes doesn’t actually do anything to lengthen the hamstrings (since the hamstrings don’t cross the ankle), it does stretch connective tissue called fascia that travels up through the entire posterior chain. This leads to the feeling of a greater stretch through the hamstrings, which is all we need to stimulate those neural pathways.
The TERDL (pronounced “turtle,” obviously) is best reserved for higher rep warm-up sets, as opposed to actual work sets of RDL’s. Beware of making the same mistake that 90% of YouTube fitness gurus make. That is, don’t look up at the bottom of the TERDL! Instead, maintain a neutral neck by looking down at the bottom of each rep and straight ahead at the top, just like my homeboy Kevin Mullins does in the video. Also, bring your hips to the bar at lockout without leaning back. You want a straight line from heel to head.
Muscle #3: Quads
Quads. Quadzilla. Quadrasaurus rex. We all want ‘em, but some people have the darndest time working them, feeling only their hamstrings, glutes, and low back during supposedly knee-dominant exercises like squats. The good news is that we have a couple of sure-fire ways to get your quads pumped up right away.
TRX-assisted squats are a way to unload the body weight slightly and take balance out of the equation in order to concentrate intently on the working muscles. The key to feeling your quads working on these is three-fold:
- Keep your torso as vertical as possible (no forward lean). A little bit of lean back is even okay here.
- Push down through the middle of the foot (as opposed to through the heel). Do not make the mistake of lifting the toes off the floor.
- Maintain constant tension by steering clear of end range in both the top and bottom of the squat. That is, don’t lock your knees out completely at the top, and don’t rest with your ass-to-grass in the bottom position.
High-rep, long time under tension sets of TRX-assisted squats will have you well on your way to Swollrasic Park.
Muscle #4: Calves
Let’s face it: chicken legs aren’t cool. Although direct calf training is often an afterthought in most people’s routines, it’s actually the key not only to complete lower body development but also to performance. As Greg Nuckols astutely points out in his Definitive Guide to squatting, weak calves can actually be a limiting factor when it comes to proper squat mechanics. So you’d better train them up, both in standing (knees extended) and seated (knees bent).
Standing Calf Raises Off Ledge or Platform
Seated Plate Calf Raises
Even if people do actually train their calves, they often fail to consider the functional anatomy of the muscles (the gastrocnemius and the soleus), which has important ramifications for calf training. Because the gastrocnemius is the bigger and more superficial muscle, it takes over the brunt of ankle plantar flexion in standing calf raises.
By bending the knee though (i.e. sitting), we’re able to create active insufficiency in the gastrocnemius, which is just a fancy way of saying that the gastrocnemius has been shortened and can no longer generate as much force. Ergo, the soleus has to kick on. Most gyms don’t have a seated calf raise, but that’s okay. Simply place a weight plate on your lap and calf raise away until your heart’s content. High reps work great for the soleus.
Muscle #5: Hip Flexors
Everybody has tight hip flexors these days, but don’t think for a second that tight hip flexors means strong hip flexors. And even if you do happen to be strong in hip flexion, it doesn’t necessarily mean your deep hip flexors – the iliacus and psoas, or iliopsoas – are up to snuff. The iliopsoas is primarily responsible for end range hip flexion (around 90° to 120°), which few folks think to train. Here are your two tickets to the iliopsoas party.
Hip Flexor Ball Squeeze
Supine mini-band psoas march
The supine mini-band psoas march is another deceptively challenging exercise. To perform it, lie on the ground on your back with a green mini-band around your toes. Bring both knees into your chest and flatten your back against the floor. Keeping one knee tucked in tight, straighten the other leg completely and pause in the out position with your heel about a foot off the floor for a two-second count. Perform six reps on one side then six reps on the other. Keep your back pressed firmly into the ground the entire time, no exceptions.
Note the importance on the exercise of starting with the knees in and pushing one leg out, as opposed to starting with both legs out and bringing one knee in. The former really nails the iliopsoas from the onset, whereas the latter will call upon the rectus femoris (the quadricep muscle that crosses the hip) to initiate the inward pull.
About the Authors
Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He recently completed his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware. He maintains a fitness blog and posts videos of his “feats of strength” on his website. Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter, as well.
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.