When we start getting into the gym and the “fitness” lifestyle (whatever that means), we can get sucked into becoming attached to the things we’re doing instead of the reason we’re doing it. This is a fatal flaw in most people’s training and can actually do more to slow your progress than increase it. In this article we’ll explore why that is and give you the formula to change your thinking around weight training so you can make it work for you – instead of just going through the motions doing random exercises.

The first thing we need to remember when approaching the weights area is that weights are just a tool we use to achieve a certain goal (whether that’s building muscle, losing fat, improving bone density/health or something else). This might sound like common sense, but it’s a vital shift in thinking that helps us to get the most out of our training. It’s also the opposite to how most people approach the gym, which we’ll talk about now.

External Focus

When most people train, they focus on their external surroundings – which is totally normal, right? They focus on the dumbbells, barbells and machines they’re using and where they’re supposed to move in space. While it’s true that this is better than not focusing at all and just flopping around like a Magikarp out of water (yes I used a Pokémon reference), it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of progress.

See, on the surface of it, it might make sense to focus on the weights you’re lifting and keep your attention on the things around you. But the reality is, unless you’re a powerlifter or strength athlete, you’re likely not going to the gym to become really good at lifting things. You’re going to the gym to make some sort of physical changes to your body. That’s why a change of focus when you’re training isn’t just smart, it’s necessary to lower your risk of injury, improve biomechanical function & get better results in a shorter time period. Introducing internal focus…

Internal Focus

Internal focus is the single most important tweak I ever made in my approach to training – and once I can help a personal training client to understand this principle results start to accelerate rapidly. The idea is that rather than focusing on the dumbbells, barbells or machines you’re using, you instead turn your focus inwards to the muscle or muscles you’re actually trying to train. I know, a wild concept.

Hear me out with this. Most people do exercises without any thought to the area they’re trying to train. They can do a thousand squats but ask them to contract their quads mindfully and they’ll look at you like you’ve just knocked their dog’s teeth out. Let me be clear on this point:

If you’re training to improve the way your body looks & feels, the ability to contract your muscles consciously and actually FEEL what you’re doing in the gym is infinitely more important than how many reps you can do with any given weight.

This isn’t to say that the weights aren’t an important variable or that you shouldn’t look to progress strength, you absolutely should, but without focusing on the stuff that actually matters – this is just an arbitrary increase that likely won’t translate to physical changes in the body.

Let’s take an exercise like the dumbbell side raise. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood & poorly performed movements in the gym, for the reason that people are more concerned with throwing the weights up that actually putting tension on the right area of their body.

As you can see in this demonstration video, the whole point of doing a side (or lateral) raise movement is to contract the muscle on the side of the shoulder. This muscle isn’t big in size and doesn’t need a lot of weight to stimulate it (it’s rare that people even on the stronger side will go for more than 12-14kg on a side raise, and most people will be much less).

During this exercise, if you keep your focus on the external variables (the dumbbells), you’ll end up throwing the weights up any way you can – usually by shrugging your shoulders and rotating the shoulder joint externally. These two movements are not designed to happen during this exercise, and will cause you to work your traps and your anterior (front) deltoid more than your side/lateral deltoid that you’re actually aiming for.

The end result of this is you end up with a sore neck and no extra muscle or shape to the side of your shoulders. What was the point in wasting your time?

Instead, putting your attention & focus on the internal variables – the way your body is moving & the muscles that are responsible, allows for much more control during this exercise. Pulling with your elbows instead of your hands stops you from externally rotating the shoulder and pushing out/down with the arms as you raise will prevent you from shrugging the shoulders. Once you’ve nailed these cues, you can go further into an internal focus and really feel the side of the shoulder working, consciously using that muscle to move the weight (rather than lifting the weight and hoping the muscle will work as a byproduct).

The side raise is just one example of how this concept works in practice. No exercise is immune to this principle of internal focus, some are just easier to grasp than others. Whatever exercise you’re doing, anything from a leg press to a bicep curl, think about the muscles that are needed to do the work and how you can maximise the work they do – instead of just worrying about moving a weight from point A to point B – and you’ll see much better results in a much shorter time.

If you need some help putting this concept into practice, you can apply for 1-1 personal training in Doncaster or online coaching by clicking here.

I hope you enjoyed this article & it helped to put some things into perspective for you with training for a better body. If you found this useful, please share it with a friend and spread the love!

Andy Clements

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