Internal Vs. External Focus For Muscle Building

Internal Vs. External Focus For Muscle Building

Before you start any set in your training, you need to ask yourself one question:

Am I going to focus on moving the weight from A to B (an external focus), or am I going to focus on making the muscles work as hard as possible (an internal focus)?

If you’re a strength or power athlete, the answer will always be the former. Your goal should be to focus on moving the bar from A to B in the most efficient manner possible.

Back when I was powerlifting, everything I did was geared towards this. From an excessive arch in my lower back when benching to shorten my leverages, to doing whatever means necessary to complete a rep on a deadlift.

If your goal is building muscle, or overall body composition, your focus in general should be to keep your mind in the muscle and make it work as hard as possible.

If you focus purely on moving the weight from A to B, what you’ll find is secondary muscles will take over, and you’ll be dissatisfied with the results.

Case in point: the bench press.

When you’re benching for more chest development, what most people do is disregard muscle contraction and just ‘lift’ the weight with whichever muscles are available.

For most people, this means their anterior shoulders and triceps take over, and their pecs receive very little stimulation, and no growth.

Squeeze & Focus For More Muscle?

This has been widely talked about in recent years, and brought about a swing in the pendulum.

Instead of focusing on load and moving weight, people are now being drawn to slowing their reps down entirely, using minimal loads, and focusing all their intention to squeezing the muscle as much as possible.

While the theory is sound, and it does make sense to spend time re-establishing mind-muscle connection, form and contraction, you can’t build muscle with squeezing alone.

You need both.

Progressive Overload With Perfect Form

Reverting back to the question I started the article with; if your goal is body composition, you need both an internal and external focus to your training. Placing all your energy on the internal can leave you forgetting one extremely important factor in muscle growth: progressive overload.

I see it time and time again. People squeezing away with 3 second peak contractions, 6 second negatives and 2 minute sets, while keeping their mind utterly focused on the muscle in question.

Sure, this’ll give you a nice burn, and you’ll probably have a decent pump too. But you’ll be using minimal weight, and your room for progression will be minimal.

Instead, you need a combination, and you need to play the movie of your set from both an internal and external perspective.

If your goal is bigger quads, and you’re on a hack squat machine, you should be taking this approach:

1. External (how the set looks from the outside): you need to be thinking about completing all the reps, setting records, and being able to move the weight from A to B.

2. Internal (what you think about during the set): you want to think about your quads lengthening, contracting and tearing apart, so that when you do move the weight from A to B and provide overload, it’s the quads that are being stimulated on every rep.

It’s a combination.

This is where the message gets lost, and why it’s so damn hard to build muscle mass.

It’s easy to keep adding weight to the bar and thinking you’re achieving progressive overload, when all you’re doing is changing your technique and standards of form.

It’s easy to keep squeezing with all the right intention, and never being able to progress over time.

What’s hard is moving a weight from A to B with a performance mindset, while at the same time keeping all the load, intention and focus on the muscle targeted.

Finding Your Internal Vs. External Balance

When applying this to your training, you need to know how to find the right balance of internal vs. external.

For your big compound exercises, such as your presses, rows, squats and deadlift variations, where you are in the radar of external vs. internal will depend your training experience, ability to recruit muscle and your level of development.

The more of a beginner you are, the more you should be focused on making your form look as good as possible from an external view point. At this stage, you won’t have the ability to contract muscle hard, so trying to squeeze your quads during a squat will not only over complicate the process, but take away from your gains.

You want to get bigger and stronger overall, so your focus should be on progressive overload while maintaining perfect form at all times.

As you get a little more experienced, and you’ve learnt the technique behind your lifts, this is when it’s time to shift the balance right down the middle.

For your compound lifts, you want to keep an eye on your performance, but never at the expense of form or losing your mind muscle connection.

An example is with my Romanian deadlift, which is an exercise many struggle to feel, especially as you get heavy.

It’s the perfect example of an exercise which should be trained with a balance of performance and feel, but is only ever done with the mindset of going from A to B.

Done correctly, you should be able to be very progressive with it, but should also be left with crippled hamstrings the next day.

The key is finding this balance is two-step approach:

I’m always in the gym with the intention of progressive overload, but I’m never in a rush with it. When you’re in a rush, all you’ll end up doing is losing all internal focus of an exercise, and most likely stagnate and/or get injured.

It’s got to be done slowly. The more you can milk a weight before progressing, the stronger you can maintain the balance between performance and feel when it does come to adding load.

Isolation Work

The only time you want to abandon the external performance mindset when training for body composition is with your isolation work.

These are your lateral raises, biceps curls, extensions, and so on. Exercises that aren’t super taxing, and have a smaller progressive element to it.

For these exercises, your sole focus should be on internalising your thought process as much as possible.

If you’re doing a set of biceps curls, you want to put your whole mind into the muscle, and focus on flexing against the dumbbells.

Going from A to B shouldn’t be in your thought process, and will only serve to negate the benefits of isolation exercises.

Developing Strong Internal Focus Over Time

As you become more experienced, your ability to internalise your approach to a set will become greater and more innate.

How I train and approach my sets now is completely different to 5, 7 or 10 years ago.

Before a set now, I squeeze the muscle I’m aiming to stimulate, and re-direct all my energy and focus into it.

I also think about what I did last time, and what I need to achieve to ensure some level of progression (this could simply be to maintain a stronger internal focus throughout if ‘milking the weight’ is the aim).

During the set, I’m focusing on how my muscles are feeling, how they’re stretching and contracting, while also being conscious of what I need to beat.

As you become more experienced, your ability to merge an internal and external focus into one heightens, and the faster you can learn this ability, the better your progress will be.

It’s also this merging of the two that creates the meditative effect weight training has the power to manifest itself as.

The Perfect Set For Muscle Building

The perfect set is rare. But you’ll know it when you’ve just done one.

It’s when you’ve felt the target muscle through every inch of every rep, while executing the movement with pristine technique.

It’s when you’re able to maintain this focus and stimulation as you beat your previous performance.

It’s when you put the weight down knowing the all extra overload went to the muscle you wanted it to go to.

It’s when you can do this as often as possible that your body will begin to build muscle at its most optimum rate.

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