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What is Attentional Focus? and Why will it Help Your Exercise Training?



We all know what it's like to try an exercise for the first time. Take a squat for instance - the first time you tried to do one you were probably thinking "What muscles am I supposed to be working?", "Where do my arms go?", "What is my back supposed to look like?". Or maybe you didn't think of any of these questions and instead performed the exercise uncomfortably and not so sure of what you were doing.


Now, if you had a Kinesiologist or trainer instruct you, they might give you a set of descriptive cues like:

"Start with the feet hip width apart with the toes and knees slightly facing out. Imagine you're going to sit in a chair. Push those knees out and butt backwards. Now, keep the chest proud and spine straight as you go down.

At the bottom of the squat, squeeze the glutes and push the feet through the floor to stand up."

Wouldn't hearing this be much more helpful than just being told to perform a squat?


Cues are super helpful in exercise training because they tell you what to focus on.



What is Attentional Focus?

Attentional focus is what an individual thinks about when performing an exercise. It's essentially cued by Kinesiologists, Physio's, trainers, or instructors. It's important because it helps connect the mind to either the muscles being used during an exercise or a skill being acquired.

There are 2 types of attentional focus: internal focus, or external focus.


Internal focus, or “Mind-muscle connection” refers to thinking about the muscle fibres that are being used in the exercise. Hence, connecting the mind-to-the-muscle. Internal focus is beneficial when the goal is to recruit more muscle fibres, gain more muscle mass, and when the load is lighter. This type of focus benefits bodybuilders, physique athletes, and people seeking maximal hypertrophy (muscle mass gains).

An example of internal focus during an exercise would be thinking of activating and engaging the glutes at the bottom of a squat (see figure 1).


Figure 1. Internal focus example for attentional focus. Woman thinking of engaging the glutes at the bottom of a barbell squat
Figure 1. Internal focus example - thinking of engaging the glutes at the bottom of a squat

External focus is focusing on the effect that the movement will have on the surrounding environment. Sport athletes that want to set a 1RM (1 Rep Max, aka the heaviest you can lift in one rep), maximize power, force production and maximize accuracy would benefit the most using external focus. These are people such as powerlifters, weightlifters, basketball players, rowers, and golfers to name a few.

An example of external focus during an exercise would be thinking of “spreading the feet through the floor” during a squat (see figure 2).


So it's important to note that which attentional focus method you use, should match the goal of the exercise.


External focus example for attentional focus. Woman is thinking of spreading the floor with the feet the bottom of a barbell squat
Figure 2. External focus example - thinking of spreading the floor with the feet the bottom of a squat

Now, not all of us are athletes, so why does this matter?

It matters because it helps:

  • With learning proper form: If you are focused on the position of your body, and are focused on the activation of the muscles that are working, you will be improving your form.

  • To minimize injury: by learning to do exercises with proper form by using mental cues, you are much more likely to be performing an exercise correctly and are less likely to become injured.

  • To be more efficient: intentional movement allows you to get the most out of your workout, allowing you to reach your goals faster.


Tips anyone can use to establish a strong internal focus or “Mind-Muscle” Connection:


1. Visualize - visualize what you are doing, as you are doing it. For instance, if you are doing a bicep curl, imagine the muscle fibres in your bicep contracting as you are doing it. By using internal focus through visualization, your brain is telling your body to work harder and thus recruit more muscle fibres. Interestingly enough, our muscles don’t fire at maximal intensity all the time, that would be inefficient for the body. According to the muscle recruitment theory, our muscles learn to recruit larger fibres before smaller ones when large forces are needed in order to use the least amount of energy and be the most efficient.

A woman visualizing the bicep fibres contracting in a bicep curl
Figure 3. Visualizing the bicep fibres contracting


2. Tactile feedback/Touching the muscle - Do that imaginary bicep curl again but on the right hand. Now touch the bicep muscle fibres with the left hand as you do the curl. Touching the muscle that is working will help the brain to focus on that muscle.

Woman touching bicep muscle to stimulate internal focus for a bicep curl
Figure 4. Touching the muscle to help focus on the fibres being activated

3. Time under tension - Move slower, with intention. For example, instead of performing a regular squat, try descending for 3 counts (or seconds), pause at the bottom for 1 count, then come up in 1 count.



4. Verbal cues from a trainer or buddy - As mentioned before, a trainer will likely give you internal cues to improve your form such as: "Engage the core" or, "Lengthen the spine". If not, tell a buddy (preferably an intermediate or knowledgeable gym-goer) to watch your form and call out cues while performing an exercise.

Kinesiologist giving verbal cues to woman doing a push up.
Figure 5. Kinesiologist giving verbal cues

5. Lighter Loads - Using light weight or no weight will allow you to truly nail form and thus allow you to activate and focus on the right muscles.


6. Isolation exercises - Doing smaller, isolated exercises that target one body part will help you focus internally especially if you are new to larger, compound exercises. Examples of isolated exercises are: leg extension (quadriceps focused), lat pull down (latissimus dorsi focused), calf raise (calf focused).


External Focus Tips for Coaches:


For external focus, it's best if your coach instructs you with this type of focus because it is more difficult and as previously mentioned, this type of focus is best suited for performance athletes.

However, if you are a coach looking for some more information, or are just interested in the topic, here are some key takeaways I found about coaching external cues in the renowned book The Language of Coaching by Nick Winkelman. It's definitely worth the read, and he goes into much more detail in the book.


Winkelman describes using a 3D cueing model to create an optimal cue:

You choose 1) a descriptive verb, then 2) a direction, and finally, 3) a distance.


For example, for a barbell bench press, your cue would be to "Focus on pushing the barbell away from the bench". Where 1) would be "pushing the barbell", 2) would be "away" and 3) would be "from the bench".

3D cueing model shown visually through a woman doing a barbell bench press for external attentional focus
Figure 6. Visual for the cueing model for doing a bench press


Once you've created a proper cue, the delivery of the cue would go in this order:

  1. Describing the movement

  2. Demonstrating it

  3. Cueing it (from the 3D model)

  4. Having the athlete do it

  5. Debrief and give feedback to the athlete


So there you have it, a brief introduction to attentional focus, why it's important, tips on how to use it as well as tips you can use in your coaching!


Until next time,






References:

  1. Winkelman, N. (2021). The language of coaching: The art & science of teaching movement. Human Kinetics Inc.

  2. Geierman, B (2022). "Playing with Processing: External Cues and Motor Performance" Accessed here: https://barbellrehab.com/external-cues-motor-performance/

  3. Ottinger, C. (unknown). "The Mind-Muscle Connection" Accessed here: https://themusclephd.com/the-mind-muscle-connection/

  4. Schoenfeld, Brad & Contreras, Bret. (2016). Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 38. 1. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000190.


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