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Exercising with Intent





The gym is a GREAT place to socialize and chat with friends. However, can too much chatting negatively affect your workout? According to new research, it just may!


The Research

Researchers in two separate studies sought to determine if focusing (intent) on a specific muscle during various exercises affected how much that specific muscle was activated.


In a study focusing on strength training (Wilson et al), researchers hooked experienced weightlifters up to sensors to detect muscle activity. Participants were directed to perform an exercise targeted at a specific back muscle under three conditions.

Study 1 (Wilson et al)

  • Heavy weight with NO intent/focus: Very high loads (90% of max) with the direction to just MOVE THE WEIGHT with proper form.
  • Moderate weight with intent: Moderate loads (70% of max) with the direction to focus on squeezing the specific muscle (intent).
  • Heavy weight with intent: Very high loads (same as first condition) with the direction to focus on squeezing the specific muscle (intent).


In the other study (Contreras et al), participants were hooked up to the same sensors, but instead of lifting weights, they performed various body weight exercises (push-ups, back extensions, bodyweight rows, etc). Participants were instructed to use the EXACT same form when performing an exercise but vary their focus with regards to the muscle they were predominantly contracting.

Study 2 (Contreras et al)

  • Squat with a quad muscle focus.
  • Squat with a glute muscle focus.
  • Push-up with a chest focus.
  • Push-up with a tricep focus.
  • Row with a back muscle focus.
  • Row with a bicep focus.

The Findings

Study 1 (Wilson et al)

  • Heavy weight with NO intent/focus had the LOWEST recruitment of the target muscle.
  • Moderate weight with intent/focus had twice the recruitment of the targeted muscle than heavy weight with no intent.
  • Heavy weight with intent/focus had about 1.5 times the recruitment of moderate weight with intent.


Study 2 (Contreras et al)

  • Participants were able to significantly shift recruitment during each exercise based on which muscle they were told to focus on.
  • Simply being aware of your own form may not be enough; thinking about the muscle you are trying to work also appears to be very important.

Take Home Message

Exercising with intent or focus is important at all fitness levels. For individuals trying to fine tune their physique via muscle growth, this focus may make a significant difference for trouble areas. It is also important for individuals new to exercise. Since many movements are new, improper movement patterns and imbalances in muscle activation may be present. By focusing on form and specific muscles during a given exercise, you can retrain your brain to properly recruit muscles for each exercise.

The data is clear: when you FOCUS on flexing the muscle you are trying to work, you recruit more fibers within that muscle (chest during a push-up, back muscles during a suspension row, etc). Since muscle fibers only adapt if they are recruited, it’s important that you maximize the recruitment with each repetition.

I’m not saying exercise shouldn’t be fun or social. I’m just suggesting the research indicates the more focus on the muscles you’re working will result in a more beneficial workout. What you do with this knowledge is up to you!


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