Pritchard: Attentional focus for resistance training (column) | VailDaily.com

Pritchard: Attentional focus for resistance training (column)

Jimmy Pritchard
Better Version of You
Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1974 Mr. Olympia competition in New York.
Special to the Daily

During the 1970s and 1980s, the mind/muscle connection was popularized by professional body builders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane.

In their attempt to increase focus while training, they would visualize the contractile elements of their muscle fibers cross bridging as they performed a movement. Obviously, this is only part of the process, as the entire process sees muscle fiber recruitment beginning with the release of acetylcholine into the neuromuscular junction, crossing over into the synapses and binding to receptors on the surface of muscle fibers.

Nonetheless, what these body builders were ultimately doing was shifting their focus within and providing themselves with what is most commonly known today as internal cueing. It gave them the ability to drive more energy into what they were doing while eliminating distractions, achieving a flow state.

While internal cueing is commonly employed within the coaching world, external cueing is becoming equally as popular, and for good reason.

Internal vs External Cueing

Eliminating distractions and focusing on the task at hand is of utmost importance while resistance training. This is obvious not only for safety, but also to express the highest level of performance.

The manner in which one provides or receives a point of emphasis can be broken into two categories: internal and external. Internal thought processes are those that involve the human body and its movement. An example would be “extend your hips while jumping” or “keep your shoulders back while bench pressing.”

In contrast, external cues are those that focus on the environment or objects around us. An example of this thought process would be “push the ground away while sprinting,” or “try to snap the bar in half while deadlifting.”

Both coaching cues can work with athletes and trainees alike, however Nick Winkelman, Ph.D.,the head of athletic performance at the Irish Rugby Football Union, offers an interesting perspective in his research paper titled “Attentional Focus and Cueing for Speed Development” in the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

Winkelman notes that sprint performance increases when athletes receive external cues versus internal cues, likely due to the fact that internal cues can at times direct the athlete’s attention towards components that do not contribute to the desired task to be completed. For an effective external cue to be formulated, it needs to have either a distance, direction, or description. This will supply all of the needed information necessary for an athlete to execute their movement more effectively.

Practical Application

In practice, focusing your attention on something external while resistance training can be highly beneficial, as well.

If you are performing a lateral lunge, for example, and know that you should keep your posture upright, imagine balancing a glass of water on your head without letting it spill, rather than focusing on what each and every joint angle should be.

This is an absolute game-changer for some athletes and clients I work with, however every person learns differently. Therefor I believe a healthy mixture of both internal and external cues should be employed.

Being mindful and conscious of what one is doing is crucial, rather than going through the motions. Exercise is equally mentally fatiguing as it is physically fatiguing, when performed correctly. A good coach can help you with this and should have a rather large arsenal of coaching cues to assist with any movement.

If you would like to find further coaching cues you can employ right away, I highly encourage visiting Winkelman on social media or reading his literature online.

Jimmy Pritchard has a BSc in exercise science from Colorado Mesa University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the director of strength & conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at 970-331-3513 or jpritchard@skiclubvail.org. Check out his website pritchardperformance.com.