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Internal or External: Where to Focus During Your Strength Training Set

You are completing your sixth rep of leg extension and discomfort is starting to set it. You complete three more perfect reps and now, every part of you wants to stop and set the weight down. These final and uncomfortable reps are the “result-producing” reps. As you struggle and persevere through these reps, what should you focus on?

Traditionally, exercise scientists describe two types of attentional focus: internal and external.

The internal focus during strength training means that you should think about the muscle you are using during an exercise. If you are performing a bicep curl, you shouldn’t think about moving the weight, you should think about your biceps muscle contracting. This is often referred to as a mind-muscle connection.

The external focus during strength training means that you should think about simply lifting the weight; don’t worry about what muscles you are using, simply focus on moving the weight from point A to point B.

Which type of focus is more effective?

It’s nuanced.

The most recent scientific research reveals a slight advantage for internal focus if your goal is muscle hypertrophy (making our muscles grow in size – and of course, this should be a goal of every trainee across any age group). However, according to the latest meta-analysis, an external focus is more effective if your goal is to increase your muscle strength (and of course, muscle strength is a highly desirable outcome of “strength” training and is positively correlated with a reduction of all-cause mortality rates).

How do you apply this to your next workout? I recommend, from rep to rep and exercise to exercise, continue to shift seamlessly back and forth from an internal focus to an external focus. Be aware of the exact muscles you are using and picture them contracting. On the next rep, focus simply on somehow pushing the leg press platform away from you. Both internal and external foci can be utilized to drive increases in muscle strength and muscle size.

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