Coaches, personal trainers, and our own brains tell us we can improve workout form if we just focus. Put enough mind power behind a burning muscle or agile movement and our technique should improve. Or to use the common saying, put mind over matter.
But research from the University of Nevada—Las Vegas recently disproved this line of logic. “You can’t possibly try to be efficient and focus on what you are doing,” says Gabriele Wulf, Ph.D., the director of the Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at UNLV. “When working out, I think the mind has more of a negative effect.”
According to Wulf, the world’s best athletes don’t have to think about how their bodies move because practice has made their competition and training automatic. Her research suggests that the rest of us can trick our minds into making movements feel automatic, mimicking the mental state of the pros and improving workout efficiency and form. Follow these tips from Wulf to harness your brain for better performance in the gym.
In one of Wulf’s studies, she separated swimmers of equal ability into two groups. The first group focused on the movement of their arms through the water while completing laps. The second group focused only on pushing the water back. The second group recorded significantly faster times because of a phenomenon called “external focus,” where concentrating on the effect of the body’s movement is more effective than concentrating on the body itself.
“When you adopt an external focus, you perform much more automatically and efficiently,” Wulf says. “Somehow the body knows what it has to do to achieve the desired outcome, and that results in more fluid, efficient, and accurate movements.”
This can be applied to any exercise. While lifting weights, focus on the motion of the dumbbell instead of the muscle. While running, focus on pushing against the ground instead of breathing or the movement of the legs. When you ignore your body and instead pay attention to your surroundings, your form and performance will improve, Wulf says.