Where Should Your Focus Be?

When doing aerobic exercise it can be useful to let your mind drift and wander, especially when you are doing a lot of low intensity endurance exercise. There have been many times when I was out doing a long run of several hours and I would think about all kinds of things. I would be observing the scenery around me, listening intensely to a podcast, thinking about a problem I was trying to solve at work.

This is intentional.

If you are going to be exercising for several hours and are focusing on the minutes, the miles, the steps, the strokes, you are going to be in for a LONG DAY. If for part of that time you can let your mind wonder, you can get into the zone and just cruise through. In some ways endurance training is about learning how to endure “the suck” because focusing on “the suck” will not end well.

I also find it useful to distract myself when doing high intensity aerobic exercise. When I have to do a dreaded 2k on the rower, I always put on music. I find music helps me deal with the pain I am about to endure. If I had nothing in my ears to distract me I feel like I would not be able to continue pushing as hard as I can.

When it comes to resistance training though, it is often beneficial to focus on the exercise you are doing.

For example, if you are trying to help someone do a deadlift you might ask if they feel anything in their hamstrings or upper back. If they don’t, you might instruct them to drive their hips back when lowering the bar to the point they feel a stretch in their hamstrings then engage their lats and stand up keeping their lats engaged and their back and neck neutral.

At this point your friend might be looking at you as if you just made up your own language.

So you try a different approach.

This time you tell them to grab the bar making sure the logo on their shirt is facing the wall in front of them and stand up pushing the floor away with their feet.

Now you see a light bulb go off in their head and they immediately are able to replicate the movement.

There are actually names for these two types of cues.

In the first example focus is directed towards the muscles, in this case your hamstrings and lats. This is an example of what’s called an internal cue. As the name implies, Internal cues focus on the feelings and sensations inside your body.

In the second example focus is directed towards things outside your body, in this case on the visibility of the logo on your shirt and the feeling of pushing the floor away with your feet. This is an example of external cues.

Before we look at when to use each type of cue, the first thing to understand that unlike aerobic exercise where it might be beneficial to let you mind wonder, when resistance training it is likely beneficial to focus on the movement you are doing to make sure you are getting the maximal return from the exercise and to also help prevent injury.

The first thing I consider when cueing someone through an exercise is their level of experience.

Telling someone to focus on engaging their lats during a deadlift will mean nothing to someone who has no idea what a lat is or where it is located on their body. For this person an external cue will work better, so I would tell them to squeeze oranges between their armpits. This should engage their lats without them knowing those muscles are.

The other case where I will automatically use an external cue is if someone is having a hard time feeling the muscle. They might know where their lat is but they have a hard time feeling that muscle and engaging it during the deadlift, so instead the external cue of crushing some oranges might work better for them.

I find internal cues to be more beneficial for people if there is only a single muscle involved in the exercise. The more muscles involved in an exercise the harder it is to focus on internal cues for each of them. When doing a deadlift, telling someone to stand up with the bar while keeping the logo of their shirt facing the wall in front of them is much simpler than focusing on feeling your hamstrings, glutes, lats, traps, and core all at the same time. On the other hand, if I tell you to do a preacher curl which basically only involves contracting the bicep I can tell almost everyone to focus on their bicep when doing that exercise and they can mentally do that.

Internal and external cues can also make a difference depending on the outcome you are trying to achieve with your resistance training.

In general, if strength is the primary outcome you are looking for then external cues seem to provide more benefit than internal cues [1]. When the goal is to move as much weight as possible, which is the case for a strength goal, it is advantageous to do so with the most efficiency as possible. You are less concerned about which muscles specifically are doing the work. An external cue provides general guidance of how to do the exercise but lacks the specificity of the muscles that need to do the work, and ultimately you let your body decide what is the most efficient way FOR YOU to move the weight.

In addition to external cues being better for strength, it also appears to be better for increasing your overall volume, meaning people tend to be able to do more repetitions than using internal cues [2].

Why are external cues better for increasing volume?

It has to do with the same reason why external cues are better for strength goals. External cues tend to allow you to move more efficiently. This not only means you can lift more weight, but at a lower weight you will be able to do more reps. If you use an internal cue and the cue is a less efficient way for your body to move the weight, you will unfortunately do less reps.

That said, being less efficient when doing resistance training is not necessarily a bad thing. In some ways doing an exercise in a less efficient way may be a novel stimulus allowing you to get stronger and build more muscle. It’s the same reason why increasing the length of each rep may be beneficial for muscle growth. If you slow your reps down you will probably do less reps overall, but because this is a novel stimulus to the muscle it can result in muscle growth. So you can easily make an argument that if internal cues still allow you to lift a weight safely but in a less efficient manner, they could be beneficial if your goal is muscle growth.

I do think internal cues are superior when you are trying to target growth and development in a very specific muscle and this is where isolation exercises come in. If you want to build your bicep specifically it makes sense to do biceps curls and use the internal cue of squeezing the bicep. However, I don’t see many people needing to focus on building a specific muscle like that, so ultimately I am not sure how applicable it is to most people, but if you are going to do single muscle exercises internal cues are probably worth using.

OK so how do we put this all in practice?

First thing is that some form of focus on the exercise you are doing, whether that be internal or external, will likely be useful. For most people doing a compound lift like a deadlift, a squat, an overhead press, a row, or a bench press (and any of their variations) I would suggest starting out with external cues. For isolation exercises, like bicep curls, tricep extensions, hamstring curls, leg extensions, and most core work, I would suggest you try to use internal cues which focus on the target muscle.

While internal cues are quite obvious because you are focusing on the single muscle you are working, external cues are not so obvious, so here are some examples

Deadlift: Push the floor away with your feet

Bench Press: Push your body into the bench

Overhead Press: Throw the bar into the ceiling

Squat: Spread the feet with the floor, sit down, stand up

Row: Slam your elbows into the ceiling

Give some of these cues a try and see if it allows you to lift more weight or complete more reps. If it does there is a good chance over time you will get stronger and build more muscle!

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  1. (2021, November 12). Acute and Long-Term Effects of Attentional Focus Strategies on …. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34822352/
  2. (2021, December 22). Effects of Attentional Focus on Muscular Endurance: A Meta-Analysis. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35010348/

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