Mind Over Muscle - by Kirsten Alexander

Is true strength really all in the mind? From the ancients to modern day body builders, it appears there's something in it.
If you've ever trained for a sport, done a ballet class or attended yoga, you'll notice that you're told to use your mind. Professional sports people certainly have to 'get their mind in the game' and if they're feeling psychologically imbalanced, their game will suffer. Anyone trying to do a simple tree pose in yoga also knows that there are some days you can do it with ease and there are others that you simply fall over every time you try. THE COP AND THE BALLET DANCER A research study completed in 2011 explored the concept of 'the role of gaze control, spatial cognition, and the quiet eye in motor expertise' ' essentially, how your mind can control your motor skills, which includes muscle movement. By studying the 'quiet eye movement' of ballet dancers, golf players, police personnel and soccer players, scientists were able to establish the link between spatial ability and physical performance. The study indicates that a 'long duration quiet eye period provides the time the brain needs to organise the neural structures underlying the planning and control of the action'.  While this doesn't quite answer the question of whether strength comes from the mind, it certainly points to your mind being an integral part of how you perform physically, and the way in which you can get your body to move and act efficiently. LIFE FORCE Tai chi is an ancient practise that's been widely researched. The basis of tai chi is Qi, an energy force that flows through the body ' tai chi unblocks this and encourages the proper flow of chi; and yin and yang ' keeping the opposing elements that make up the universe in harmony. According to Harvard Medical School, when practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. Tai chi involves movements done simultaneously with controlled breathing and concentration, which helps improve relaxation, attention, self-awareness and confidence through visualisation, intention and imagery. BUILD THAT BODY So, how does this relate to modern-day body building practices? According to Jack Hibbard, a Green Beret Vet, 'Focus is the ability to control muscles of the body in a coordinated effort and then contract them to their maximum degree. The deeper the concentration, the tenser the contraction of the muscle; and the tenser the contraction, the stronger the muscle grows'. In 2014, a medical study indicated that the mind can actually increase muscle strength. This is great news for couch potatoes ' all you need to do, apparently, is imagine a strength training routine, while doing nothing. That's not to say, though, that real exercise is off the table. The scientists involved were trying to determine if they could assist people who were immobilised from an accident or injury to prevent muscles from becoming weaker. Why this works is because different thoughts or mental states release hormones that can make a huge impact on muscle growth or retardation. This is why steroids are used so frequently in body building ' the unnatural way of pushing muscle growth. Then there's your body's nervous system; your brain produces an electrical impulse that signals to a muscle to act. How receptive your muscle is to the brain's signal determines how much force there is in your muscle contraction. Muscles that contract more fully and faster are deemed stronger. Visualising a muscle contracting can turbo-charge your body's electrical impulse system. DAILY DO'S You can increase your muscle strength by doing exactly what you are currently doing ' if you exercise your brain at the same time. Simply by concentrating on the movements you make each day your brain-muscle connection will intensify, which will assist in strengthening your actual muscles. So, the next time you go grocery shopping, or walk up a flight of stairs, be mindful of the movements you're making ' ensure your brain is fully engaged in what your body is doing and vice versa. MUSCLE FOOD If you're looking to build lean muscle, keep your diet balanced with:
  1. Protein - critical for providing the building blocks that make up muscle,
  2. Carbs - provide the energy to get through workouts and keep the muscles fuller by stocking them with glycogen to pull water into the muscles to maximise their volume.
  3. Fats - critical to muscle strength and growth, particularly the healthy ones, such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated omega-3 fats.
  4. Water - the most critical nutrient you can get. The more water you consume, the fuller your muscle cells will be, which can push muscle growth forward. 

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