Focus on the movement or focus on the muscle – what is best?

If you’ve read enough training articles, you might have seen the following statement in articles written by coaches, trainers or scientists who focus on “functional training”: 

“Train the movement, not the muscle.”1

The stated reason for training the movement and not the muscle is that your brain won’t allow muscles to work independently of each other. They’re a team, and by training them that way, you’ll get better results.1

Along the same line, other trainers differentiate between “internal cues” and “external cues.”

Internal cues are feelings-based cues. “Feel your lats” is an example of an internal cue.

External cues are movement outcome cues – for example, “stand up with the weight.”2

The belief is that feelings-based cues don’t result in a better contraction; rather, they hijack the brainpower to complete the movement. The belief is also that the lifter will best know how to complete the movement.2

In articles written by coaches and trainers who focus on muscle building, you’ll find statements such as the following that emphasize the importance of feeling the muscle:3

“…you’ll feel the pectorals more in the movement and thus will be able to better recruit them and make small technique changes to maximize its contraction.”

If we look at the above statements, it seems that if your goal is to move better (for example, setting a personal record in the bench press), you should “focus on the movement,” and if your goal is to build a bigger chest, you should “focus on the muscle.”

However, in certain parts of training to move better, the goal isn’t the movement, but the muscle.

When a powerlifter trains glute ham raises to improve his deadlift, his goal isn’t to become better at flexing the knee joint against load. It’s to get stronger hamstrings and subsequently incorporate that strength into the deadlift movement.

By the same token, certain parts of a bodybuilder’s training must focus on the movement.

If you want to use free-weight exercises such as squat, deadift and bench press to create a hypertrophy response, you need to be able to use a substantial external load in these exercises. To squat, deadlift or bench press substantial load, you need to be skilled at performing these movements.

This article will explore the possible benefits and limitations of focusing on the movement versus focusing on the muscle and suggest how both lifters and bodybuilders should dedicate certain portions of their training programs to focus on the muscle and certain parts of the program to focus on the movement.

What does it mean to focus on the movement?

When some trainers say “Train the movement, not the muscle,” they’re often referring to the purpose of the exercise.

You should focus on the movement when your goal is to be stronger in the exercise and more weight.

Cues such as “clean your jaw” (on a vinyl mouthguard), “pull the bar into your traps” and “lift with a forced expiration” have been shown to result in acute increases in strength of 2.9 to 32.3 percent in back squat and jump squat. Scientists call this phenomenon concurrent activation potentiation or remote activation potentiation, referring to the fact that strength can be increased by contracting muscles that are remote from the muscles that directly lift the weight.4

Movement-based cues can be divided into “movement initiation cues” and “movement outcome cues.”

Movement initiation cues include the following:

  • “Drive the pelvis forward” – this cue often improves strength in the lifting phase of squat and deadlift.
  • “Press your upper back and head into the bench” – this often improves strength in the lifting phase of the bench presses.

(You can find many more highly effective cues in this article:

The need for movement initiation cues reflect the fact that even simple movements such as supine glute bridges can be executed with different muscle recruitment patterns, some of which are considered less optimal than others. The simple instruction to lift your hips off the floor can result in the athlete predominantly using the back muscles, the hamstring muscles or the gluteus maximus muscles – the last of these being considered the ideal.5

Movement initiation is also a necessary focus in the part of your training where you intend to move peak loads as fast as possible (to create maximal tension on the muscle) as a focus on deceleration and acceleration is required. When your focus is decelerating and accelerating a load, the peak forces happen close to the range where the movement is reversed. In other ranges, the forces are lower and the weight moves faster. Typically, you can feel the muscles decelerating and accelerating the load close to the reversal point, but it’s more challenging to feel the muscle throughout the range of motion.

The downside of movement initiation cues is that they can make you think too much. Sometimes it can be beneficial to just lift and forget about technique.

It’s valid to consider if the execution of cues ever become automatic. If automatic means to you that you can have your attention on something else as you lift, then the answer is “no.” However, as the technique gets grooved, the right patterns can emerge simply through awareness instead of “trying to.”

There’s a small difference between trying to press your upper back into the bench and being aware that your upper back is pressed into the bench as you complete the lift. We all begin with “trying to,” but as our skills grow, we need to move into “being aware”  to realize our fullest lifting potential. “Being aware” isn’t the absence of effort or exertion; rather, it’s a state of watching your body and mind work.

What are movement outcome cues? These include the following:

  • “Stand up” – to perform the lifting phase of a squat12
  • “Touch the bar to your chest” – to perform the lifting phase of bent-over rows

Movement outcome cues, such as the ones above, provide you with a rough experience of the movement.

The belief that “the athlete/client will know best how to complete the movement” (as mentioned in the beginning of this article) may be valid in certain cases. However, when you program yourself based on a movement outcome, the result is often compensatory patterns when the muscles that should be delivering the force to lift (or lower) the weight aren’t strong enough or aren’t used.

For example, if you program yourself with “touch the bar to your chest” and your lats, among other participants in the movement, don’t deliver enough force, you’ll meet your goal not by lifting the bar to the chest but instead by lowering the chest to the bar by bending the back.

Recommendation: If you’re a less experienced lifter, practice movement initiation cues during compound exercises where sequencing of joint action matters. As you grow in experience, shift from “trying to” to “watching your body work.” Be careful with movement outcome cues in resistance training.

What does it mean to focus on the muscle?

Focusing on a muscle can mean that the purpose of the exercise is to strengthen a movement. Consider this quote from Olympic weightlifting great Vasili Alexejev.6

What upsets me is that the method of training used by an overwhelming number of weightlifters, in spite of the amazing growth in records, is still at the same point it was in the fifties. For example, you want to improve your technique on the snatch – you practice the snatch; the jerk – you practice the jerk. I tell them to correct their mistakes differently – to strengthen separate groups of muscles. A simple example: an athlete is having trouble with the snatch. They advise him to start differently, to change his grip on the barbell – wider or narrower. But it turns out that it’s enough to build up a group of muscles which “do the trick” with the maximum effort and he gets better results…

This is the conjugate system of exercises that powerlifting coach Louie Simmons has written about extensively.

It’s obvious why an Olympic weightlifter or a powerlifter could be interested in using a certain exercise to strengthen a muscle that’s currently limiting performance. However, even if your goal is muscle mass, you could consider this approach if your performance in the big lifts has stalled.

With regard to instructional cues given to you by a coach or a trainer, or cues that you tell yourself, there are at least two ways to “focus on the muscle.”

  1. “Trying to” contract a specific muscle and implicitly expecting the movement happens as a result of the contraction of that muscle.

A cue of performing a movement by contracting a certain muscle is sometimes given to ensure a specific recruitment pattern – for example, to ensure that the glutes are used in the glute bridge exercise.5

For the bench press, it has been demonstrated that you can increase activation of a particular muscle by focusing on lifting the weight with that muscle. Mentally focusing on lifting the weight by contracting the pectorals can significantly increase muscle activation of the pectorals. Alternatively, mentally focusing on lifting the weight by contracting the triceps muscles significantly increases muscle activation of the triceps. This mentally controlled shift in contraction is more significant at 60 percent of 1RM compared to 80 percent of 1RM.13

Lifting the weight by contracting certain muscles is aligned with the old discipline of muscle control that is defined in the following way

To be able, by the exercise of willpower, to contract certain muscles while relaxing others

antagonistic to them.7


Muscle control was an integral part of the training of old-time strongmen such as Euqen Sandow, who gave big credit to muscle control for his strength as well as his muscularity.


  1. Focusing on feeling a certain muscle that’s active during the movement.

Focusing on feeling a certain muscle or group of muscles that are active during the movement is the type of focus that was referred to in our initial quote

“…you feel the pectorals more in the movement and thus will be able to better recruit them and make small technique changes to maximize its contraction.” 3

Here you aren’t necessarily “initiating the curl by contracting your biceps,” but your awareness is on the muscle, not the movement, as the weight increases. The potential result of this awareness is a maximized contraction, which leads to increased gains in muscle mass because only activated fibres grow.

The act of awareness may also work on a deeper level. Cutting-edge science in quantum physics is confirming that our physical reality manifests as a result of our dominant awareness/consciousness.8 The link between consciousness and our bodies may be at least partially understood in the following way: The neurons in the brain communicate with neuropeptides. However, receptors for neuropeptides are found not only in the brain but also in the entire body.9 Is it possible that our muscles “pick up” on our awareness of the contraction as well as your intent for that muscle to grow?

Focusing on feeling a certain muscle or group of muscles that are active during a movement may work best when the intended movement is relatively slow and the loads are submaximal and not close to peak.

Recommendation: If your performance in any of the big lifts has stalled, consider “focusing on the muscle” by carefully selecting exercises to strengthen the muscle(s) that might be holding you back. Focus on lifting the weights by contracting specific muscles or on feeling a target muscle in movements that are intended to be relatively slow and where the load isn’t close to your peak.

How can you strategically take advantage focusing on the movement or the muscle throughout a workout?

The following four steps have been suggested as a possible structure for a muscle-stimulating workout.10 Here’s how you may optimally use a muscle-based or a movement-based focus in each of the four segments:

  1. Get a pre-pump in the main target muscle without causing fatigue; focus on feeling the target muscle throughout the range of motion.
  2. Do high-threshold work; focus on movement initiation cues and maximal acceleration throughout the range of motion.
  3. Maximize pump work for the main target muscle; focus on feeling the target muscle throughout the range of motion.
  4. Load the muscle in the stretched position; focus on feeling the target muscle throughout the range of motion.

While “enjoying the journey” is important and needed to stick to your training program, it’s important that you evaluate the results of using different types of focus during your training. Most of the cues discussed in this article – both the movement initiation cues and clearly the “internal,” feelings-based cues – are kinesthetic in nature, meaning that they require you to be aware of and feel a certain body part.

Not all of us respond well to kinesthetic programming. Some of us may respond better to words or sounds – for example, “power talk.”11 A simple example of a movement outcome cue based on sound would be to focus creating the sound of the weights on the bar bumping into each other.


This article discussed reasons, benefits and strategies for focusing on the movement or focusing on the muscle during lifting. The article concluded with a suggestion for incorporating both strategies (focusing on the muscle or focusing on the movement) in a muscle-building workout.


Read more training articles here: TRAINING


  1. Train movements, not muscles. Available at: Accessed January 18, 2015.
  2. Nelson MT. Stop telling your client to activate their glutes. The Available at: Accessed January 18, 2015.
  3. Thibeaudeau C. The 13 lessons of bodybuilding: the pump, arms days, training frequency and more! Available at: Accessed January 18, 2015.
  4. Ebben WP, Kaufmann CE, Fauth ML, Petushek EJ. Kinetic analysis of concurrent activation potentiation during back squats and jump squats. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):1515-9.
  5. McGill S. Groove motion/motor patterns and corrective exercise. In: Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. 4th Ed. Waterloo, ON: Wabuno Publishers; 2009:191.
  6. Ivanov D. The Science of Winning According to Vasili Alexeyev. Available at: Accessed January 18, 2015.
  7. Maxick. Muscle relaxation. In: Muscle Control. London: Ewart, Seymour & Co. 1913(?):9.
  8. Braden G. Passive observers or powerful creators. The Spontaneous Healing of Belief. Disc 4, track 1–5.
  9. Pert C. Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind. Audio program.
  10. Thibaudeau C. 3 things you’re supposed to do… but most big guys don’t! Part 3: Use a specific workout. Available at: Accessed January 18, 2015.
  11. Kubik BD. More on the mental aspects of training. In: Dinosaur Training. Louisville, KY: Brooks D. Kubik. 2004:160.
  12. Jensen K. How to get your athletes to squat deep from the 2nd session. Available at: Accessed January 18, 2015.
  13. Snyder BJ, Fry WR. Effect of verbal instruction on muscle activity during bench press exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Sep;26(9):2394-400.

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