mental side of training

Three Keys to Getting Your Brain in The Game: The Mental Side of Back Training

As you push open the doors to your favourite gym, you’re hit by the sweet scent of aged sweat, racing hormones, and protein powder.
Inhaling deeply, you smile to yourself and head towards the locker rooms. Making your way onto the gym floor, you turn a corner and stop dead in your tracks.


You’ve come face to face an absolute beast of a human. Sure, his arms are thick like pipes, leading into capped delts with a protruding chest. And his legs are so immense that they alone let his presence be known. Yet you’re not captivated by any of the above. It’s his back- which is developed to near perfection- that draws your gaze and elicits feelings of awe-inspired envy. Mouth agape, you wonder, how? How does he look like that while you look like …

“Success Leaves Clues”

This is one of my favourite quotes by far. It speaks so much truth, yet few seem to be aware of it, let alone take heed.

In the case of the Beast with the back above, he’s dropping clues left, right, and centre as he moves through his training session. Instead of leaving you to hunt for those clues yourself, I’m going to pick what I believe to be some of the more important ones and outline them for you.

To generate an effective, hypertrophy-stimulating training session for any body part, you need three things to happen.

  1. You must train your muscles with intention.
  2. Sufficient muscular tension must be created.
  3. A strong connection to your muscles needs to be cultivated.

These three training keys are often tossed aside in favour of the more amateur, visually appealing aspects of training. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  1. Lack of a plan, which invariably leads to chest and biceps being trained every day.
  2. Lack of physical awareness, leading to loading the bar with as much weight as possible, regardless of the form required to move it.
  3. Lack of mental focus, leading to simply going through the motions of each rep and set. This results in the mindset trap that simply getting your body into the gym will yield results.

Yet people will forever be curious as to why training without intention, thoughtlessly tossing weights around, and going through the motions isn’t yielding the results they want. Ask anyone who has ever been successful at anything, from building a successful business to cooking a perfect five course meal, how they do it. They will tell you that you have to do a hell of a lot more than just show up to the task at hand. You need to show up and attack with relentless pressure and tenacity. I’m going to show you the mental side of how to attack your back training to yield that thick, 3-D look and skyrocket you into some sweet, sweet gainz.

Back training

To attain success at anything, you need to do a hell of a lot more than just show up physically. Image courtesy of

Train with Intention

You could use “focus,” “presence,” or anything along those lines instead of “intention.”

Intention makes the most sense to me, so that’s what I go with. Whatever conveys the fact that you need to show up mentally to your training sessions will do.

In my little world of training, “intention” means two things. On a macro level, it refers to tackling your goals with a solid plan. On a micro level, it means attacking every exercise with the understanding that each rep in each set, is one that takes you that much closer to your goal.

I often speak of training with “intention” when I’m trying to explain the difference between moving a load from A to B and flexing your muscles against the weight as you move it. It’s this intention that you must create in order to have an effective session. Let’s look at Luke Skywalker when he’s attempting to use “the force” to lift his X-Wing from the Dagobah swamp. His first plan of attack is akin to moving a load (X-Wing) from swamp (A) to shore (B). After hours upon hours of practice and reprimands from Master Yoda, something clicks. He’s able to recognize the difference between what he was doing and actively flexing against the X-Wing (using the force) to move it. It’s only when he begins focusing on the task at hand with true intention that he’s able to free his crashed X-Wing. Merely trying to push weight from A to B will always yield gains that are lacklustre in comparison to focusing with intention on the set at hand. Which leads nicely into the second problem many face…

Train with Tension

Lack of tension relates to a lack of intention, but differs in one conceptual marker:

Tension relates to mechanical stress placed on the muscle. Intention speaks to mental stress that’s cultivated through intense focus during training.

By now the majority of us understand that we need to a place a certain amount of tension on the target muscle(s) to create the hypertrophic response we want. Generally, it’s agreed upon that the magic time frame is 40-70 seconds per set.

Let’s pretend that your scheduled training session is primarily built upon movements performed for five sets of five. You also include a couple exercises in the 10-15 rep range. In normal circumstances, you will not be able to generate enough time under tension during those 5×5 exercises to elicit the response you’re looking for. Granted, you’ll get stronger and become more efficient in those movements, which is great. But if your goal is to build new muscle mass, you’re chasing said goal in all the wrong ways. Mechanical tension is best created by lowering your weights a bit and placing a huge emphasis on feeling every stretch and contraction deep in your muscles. Doing so also serves to aid in improving your mental connection with the target muscle. Let’s dig into the muscle bellies, shall we?

back training

“Find the pain, pull back, then dive in deeper than before.” – Milos “The Mind” Sarcev. Image courtesy of

Train with Connection

The fabled mind-muscle connection.

In the realm of bodybuilding and developing an aesthetically pleasing physique, arguably the most powerful tool in your box will be your mind-muscle connection.

Without it, you’re jerking around dead weight and pissing off your connective tissues. With it, you’re flexing your muscles as they move through a range of motion. You’re effectively lighting and frying the target muscle fibres. Sounds painful, doesn’t it?

To paraphrase the great Millos “The Mind” Sarcev: “Find the pain, pull back, then dive in deeper than before.” Your goal is to feel a whole new threshold of muscular pain, release from it briefly, then dive back deep into your muscle bellies. Alas, a strong mind-muscle connection is not something that you fall into. It must be strived for, repeatedly worked on, and pursued with the intent of a rabid dog. In most cases, you’ll have 1-2 muscle groups that take little to no effort to connect with really, really well. Then you’ll have 2-3 that aren’t terrible but could definitely use some work. Lastly, you’ll have 1-2 groups that are seemingly unusable no matter what you do. Your connection to those groups is best described as weak, sporadic, and inherently frustrating. Fortunately, we’re not without tools in the quest to improve the bond we share with our muscle fibres.

Tactile Stimulation – The Art of Touching Yourself

Grabbing your target muscle with your free hand and/or lightly tapping it increases your proprioception.

It also increases the intensity of your muscular contractions. Doing so serves to help you feel the muscle better…thus an improved mind-muscle connection.

Let it be noted that this only works on unilateral exercises, as you need one hand to stimulate the working muscle. Think movements such as one arm rows, one arm curls and extensions, leg extensions and the like. Man…this is all rather sexual isn’t it?

Ego Check – Leave it at the Door

The majority of members you see at the gym tend to lift with their egos.

My challenge to you is to strive to be in the minority. Check your ego in the parking lot.

Lift with a strong intention, and focus on feeling your muscles stretch and contract as you move through the range of motion. This ONE WEIRD TRICK (cue eye-rolling) will push you towards your aesthetic goals much more quickly than your 1/4 rep barbell curls with 135lbs on the bar.

Soft Tissue Work – Get it Done and Thank Me Later

ART, Acupuncture, or any of the countless forms of massage are great additions to your program.

The more attention and love you can give your body in the form of soft tissue work, the better. Relaxation is promoted, blood flow opens up, and fascia loosens. Joints limber up and scar tissue becomes eradicated.  All of this will aid in attaining a shockingly stark connection with your muscles. All the better in the case of your back, where many people struggle with a true connection. Besides, the above benefits of soft tissue work will help promote hypertrophy.

Isotension – If You Want to Feel a Muscle, This Just Works

Ah, isotension- a cruel, effective method of extending the time under tension for a set.

All you have to do is pause at a given point during a rep and hold. Three to eight seconds seems to work best.

I prefer to have people pause either about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of a rep (think stretch position of a bicep curl), or about 1/4 of the way down from the contracted position (think contracted position of a bicep curl). I’ve found that as I move through each rep, my target muscle contracts hardest at those points. It feels best if I insert the holds there.

back training

Isotension- a cruel, effective method of extending the time under tension for a set. Image courtesy of:

Exercise Selection – Believe It or Not, This Does Make a Difference

Both the order of and your choice in movement can aid in moving you towards a better muscular connection.

I’ve found that using an isolation movement as a warm-up before getting into the heavy stuff is absolute magic. Let’s say you opt for some one-arm, supinated pulldowns to serve this purpose.

As you move through 4-5 sets of this, your lats begin to fill with blood. Your shoulder girdle loosens up, and all of a sudden, you’re feeling a wicked pump set into your back. Now, with your back loosened up and loaded with blood, you move into something heavy, such as rack deadlifts or deadstop one arm dumbbell rows. Those rows are absolutely lighting up your back. However, if you tried to bang out those rows right out of the gate, I can all but guarantee that your session won’t feel as good, and your back won’t be as happy. Don’t believe me? Try it out and get back to me.

back training

Dorian Yates has become a timeless legend in part due to the insane levels of development he was able to achieve with his back. Image courtesy of:

In Closing

Sets, reps, tempo, exercise selection, and the theme of your program certainly play a large role in your quest for muscle growth.

But they don’t tell the whole story. The mental approach you take into each session is an equally large factor that needs to be taken into consideration.

In short:

—> Enter your session with the intention of getting absolutely everything you can out of every single rep.

—> Swallow your pride, lower your weights a little bit, and focus on placing as much mechanical tension as you can on your muscles.

—> Continuously work towards fostering and improving your mind-muscle connection.

Below I’ve laid out a sample hypertrophy-focused back and biceps session that I’ve found to be an absolute killer. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes! Now, go forth and crush.

Sample Session

A1. Meadows Rows 12,10,5×8

B1. Dumbbell Deadstop Rows 3×7-9, 1xAMRAP

C1. Dumbbell Pullovers 4×10

D1. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns w/Stretch Focus 4×10

E1. Incline Rear Delt Flys 2×25

F1. EZ Bar Preacher Curls 4×8

G1. EZ Bar RVS Preacher Curls 4×12 narrow + 12 wide

Much of my programming style is inspired and influenced by the work of John Meadows. Credit given where credit deserved.

About the Author

mental side of training - alex mullanAlex is a self-proclaimed anti-meathead and part-time nerd. When he's not working towards Greek God status or learning how to better serve his clients, he can be found exploring how to crush life, pull the perfect shot of espresso or perfecting his flair in the kitchen. You can learn what he's all about over at MASSthetics.