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Does Focus of Attention Influence Performance Outcomes?


describe the imageA popular assumption regarding fitness exercises is that focusing your attention on the working muscles enhances contractility, force production and functional capacity.  In simpler terms, when you concentrate on the muscles that you are strengthening, you will improve the outcome of the exercise. But how true is this claim? Can simply focusing on an internal point improve exercise outcomes?

Actually, the opposite is true.  Focusing attention internally, to the working muscles, inhibits function.  Researchers call this “constrained action,” whereby the internal focus results in toodescribe the image much conflicting muscle activity, resulting in inefficient movement and reduced force application.

Research has demonstrated that concentrating on an external point of focus improves coordination, increases joint velocity, and enhances functional capabilities, such as jumping and other complex movements.

So, whether your interests are simple strength gains or athletic skills, focusing on external objects, such as a point on the ground or a point in space towards which to move, will produce better results than thinking about the contracting muscles.

To learn more about focus of attention, read the full article at the CYBEX Institute for Exercise Science.

Paul M. Juris, Ed.D.
Executive Director, CYBEX Institute for Exercise Science 

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Dr. Juris earned his Doctorate in Motor Learning from Columbia University in 1993, followed by a variety of positions in higher education, rehabilitative medicine, professional sports, and fitness. Paul Juris, Ed.D. was named Executive Director of the CYBEX Institute for Exercise Science in January of 2007.




Interesting article. Thank you. But I just want to clarify (for myself really) with an example as to how I interpreted your findings: If I tell my clients to squeeze their scapulae together while pulling a resistance band because I believe this is more effective in maximizing the muscular contraction of the back muscles (as opposed to just pulling the band using mostly arm work), I'm misleading them?
Posted @ Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:33 AM by Rima
@ Rima 
"Misleading" may be a strong term here, but the common notion that focusing on muscles makes them contract more intensely is unsupported by the research cited in the article. 
The better approach would be to select a target in space and have your client visualize moving to that target. 
It will result in a more effective movement pattern and more optimal activation of the associated muscle groups.
Posted @ Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:48 AM by Dr. Paul Juris
Sorry but I do not agree. In many cases my clients have made great strides when I have them focus in on the muscle they are exercising. 
If a person is doing a exercise but have no idea what it is working then they are less likely to get the form in control. 
When someone is new to working out it is very important for them to know where they should be feeling the contraction and exertion during the movement.
Posted @ Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:23 PM by Steve
Interesting reading, I have always focused on an external point when training (point on the ceiling when bench pressing etc), so nice to know this is the most effective technique. You can't beat watching Pumping Iron with a coffe pre workout for maximum results!
Posted @ Thursday, July 14, 2011 8:46 AM by Dave Durston
I appreciate your article and your approach to help individual focus on movement in an exercise. I do agree, with other commenters, that an individual must sometimes focus on a muscle movement to be effective. I find this especially true with inexperienced exercisers who will move a joint without fully engaging a muscle. I see this with stroke victims frequently and with individuals who are older or have/had obesity issues. Thank you as always though for your insight, we can all grow in our industry from others expertise and thought.
Posted @ Thursday, July 14, 2011 5:13 PM by Carolyn Cook
I've trained for more than 20 years and have always used focused contraction in training new clients and athletes. I'm not certain if we are talking about the same thing. For a new student, understanding the muscles needed for the movement pattern vs a trained athlete visualizing a goal?  
Personally if I focus on a muscle, I can see how it would limit my output but for someone learning the movement, i believe they need to understand and control the movement and develop their kinesthetic sense before taking it to the "Next Level" of external focus.
Posted @ Monday, July 18, 2011 7:21 AM by Marianne LaChance
For the past (25) years, I have been working with clients at all levels of fitness and most of all an internal frame of reference is the baseline. Inside-out is the fundamental princple of applied Kinesiology.Especially with inexperience lifters and trained athletes their is a fine line to acheiving maximum results. How can one exclude the power of "Breath".
Posted @ Monday, July 18, 2011 8:38 AM by Kenneth Moore
@ Steve 
You make an interesting point, and it is a very common position in the fitness industry, but unfortunately, the scientific evidence does not support that position. Hence the article. 
If you read the complete article in the Truth on Fitness section of the CYBEX Institute website, you'll see the citations which address this phenomenon. Nowhere does it suggest that focusing on a muscle improves performance, or movement, or even muscular contraction. 
Try getting clients to focus on a target in space, and the movement is more likely to improve.
Posted @ Monday, July 18, 2011 9:19 AM by Dr. Paul M. Juris
@ Carolyn Cook 
Thank you for your comments, it is interesting that you address stroke victims. In many cases, when there is a sensorimotor deficit, one must utilize additional sources of input in ordere to regain effective neuromotor function. In this case, using visual input helps to enhance spatial mapping, which can then be used to coordinate effective limb trajectories. 
In other words, external targets work with stroke victims as well.
Posted @ Monday, July 18, 2011 9:23 AM by Dr. Paul M. Juris
I may be interpreting your column wrongly but I believe strongly that you need to focus on what you doing for a more concentrated effect. If you're doing arms, that's the only thing you think about. Your whole body, your whole thought process, your concentration MUST be on this in order for you to focus. Once focused, you can do anything. Take the example of light. If you shine a flashlight on to any object, nothing happens. If you focus this light, as in a laser, it burns a hole in any object. Always concentrate on your workout. Close your eyes if you have to but do it for best results.
Posted @ Monday, January 23, 2012 2:24 PM by Gen
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