Science says to focus on what's going on around you instead. Our experts explain.
Intelligent exercisers are well aware of the connection between form and results: To get the most benefit out of a particular move or exercise, precise form is imperative. But the way experts teach better form is changing. Previously, athletes were taught to focus on the movements of the body. A new approach encourages us to focus our attention externally, on specific elements of our environment. The reason? A growing body of scientific evidence shows we get better results by “thinking outside the body.”
According to Matt Berenc, CSCS, director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, focusing attention on the body during exercise movements spoils performance by forcing the mind to do consciously things that it should do unconsciously. “Even the simplest actions require well-timed coordination between many parts of the body,” Berenc explains. “When you focus on just one part of the body, you lose that synchronization. But when you focus on the external task, the coordination happens automatically.”
External cues are proven to work in strength exercises, cardio activities, and ball sports. Try these techniques:
Deadlift – As you initiate the lift, think about driving the floor away with your feet. “This cue results in greater explosiveness,” Berenc says.
Plank – While holding the plank position, picture a fist coming at your stomach. Berenc uses this cue with many exercises that require bracing of the core muscles.
Running – Pay attention to the sound your feet make when they hit the ground and try to run more quietly. Irene Davis, a biomechanist at Harvard Medical School, teaches runners this technique as a way to reduce impact forces and the risk for common overuse injuries.
Swimming – When doing the freestyle stroke (a.k.a. front crawl), think about pushing water back with your hand instead of pushing your hand back through the water. A 2011 studyby researchers at UNLV found that this shift in focus produced a significant improvement in 25-yard sprint times.
Golf – When putting, look at the exact spot where you want to hit the ball, then lock your eyes on the ball and keep them there until you’ve completed your stroke. This “quiet eye” technique has been shown to increase putting accuracy by 16 percent.
Tennis – When serving, focus your attention on your target rather than on the mechanics of your swing. A study by Brazilian researchers found that recreational tennis players hit their serves with 63 percent greater accuracy when their attention was focused on the court instead of their body.