It’s April 2013 and I am in my happy place. The gym is called Gold’s Gym Acropolis, and it resides in the 3rd floor of an inconspicuous building along the bustling, traffic-drenched streets of Libis. With the dark corners, the dim yellow lighting, the thick floor pads, and a red-and-black color scheme that can only be associated with the “Mecca of bodybuilding,” the feel reminds me of the heavy-iron gyms that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno used to train in – places where people can really go and test themselves. Although the climate is air conditioned, there is a stream of thick, hot air flooding my nose. The dumbbells are made of steel and rubber, and the machines are mostly Hammer Strength and Star Trac. Loud music is blasting in the background. Around me, heavy weights are being smashed to the ground. An atmosphere of boundless energy. The familiarity of it brings me mind-numbing adrenaline. It is a place where people can really push themselves to the limit with good old-fashioned hard work; a place where everything else in life seems to fade away.
It’s my little brother’s first day ever in the gym. His eyes are wandering around disinterestedly. I can tell that he has only the vaguest of notions about his reason for being there – notions like maybe growing his biceps a few inches or impressing girls in soirees by flaunting surfboard abs. My goal is to change that; if he’s going to last in this sacred place, his reasons have to be deeper. If he wants to make himself strong in the truest sense, he cannot settle for such halfhearted, unimaginative reasons. Toni had spent much of his adolescent years watching his older brothers dutifully hoist iron and gain purposeful muscle. He isn’t skinny, but his arms are lanky and his legs are like stilts. On this balmy April afternoon, he is a month away from turning 15 and a minute away from his first real set of dumbbell presses. It is chest day for us. Feeling a little cold, we had started with two warm-up sets. He had handled the 20s and 30s with ease and proper form, so I make up my mind to grab the 45s from the rack; not particularly heavy, but just enough to test his mettle. Dumbbells in hand, I turn around and casually walk towards Toni. His eyes are fixated on his phone, and I can tell by the upward movement of his thumbs that he is busily scrolling through his Twitter feed.
“Come on, it’s time for your first real set! Where is your focus? Stop playing around,” I say in a somewhat scolding manner. Salty drops of sweat are already invading my eyes. The gym is a sanctuary to be respected, and I do not like it when people fill it with distractions and treat it like a coffee shop.
“No cellphones, no breaks, no small talk,” I add.
He looks up at me with a baffled face, as if questioning what the big deal is. Perhaps in my so-called fitness journey I’ve become obsessed with the idea of working out with razor-sharp focus, but don’t all the greatest episodes of productivity in life come from moments when you are so absorbed in something that you forget to eat, or check what’s going on in the world outside of you? It kind of resembles the sleepless nights you would spend talking to a lover, or eventful days abroad when you would just move from place to place and jump from one activity to another. Just like that, it will be night and then day, or morning and then night. Time just kind of slips by. Nothing else matters. The world drops away and it’s just you and the work. Of course, I want to tell this to Toni, but there is no time for pep talk. After all, we are in the gym, a place that demands respect.
“Alright, let’s do this!” he says in a confident tone. Then he drops his phone and leans against the incline bench.
With that, I hand him the 45s, which he methodically places on top of his thighs. With force, he pushes the dumbbells up with his arms.
On the very first rep, his left arm wobbles up and one of the dumbbells comes falling towards his face. In the nick of time, my hands come in from behind to catch the dumbbell, thereby keeping his head from getting pinned down by cold steel. Without my reflexes, his face would’ve turned from Toni Roman to Tony Margarito after Pacquiao turned his head to a punching bag for 12 full rounds back in 2010.
“You think you are physically ready, but your mind is elsewhere. Before your set, you were holed up in your phone. Let me tell you about mind-muscle connection,” I tell Toni.
That afternoon, he had an epiphany.
Four years later, Toni is now Mr. Fitspiration Youth, a renowned brand ambassador for fitness. Standing tall at 180 lbs., 19-year old Toni will make 19-year old me look as if he doesn’t even lift.
The mind-muscle connection is where the mind meets the body. Let’s make this simple. When you lift a weight, the brain sends signals to the muscles; fast messages that tell them to contract. These neurotransmitters are called Acetylcholine, a chemical that binds to receptors located on the surface of muscle fibers.
When you are in the gym, you cannot just merely go through the motions. Building muscle demands contraction of the muscles, and this contraction can only be achieved when your mind is fully concentrated on working the muscle of interest throughout the entire range of motion. Contrary to what the eye perceives, muscles do not care about the heaviness of the weight; they respond only to the force and tension surging through them. You can swing round the heaviest weights, but they won’t do anything for you if your subconscious mind is not engaging the targeted muscle. When you’re in the middle of a set, you cannot allow your thoughts to drift towards something or someone else. Muscles are just tissue composed of cells or fibers, but they can tell if you’re not giving them enough attention, and they will respond accordingly.
When you possess an intense connection to the muscle you are working on, that is when you can make sense of the pain going on around it. You have to literally feel the painful vibration that comes from every rep. Once you capture that feeling, you have to let it hammer its way into the innermost chambers of your mind. When I am in this particular zone, I am overpowered, challenged, and yet wonderstruck by the pain. Inside of this bubble, I hear the circulation of my blood. My delicate muscle fibers are suddenly impregnated with inaudible sounds. This is the foundation of the power of the mind. It kind of feels like being in a deep dream state – you’re not aware of your surroundings; instead, you’re visualizing the contraction of the muscle in your head. Nothing and no one can tear it away; there is only mutual connection and comprehension between mind and body. When you’re in such a hypnotic trance, there is no way to sustain a long conversation. At most, you blurt out words of encouragement or respond to comments with a mumble. The music fills my body without effort, like waves filling holes in the sand. It flows through the veins and swirls in my head, therefore elevating my desire to dominate my set. Once achieved, its effect on the spirit is instantaneous – the connection manifests itself in the form of a newfound capacity to lift heavier weight, smash out more reps, and unlock the greatest pumps of one’s life, thereby producing finally a sort of ecstasy. Just like any skill, the mind-muscle connection is something that has to be developed over time. All the brilliant painters, writers, and singers will tell you that understanding and connecting with one’s own art takes a deliberate investment of intention and effort.
When I see guys mindlessly working out with heavy weights and improper form to feed their vanity and ego, I see insecurity. Too many people drift into gyms just to show off. Bodybuilding is so much more than that. Pure strength doesn’t come from the muscles – fiercely vital physical beings know that it comes from the mind. More than anything, it comes from the heart. For me, the mind-muscle connection is more than just an elegant term thrown around by gym rats. It’s not just about making muscle or shattering records; it’s about an ethos, an understanding that you have to be fully present in the moment in order to experience life to the fullest. It represents the idea of becoming what you are doing and fully immersing yourself in the task at hand. Unlocking this state of flow will allow you to align yourself with the force of the universe – the elusive, invisible energy that lets you do things you were previously not capable of doing. I witnessed this firsthand when I watched my older brother concentrate on reading law books for more than 12 hours a day while he was preparing for the 2016 bar exam. Lulled in some sort of trance, he sat down in the study room at approximately the same time every day and worked like a man possessed, fully insusceptible to anything that attempted to distract him from the ultimate prize that he longed for. Today, he is living his dream.
As with all worthy pursuits in life, bodybuilding is a field where there is a direct correlation between output and reward. In the weight room, the mind-muscle connection will enable you to break the pain barrier. Self-inflicted suffering goes part and parcel with every rep, but all your unrealized muscle gains come when you venture beyond your pain threshold. In life, the pain barrier is synonymous to a place called the comfort zone. Just as the body is designed to be averse to change, life will always try to enchant you by showing the safe and familiar road as the more practical choice. Your comfortable rut is your biggest enemy – destroy it. Amidst the giant, ever-changing reality of life, what I’ve come to understand is that the greatest things happen when you traverse your boundaries. To do so, you have to be the absolute master of your mind. Only then will you uncover its hidden power. Once you are consumed by the mind-muscle connection, you will be so terribly afraid of the endlessness of the possibilities.
Work hard. With your whole being. With all your forces. With everything that your beating heart can give.
At the end of one of the greatest workout songs known to man, my favorite rapper and songwriter was able to encapsulate everything in one line.
“You can do anything you set your mind to, man.“