One of the most common issues I have experienced while working out is not being able to feel the exercises I was doing.  This is a complaint I have heard from clients, prospective clients, and regular exercisers, as well.

Has this ever happened to you?  Have you ever gone to the gym to do a chest press and not felt your chest muscles working?  Or you did a squat but didn’t feel your glutes firing? Or what about a row but didn’t feel your lats squeezing?  If so, what did you do about this?

When I have asked this question to clients in the past, I have typically gotten one of two responses: either they stopped doing the exercise all together or they just kept plugging through, figuring that eventually they would feel it.  If you have also tried these options, I want to offer you four other considerations of things you can do to help you feel the exercises you are doing.

First, you have to consider how fast you are moving.  Second, you have to consider how much you are moving. Third, you have to consider how much weight or load you are using.  And finally, you have to consider whether the muscles you are trying to target are even able to contract well in the first place.  Let’s break each of these down.

1) How fast are you moving?

Generally speaking, people move WAY too fast in the gym.  They are so focused on getting all of their reps in that they completely lose sight of the fact that HOW they do the reps matters.  One thing Julie always says to her clients here at Muscle Activation Schaumburg is to be the slowest person in the gym when they workout on their own.  She tells them to win the award for being the slowest, and I think that advice is on point.

But, how slow is slow?  That’s a great question, and the only accurate answer I can give is, “I don’t know.”  I don’t know what tempo would be appropriate for you to use for every exercise. However, I will offer a potential speed that you can try out – the next time you do an exercise, try a tempo of 5 seconds up, pause for 1 second, 5 seconds down, and pause for 1 second.  Each exercise you do has an “up” portion and a “down” portion, so try applying this tempo to it accordingly.

If you follow it strictly, it will mean that 5 reps will take you one minute.  You can gauge this on a stopwatch or on the timer application on your phone.  Either way, it will take your focus away from moving faster to having to control every inch of the motion you are performing, which should help you to start feeling the exercise more.

Related: Can’t feel the exercises you are doing? Read this.

2) How much motion are you performing?

And, as follow up considerations, is there a point in the exercise when you stop feeling it, or a time when you can feel it more?  Are you trying to go for “full” motion – whatever that means to you – or are you trying to do a very specific amount of motion?

Typically, doing a bigger amount of motion may lend itself to not feeling the exercise during certain parts of the range.  For example, if you are doing a chest press with dumbbells, you may not feel the challenge in your chest at the very top of the motion.  As such, you may consider pairing different exercises together, such as a dumbbell press with a cable fly, so you can experience a challenge throughout more of the range of motion.  As another alternative, you could stick do only doing the part of the motion where you feel the exercise.

Finally, you could also consider not moving at all, but rather doing an isometric exercise that mimics the dynamic exercise you were trying to do.  Going back to the chest press example, instead of moving the dumbbells up and down, you could hold them about a foot off of your chest and just focus on squeezing your pec muscles.  This suggestion also blends with the first consideration – “How fast are you moving?” – as the epitome of moving slowly is not moving at all. The beauty of incorporating isometric exercises into your workout routine is it minimizes the skill you need to coordinate the movement.  This can be of benefit because it can allow you to focus more on squeezing the muscles you are trying to challenge and less on moving the weight, which brings me to Consideration 3.

3) How much weight or load are you using?

More people than not are lifting heavier than they should in order to be able to effectively feel the specific muscles they are trying to challenge.  What I have found that has worked well for myself as well as for my clients is to cut the weight that is being used in half. For example, I find that if I am doing the knee extension machine at Muscle Activation Schaumburg, I can do reps with the entire weight stack, which weighs 305 pounds.  But, I feel my quads A LOT more if I cut the weight down to 175 or 150.

This lighter weight allows me to put all of my effort into squeezing my quads instead of thinking about trying to lift the weight.  If my focus goes back to trying to move the weight, 175 feels easy, but as soon as I refocus on squeezing my quads, it becomes a lot more difficult.  I have noticed this same relative trend (decreasing the weight by 50% to feel the muscles more) for nearly every exercise I do.

I think one of the clearest examples of this is with the biceps muscles.  If you bend your elbows to 90 degrees and start squeezing your biceps as hard as you can, you will feel your biceps firing.  Now squeeze them harder. And now squeeze them even harder. If you try doing that for a minute, you will totally fatigue them.  And how much weight did you use?

Aside from the weight of your forearm, there wasn’t any.  Now, try getting that same level of squeeze and fatigue using a really heavy weight.  You likely won’t be able to. The heavier the weight is, the more your body is going to want to bring in as many muscles as possible to move it, which means the challenge to a specific group of muscles starts to decrease as more muscles come on board.  Lightening up the weight can go a long way to helping you feel the exercises you are doing.

Related: Getting Your Muscles Back To Par

4) Can the muscles you are trying to challenge contract to begin with?

This is one of the most common issues I see – clients are trying to challenge their glutes but their glutes can’t even contract.  This means that their body is having to compensate around their glutes not firing, and all they are feeling are their quads and hamstrings.

At Muscle Activation Schaumburg, we specialize in Muscle Activation Techniques® (MAT®).  The entire goal of MAT® is to address this issue specifically – to figure out where in your body you have muscles that are not able to contract well and get them contracting better.  And the coolest thing is, a certified MAT® practitioner will be able to assess all of the skeletal muscles from the base of your skull to the tips of your toes. From there, they will be able to address the muscles that are not contracting and progress them to tolerating more exercise and more stress in general.

You can find and connect with an MAT® practitioner in your area here.

Before you go loading your body during exercise, it is important to make sure that all of the muscles you are about to challenge are working well.  This will help to ensure that the exercises you do will be more effective, you will stay safer, and you will be able to recover better from your workouts.  That is why it is vital to get your body tuned up by an MAT®  specialist.

Being able to feel the exercises you are doing is an important aspect to getting the results you want from your workouts while making sure your body stays safe and healthy in process.  If you are having difficulty feeling the exercises you do, try out one or all of the considerations discussed above.

Charlie Cates

Charlie Cates is the leading consultant to high-level professional, college, & high school basketball players in the Chicagoland area for injury prevention, recovery, & muscle performance. As a certified Muscle Activation Techniques® MATRx practitioner & former college basketball player, he uses his personal experience & understanding of the game & player demands to create customized exercise options for his clients to recover faster & perform their best. He is certified in the highest levels of MAT®, including MATRx, MATRx Stim, and MAT® Athlete. Follow him on Instagram @CharlieCates!