Internal vs External Focus for Strength: New Meta-Analysis

Key Points:

  • A new meta-analysis found that focusing externally (e.g., moving the bar) significantly increases muscular strength.
  • In the long term, training with an external focus might lead to larger strength gains.
  • For muscle growth, there is some evidence that an internal focus (e.g., contracting the muscle) might be superior.

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Where should you direct your attention when you’re lifting weights: internally or externally?

An external focus means that you focus on the outcome. Cues for this might be:

  • “Throw the ball far!”
  • “Push the bar up!”
  • “Jump high!”

An internal focus, on the other hand, means that you focus inward, on your bodily actions. For instance:

  • “Contract your quads hard!”
  • “Squeeze the muscle!”
  • “Extend your elbow!”

Over the past decades, research has consistently shown that an external focus is generally preferable in sports and athletics. This goes for skills such as accuracy and balance, but also muscular activity and force production.1

Knowing where to focus your attention is important not only for competition or testing, but it might also have implications for your long-term training results: is it possible that you can increase your strength gains from training if you simply shift your focus?

A new meta-analysis looked into this and rounded up all the studies they could find that compared the effect of internal vs. external focus on strength, both in the acute and long-term.2

In total, they found ten different studies looking at either acute or long-term effects, and here is what they found when they pooled together the results.

External Focus Makes You Stronger Immediately…

Out of the ten studies, seven tested the effect of internal vs. external focus in acute strength tests. That is: participants got to take the same strength test twice, but focus either internally or externally.

The study groups ranged from 11–30 participants, and the studies used various tests, such as handgrip strength, leg extensions, or deadlift and squat 1RM.

The results?

A consistent positive effect of external focus compared to internal focus.

Internal vs. external focus for acute strength.

The forest plot above shows the effect on acute strength from the seven individual studies. A square to the right of the vertical lines means that the participants were stronger when they focused externally compared to internally. As you can see, the square of every single study except one is to the right of the line, indicating a consistent effect.

The pooled effect is visible at the bottom. Meta-analysis calculated this as a statistically significant small positive effect (SMD=0.34, p<0.001).

… And Probably Makes You Stronger Over the Long-Term as Well

What about long-term gains?

Only three studies had participants train for an extended period (6 to 12 weeks) with different attentional focus.

Here are the strength tests utilized in the studies:

  • Nadzalan et al. (2020): Squat and deadlift 10RM
  • Schoenfeld et al. (2018): Knee extension and elbow flexion
  • Taylor (2017): Squat and deadlift 1RM

At first analysis, only two of the three studies showed a positive effect of external focus (the square is to the right of the line), but that was not enough for the pooled effect to be statistically significant, even though the results certainly seem to lean in that direction.

Internal vs external focus for strength long term
Internal vs. external focus for long-term (6–12 weeks) strength gains.

However, in a sub-analysis only considering lower body strength tests, meaning that the elbow flexion data from the Schoenfeld study was removed, all three studies showed a positive effect, leading to a statistically significant, net positive effect on lower body strength (SMD=0.47, p=0.023).

Internal vs external focus for lower body strength long term
Internal vs. external focus for long-term strength gains in lower body movements only (squat, leg extension, and deadlift).

In summary, an external focus seems to lead to greater immediate muscular strength. And, when you apply this to your training in the long term, it seems to at least improve your strength gains in the squat, deadlift, and leg extension.

Why Do You Lift More When Focusing on the Outcome Instead of the Working Muscle?

While there is no definite answer to that question yet, the leading hypothesis is called the constrained action hypothesis. It basically says that an internal focus may lead you to focus on only one component of a movement, for example one of many working muscles, instead of the whole. Put another way, you are micro-managing a very complex interplay between muscles.

In comparison, focusing on the outcome (“Get the bar up!”) means that you give your body free reins to solve the problem as it finds best.

In turn, this might mean that an external focus is more important in complex, multi-joint exercises. The kind of exercises where you don’t really have the time or capacity to think while performing them. For example, internally focusing on contracting your glutes in the clean, compared to externally focusing on something like “Lift fast!”.

Building Muscle? Maybe You Should Focus on Them

So, a task-oriented external focus seems great for strength. But when it comes to building muscle, the opposite might actually be true.

Consider the dumbbell curl. If you focus on simply getting the dumbbell up, it might make you shift your technique so that you “cheat” and use body momentum more. Even though you might be able to crank out more reps, you might actually wind up working your biceps less.

One study actually found that an internal focus (“Squeeze the muscle!”) in the bicep curl leads to greater bicep growth compared to an external focus (“Get the weight up!”). However, in the same study, the attentional focus didn’t make a difference for quad growth from leg extension training.3

This is the only study on the effect of attentional focus on muscle hypertrophy that I’m aware of, to date.

Take-Away & Practical Application

The main takeaway here is that an external focus isn’t only beneficial in sports in general, but the benefits extend to strength tests and strength training as well.

  • If you are doing a strength test or a competition, focusing externally on the task is likely to yield a small positive effect on your result.
  • If you apply this external focus consistently in your training, you are likely to see greater strength gains down the line.

But how do you do this in practice?

Here are some example cues for the big three.

Squat:

  • Push the bar up
  • Drive the bar to the ceiling
  • Push the ground away

Bench Press:

  • Push the bar up
  • Push yourself away from the bar

Deadlift:

  • Pull the bar up
  • Push the ground away
  • Or one I use personally: Pull the sword out of the rock

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Alright, buddy, that’s it for today.

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Good luck with your focus!

References

  1. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 6(1):77-104. Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years.
  2. Sports (Basel). 2021 Nov 12;9(11):153. Acute and Long-Term Effects of Attentional Focus Strategies on Muscular Strength: A Meta-Analysis.
  3. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jun;18(5):705-712. Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel lives in Lund, Sweden with his wife and three kids. On StrengthLog, Daniel geeks out about all things related to his lifelong passion of muscle and strength.