If you were driving along a familiar route and wound up heading to work instead of your intended destination, you might say you had been operating on “autopilot.” Just as this kind of “spacing out” can get you lost directionally speaking, fitness training on autopilot can prevent you from getting where you’d like to go performance-wise. By understanding the two modes of concentration explained here, you can steer yourself in the right direction—the one that will help both body and mind learn and adapt, so you can perform better.

Richard Eastwick, MEd, certified personal trainer and fitness instructor from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and peer reviewer for Human Kinetics Publishers, explains the two modes.

Automatic Pilot (Bottom-Up Mode)

One mode of focusing is the bottom-up mode. This is essentially the automatic pilot function mentioned above. In bottom-up mode, you may not even be aware that your mind has drifted. When you space out during a set of squats, for example, you may still be doing squats, but your mental focus is elsewhere. This mode is not conducive to learning.

Executive Function (Top-Down Focus)

When you pay close attention to a task, you make use of a brain mode known as top-down focus, or executive function. The brain is operating in this mode when you make a conscious choice to exercise or to eat healthy foods. Top-down mode is characterized by “internal guidance of attention based on prior knowledge, willful plans, and current goals” (Katsuki & Constantinidis 2014). This is the only mode in which learning can take place.

During exercise, top-down focus will determine the number of muscle fibers that need to contract (more fibers = more force), as well as the speed of those contractions (Svondal 2009). It’s important, then, that you are actively engaged, not reminiscing about vacation or stressing about your workday.

Interestingly, our brains cannot be in both modes at once: When one mode is operational, the other is not. This gives us the ability to focus on just one target at a time (Levitin 2014).