The word “visualization” sometimes conjures up images of new age gurus teaching esoteric techniques for personal enlightenment and “attracting” what you want into your life. This causes many evidence-based types to scoff. However, piles of research has shown that mental imagery (aka “visualization”) can improve performance. The latest study suggests that a certain type of mental imagery can also increase your strength Olympic champions and professional athletes have used visualization and mental rehearsal techniques for decades. Notonly is visualization one of the most widely accepted techniques in sports psychology, it’s supported by scientific research.
Nevertheless, many people remain skeptical.
Some people agree that mental rehearsal might enhance specific skills, like a golf swing or a basketball throw, but they question whether it could make you stronger, increase muscle growth or help you lose weight.
A new study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that indeed, mental imagery can make you stronger. This study also begins to explain how mental imagery works on a neurological level…
Twenty two sports students, with a mean age of about 20, participated in the 6-week long experiment. Prior to the study, none had done mental imagery before. The students were divided into a control group and a mental rehearsal group.
The goal was to see if mental imagery could increase bench press and leg press strength.
Each participant was given very specific instructions on how to perform the mental imagery. During the rest period between sets, they were to vividly imagine the exercise movement and the muscle contractions generated from each rep.
After 12 workout sessions, the mental imagery group had significantly increased their strength more than the control group, especially in the lower body (leg press).
The researchers concluded:
“The results provided evidence that mental imagery did contribute to improve strength of the leg muscles without any macroscopic structural change”
What they were saying is that the duration of the study wasn’t long enough that there was any major muscle size increase, so they credited the strength increase to non morphological adaptations.
It’s well known in exercise science that gains in strength occur from changes not just in the muscle fibers and surrounding tissues, but in the nervous system.
That gives us clues about how mental imagery works.
Put simply, mental training techniques, (since they’re working with your brain/nervous system – as the name implies), can trigger some of the same neurological adaptations that occur from physical training.
Apparently, mental imagery can increase synchronization of motor units in muscles, having large corresponding cortical areas in the primary mortor cortex.
There are also psychological benefits, such as increased motivation, improved focus during the set, technique improvements, more confidence and less apprehension or anxiety. But clearly, there’s more to this than just “psyching up.”
Here’s something else interesting. The researchers even suggested that mental imagery could decrease strength loss when athletes are inactive due to injury.
This recent study is a practical one because it gives us one specific technique that you can apply to your next workout: vividly imagine a successful lift for the upcoming set while you’re resting between sets.
NOTE: it’s important to mentally see (visualize) the exercise and mentally “FEEL” the muscle contraction. This is multi-sensory – both visual and kinesthetic.
In some of my previous articles, I talked about density training and superset training as excellent techniques for busy people because these methods reduce rest intervals, making the workout time efficient.
But the rest time between heavy sets doesn’t have to be wasted – now you know what to do with that time…
Instead of chatting with your gym buddies, or scoping out the attractive bods in the gym, you can be mentally rehearsing your next set… and enjoying the strength increase that follows.
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About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in Iron Man Magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.