July 21st, 2010

A”Mind Training”Technique That Makes You Stronger

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. Not only 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.

Train hard and expect success!

Tom Venuto, author of:
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle

PS. Most fat loss programs only focus on diet or physical training. If you want to learn more about how you can add “mental training” techniques to increase fat loss, muscle growth and muscular strength, then be sure to check out chapter ONE in my ebook, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. Get more info at: www.BurnTheFat.com

Benefits of Motor Imagery Training on Muscle Strength, Lebon F, et al, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24:6, 1680-1687, 2010
Athletes’ use of exercise imagery during weight training. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1077-81. Silbernagel MS, Short SE, Ross-Stewart LC.

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20 Responses to “A”Mind Training”Technique That Makes You Stronger”

  • Confirming evidence of mind over muscle.

  • Man I love it when you talk about mindset Tom!I’ve been following Your TNB workouts from the Holy Grail Body Transformation Program for the past 8 weeks and definitely making the absolute most out of the rest periods with visualization and mental rehearsal. For the past few years my rest periods have been very low in the 5-30 second range. The 60-180 second rest periods in TNB have been a great change of pace for me and really allow me to tap into my minds potential.I have made strength gains every week on your program, which has totally blown me away!Since my University days I have been studying Olympic and Pro athletes and their use of mindset strategies. I’ve read case after case where athletes who have experienced injuries still continue to visualize completing the perfect race. These athletes bounce back a lot quicker and when they get back they are able to get up to speed quickly.This stuff really works. Take your training seriously and incorporate visualization into your workouts and your day. Going through the motions just doesn’t cut it.You ROCK man!Scott Tousignant

  • Tracy

    I’m going to share this with my seniors aqua class – thanks!!

  • chuck

    “Strengthen the mind and the body will follow !!!”

  • windsor mepania

    thank you very much tom. your posts have helped me a lot with my workouts. You are a gift from GOD.

  • Margaret Trissel

    It might be helpful to suggest this activity to people recovering from injuries, too, to “see” themselves being fully capable of particular movements during physical therapy, or between sessions. The mind is a powerful instrument.

  • margaret – absolutely! This was mentioned in the study:strength benefits, plus, “more self-confidence…. less pain… less re-injury anxiety during rehabilitation therapy”

  • phil

    Hi Tom I have been doing this for years and most people I know think that I am crazy but perhaps now they will agree.

  • Jamie

    Hi Tom…What you are discussing is true I have worked more than 35 years in visulization, and I know how powerful it is and can be however, the EGO also must be tamed and controlled as in time it is more powerful. What you speak about is wonderful and takes pratice and positive belief that the Creator gave all of humanity the power to heal, to be healthy and to over come what we create. The challenge is believing that this power is within all of us and we, humanity are part of the whole giving us the power and gift to heal.More than 500 hundred thousand humans are affected annually with heart disease and allow the disease to take over our life rather than rehabing their body and giving it the energy and life to renew what has been damaged what we have created for ourselves and it is up to each person to be responsible and believe in the power they have and rekindle the faith of being one with creation which we all are from the moment of birth.The challenge is for humanity to believe which is even more challenging than the working of the body back to health and reversing that which they created over time.Thanks for opening up the subject….ciaoJamie

  • Narayan

    Hi Tom,I have read several of your articles and some of your mp3s. The latest on mindset is a reality. I have been meditating for number of years. The visualisation “actually works” I have applied this to other areas of my life and some unknown power makes is work !!Narayan

  • Hey Tom,Great post and its good to see science catching up to what stellar athletes and bodybuilders have know for decades.The mental side of the game is probably the biggest difference I’ve seen between intermediate trainees and advanced (and that’s where you have to go in order to get to the next level ironically).Kyle Battis CSCS, NSCA-CPThttp://www.holygrailbodytransformation.org

  • Jim

    As an experienced physical therapist and a researcher who has studied mental practice, I would like to add some thoughts to the discussion.Your point about the explanation for how visualization works provided by the study you described is well taken. It appears that imagery or visualization operates primarily on the neural drive underlying muscle contraction. An implication of this for training may be that imagery will have its greatest affect early on in training when neural adaptation predominates as the main contributor to performance improvement (before morphological change has had enough time to contribute in major way). So imagery would be especially beneficial to new or returning athletes.Another consideration is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a down side to imagery. When done properly, there’s no physical stress on the body parts involved. That’s one of the things that makes imagery so valuable in rehabilitation when damaged tissues or body parts need to be protected. Absence of stress also applies to healthy exercisers, because imagery doesn’t contribute to overuse of the contractile tissues that might lead to injury. Athletes undergoing rigorous training might consider adding imagery to their activities during rest days in addition to between sets.Thanks for adding to the public awareness of how powerful imagery/visualization can be.

  • Matt

    Hey Tom,Great Article! I completely agree! How do you Michael Phelps won eight gold metals in 2008? He used visualization everyday. Personal I’ve seen my largest strength gains when I use visualization. Something that I’ve gotten away from recently. Thanks for the reminder!Matt

  • The Biggest Muscle In The Body: The Brain.I can’t agree with you more Tom. Have you ever done a first set with heavy weight (on squat lets say) and then you do a second set and it feels like half the weight? It seems like you’ve uncovered a way to do the second set without struggling on the first set.

    I always thought it was priming my muscles to coordinate which made the second set a breeze. With your visualization, I can do more weight, with better form, and more explosiveness. Every time.

    I just did 10 sets of 3 reps with 380 pounds last Saturday. I’m doing Smolov to increase my 409 pound squat. Myrest between each set was at least 5 minutes, sometimes as long as 10 minutes when I got distracted. To say that it was mentally grueling is laughable. Now I know what made it harder. I was worried about failing. Anxious about how awful it would be. No more of that garbage, I’m taking control of my rest breaks and making them a continuation of my training. Thanks Tom!
    Alex Harty, 81 lb Fat Loserhttp://www.OptimistDiet.com

  • Great post Tom.I was just mentioning this study on my coaching call last night. I’ve used visualization in both soccer and when in the gym and boy does it make all the difference in the world.When you see what you want to perform, your body simply follows suit!Great stuff buddy!

  • Very interesting study. I’m always too busy listening to music or watching a game during rest time between sets. Maybe it’s time to increase my mental focus. Thanks for the insights.

  • jonita pearce brown

    Tom, you changed my life. I incorporate all your philosophies into my life and they work. This time last year I was on meds that were literally taking my life away. Today, I am 85 pounds lighter, about about 2600 calories a day, wI was 279 pounds. Today I am a fit, taut 195, thanks in part to genetics which give me a great muscular, fit look. Longterm goal is 160, for extra tightening and toning. This works because I never deny myself, I LOVE working out. Per Robert Whitaker’s ‘Interview with an Anti-depressant’ and your ethics, which I follow, I am a new being, and it has brought amazing changes to my home life, my work, all facets of this journey called life. I work out two hours a day, 5 days per week, cardio and strength training, and have the best mental focus in my life!!!!! Thank you for all you do.To see proof of results, please check out my facebook page. – Jonita M. Pearce

  • Stephen Cartwright

    This study reminds me of one our exercise physiology lecturer used to refer to when I was studing Physical Education at Sydney University in the late 60’s early 70’s. The difference was that the exercise was sit ups and the mental rehearsal group visualised doing sets of sit ups each day while the control group actually did sit ups. By the end of the study there was little difference between the two groups with both showing a marked improvement.It tends to reinforce that there is very little new in the important, basic principles relating to exercise and nutrition. Old ideas just get rehashed and many “new discoveries” have more to do with selling product and making money than with actual results. Plus the widespread and surreptitious use of performance enhancing drugs has made it difficult to know what the real reason is for improvements in sports performance, physique, etc

  • Kel

    Tom,and the common misconception is that mind training is easy. It is very hard, and sometimes I feel myself too lazy to do the mind exercise. I think in fact it is easier not to train the mind. I’d rather do the motions of exercise instead of training my mind. (yet when I focus, results are far more significant!)

  • Hey Tom,Great stuff. It’s awesome to see studies being published proving what many of the worlds top performers already know.I thought this was a load of baloney when I first started, but I decided that I would give visualization before a routine a try and the results were awesome.I performed better when I visualized before a workout.Thanks for the article, and thanks so much for publishing the studies.Talk to ya later,The Fat Loss Informant

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