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. One study suggested that a certain type of mental imagery can also increase your strength…

visualization and strength training

Olympic champions and professional athletes have used visualization and mental rehearsal techniques for decades. Not only is visualization one of the most widely accepted mental training techniques in sports psychology, it’s also 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 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Lebon) suggested 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. (Neurological 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 reduce strength loss when athletes are inactive due to injury.

This study was a practical one because it gives us a single specific technique that you can apply literally at 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.

Other research going back many years confirmed that using multi-sensory visualization that involves as many senses as possible (hearing, touch, etc), combined with emotion (feeling) produces the greatest results of all.

Now that you’ve read this, you know that your rest intervals between sets do not have to be wasted or considered time inefficient. You now know how to use that time productively.

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 “mind training” techniques to increase fat loss, muscle growth and muscular strength, then be sure to pick up the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle book and read the chapter on goal setting and mental training. (Available on Amazon here: amzn.to/49G4T87)

PPS. For an incredibly in-depth look at mental training, including a deep dive into the subject of visualization, check out the book, The Confident Mind by Dr. Nate Zinsser. I was so impressed with this one, it was one of our Inner Circle book study club books of the month. You can see my review and pick it up here (this is our Amazon Associates affiliate link): amzn.to/3Q3qy3l

Scientific References:
Benefits of Motor Imagery Training on Muscle Strength, Lebon F, et al, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24:6, 1680-1687.

Athletes’ use of exercise imagery during weight training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 21(4):1077-81. Silbernagel MS, Short SE, Ross-Stewart LC.

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