When looking to improve their training, people most often turn to physical improvements. They look for ways to get stronger, faster, leaner, and more powerful. They think of new exercises, new diet strategies, and even new supplements to take. However, what most people often overlook are the intangible aspects of training. Things such as managing stress, improving focus, and channeling aggression. Training is just as mentally demanding as it is physical, so it would make sense that improving the mind is as important as improving the body. One proven way to do this is through a strategy called mental imagery. Mental imagery is the process of visualizing oneself performing a task, and tricking the body into thinking the task is actually being performed.
It is the nervous system that determines muscle fiber recruitment when lifting a heavy weight, and mental imagery can increase the amount of muscle fibers being recruited as well as the rate of their recruitment. According to Mel Siff in his highly regarded text, Supertraining, “Ideal physical preparation in sport will never compensate for deficiencies produced by psychological weakness which arise during competition”. Mental imagery can improve these weaknesses, allowing the body to obtain its full potential.
In the 1950’s, psychologists proved that the human nervous system is unable to tell the difference between a real experience and a vivid imagined experience. Therefore, mental imagery can trick the mind into thinking the experience is actually occurring, which makes it such a powerful tool for weight lifters. The imagery must be vivid though, and appeal to all the senses in order for the mind to believe it. Russian weightlifters have known this for some time, and as a result they have incorporated mental imagery into their training.
The fascinating aspect of mental imagery is that it is both measurable and subject to progressive overload. As you already may know, these two characteristics are key when developing resistance training programs. Mental imagery is measurable by measuring the electromyographical (EMG) activity of the muscles involved. For example, an athlete using mental imagery to work on his deadlift would have increased muscle activity in his spinal erectors as well as his hamstrings and glutes. Sure, there are many other muscles involved, but you get the idea.
Where things get really interesting is the fact that these EMG increases can potentially be progressively overloaded. For example, an athlete performing a deadlift using mental imagery with 225 pounds will have less muscle activity than if he were performing it with 450 pounds. A study by Lang et al (1977, 1979) shows the difference in muscular activity between participants lifting 4.5kg and 9kg weights using mental imagery and performing a biceps curl with dumbbells. Those who imagined themselves lifting the 9kg weights elicited higher EMG activity than those who imagined themselves lifting the 4.5kg weights. It is quite interesting that the body can tell the difference between two imagined performances of varying intensity.
The study also states that in order for imagery to be successful it can’t be merely a picture in someone’s head. Instead, it has to be quite vivid, and focus not only on visual cues but other senses as well. The person participating in the imagery must also focus on the response to their mental actions. For example, during a squat one would imagine the feeling of the weight of the bar on their back, the sweat on their forehead, and the fatigue in their legs. The researchers also found that incorporating emotions increased the effectiveness of mental imagery. Channel your aggression into the imagined movement and see yourself not just squatting, but fighting with the barbell for every rep.
To be clear, although mental imagery elicits an EMG response, the purpose is not to get a training effect. No matter how badly you want it to be true, sitting around thinking about squatting 405 isn’t going to make you capable of doing so. It is however, an extremely effective way to practice your form on your off days without adding more physical stress to your body. I cannot stress enough how powerful this tool is for improving your form and familiarity with different movements in the weight room.
Adding mental imagery to your training can be done quite simply. I like to dedicate 20 or so minutes a day, a couple days a week, to work on a lift I’m struggling with. Don’t go crazy and focus on tons of different things at once. Pick one lift and use your imagery sessions to improve it for at least a month or so before you even think of moving on to something else. Another thing I like to do is use it between sets while I rest. I will close my eyes and see myself performing the following reps with good technique and explosiveness. I go over my mental cues and think about every part of each rep. When I finally get under the bar, I’m already confident and familiar with what I will be doing, and most importantly, confident I will complete the set.
Bakker, F. (1996). Changes in Muscular Activity While Imagining Weight Lifting Using Stimulus or Response Propositions. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, (18), 313-324.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. (2009). Supertraining (6th ed. - Expanded ed.). Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky ;.