Mental Imagery Techniques: Can They Make You Bigger and Stronger?

TAGS: PETTLEP, brain activity, imagery, mental practice, arousal spectrum, psyching up, psychological skillset, psychological, muscular strength, human performance, Scott Stevenson

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If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we'd be so simple that we couldn't.” -The Collapse of Chaos(1) 

So what differentiates an iron sport veteran from the relative newbie? Well, the vet is likely bigger and stronger, but more beat up and wiser (maybe), and (obviously) has been picking up “heavy-ass weight” again and again and again, for a very long time. The vet has been there and done that, setting innumerable PR’s over the years, and probably had some pretty crappy workouts as well. At some point or another, he’s likely puked, pissed and s$&t himself. He might have even bled from numerous orifices while training. He can also probably close his eyes right now (yes, try this at home) and visualize with extraordinary detail most any lift: The feel of the bar’s knurling, a mind-bending, unforgiving load on his back, the optimal stance, grip, posture and dozens of other aspects of his set up, not to mention what he hears and smells. The vet can very likely even imagine himself, in the third person, doing all of these pre-lift visualization strategies.

Heck, if the above describes you, it may even feel like you could actually get in a workout just by imagining one. As it turns out, you can, and this is true whether you’re a veteran or a beginner. Before you call B.S. on the rest of this article, let’s take a step back so I can explain myself.

Imagine This!

There is a wide array of psychological tactics that can be employed to improve human performance. The trick is picking the right tool to get the job done. Aside from factors originating elsewhere (e.g., via a good coach), one’s personal psychological skillset can make a difference. This would include things like the ability to stay confident and motivated after a missing a lift, getting injured or facing comeback, setting appropriate goals, and developing self-talk and relaxation rituals(2, 3).

At one end of the arousal spectrum, a skillful “psyching up” strategy (perhaps one of my personal favorite aspects of training) can have a powerful effect on heavy lifting performance, especially in untrained individuals(2). You may not want to believe it, but the ritual of psyching up – observable worldwide in commercial gyms on “Big Bench Monday” – actually has scientific support(4).   However, science is a little behind in teasing out how important the psych up is for highly trained individuals(4, 5). I suspect many of you have your own opinions (and strategies) when it comes to this.

At the other end of the arousal continuum, it’s well established that mental practice is effective for improving motor skill performance where both accuracy and speed are at a premium(6, 7). Here, we’re talking about tasks requiring fine motor skills, such as moving your arm to point rapidly and accurately at a target (8).

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But what about imagining yourself being stronger? I don’t mean daydreaming while watching youtube videos or browsing the latest issue of a muscle magazine you picked up at the grocery store. Can meticulous, detailed mental imagery (i.e., rehearsal of weight training without actually doing it)(9), actually make you stronger?

Just Think About It!

In short, the answer is yes. Mental practice is especially effective when the tasks are relatively simple, have a a cognitive aspect (10), and the imagery is interwoven with actual practice(9, 11). Ideally there is minimal delay after imagery before task execution(10), but the mental imagery should not be overpracticed(10). In other words, rehearsal should precede performance without inordinate delay, but don’t overthink it.

What’s Going On Here?

As the quote above suggests, we’re caught in a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to figuring out how our own brains can get better at doing something we’re not actually doing(9, 12, 13) Science substantiates what some might consider an obvious explanation: Imagining an activity actually activates the same areas of the brain that are involved in performing it(14, 15). EEG (brain activity) measurements demonstrate this(15, 16). Even the well-documented cross-over effect [where training one limb evokes strength gain in the other limb(17-19)] occurs with mental imagery training(20).

Allow me to repeat that last statement. Simple, focused mental imagery training can actually increase strength on the other side of the body, i.e., for an arm or leg never actually trained or even imaged being trained. This is one heck of a “return on investment,” I would say. Do I have your attention?

Show Me the Money

Still, I’m sure you have practical questions about this idea of mental rehearsal. For instance, what is the ideal mental imagery technique for enhancing strength? What kind of strength gains are we talking about here?

Unfortunately, a highly developed, real world, “generic” mental practice protocol suitable for immediate application in the gym is not something I can provide. (See below for more on what you can do.)

Nonetheless, if you’re not sold on the ergogenic potential of a mental imagery strategy yet, here are some findings you should find interesting:

  • In training newbies, mental imagery evokes about two thirds of the strength gain one gets from actual training, at least when it comes to a novel and simple task involving a small muscle mass. This goes for training the pinkie finger to abduct(16, 20), as well as dorsiflexor(21) and plantar flexor (calf) muscle training(22).
  • Four to twelve weeks of purely imagined elbow flexion training produces a 15-30% increase in strength. This is accompanied by greater muscle(23) and brain(16) electrical activity. Simply imagining lifting is actually enough to increase heart rate and blood pressure(16).
  • College level athletes (football, basketball and rugby players) can also make substantial strength gains with imagery training, e.g., a ~25% increase in hip flexion strength that is equivalent to that when they actually train the hip flexors(24).
  • Although the experimental design was a bit weak, after familiarization to a training stimulus, thus reducing neural learning, one study suggested that mental imagery can be a partial surrogate for real training(25). This implicates mental imagery as a viable option when real training is not, e.g., when rehabilitating injuries.
  • Including mental imagery within a regular training session may enhance (leg press) strength gains and reps to failure with 80% of a one-repetition maximum(26). In this context, it’s important to note that imagery training does not cause “central fatigue” (fatigue of the motor neurons of the cerebral cortex)(27). This means that including mental rehearsal within a workout won’t impact intensity (loads you can handle) when actually under the bar.

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Putting “Inaction” into Action

In actuality, if you’re a high level competitor, you’re probably already using mental imagery fairly extensively(28). Perhaps there are ways to optimize your mental imagery routine, however. For some of you not employing this psychological strategy, you might ask yourself why not.

What to Imagine?

Mental imagery can be segregated into two categories: Visual, where one visualizes a particular action, in the first or third person, and kinesthetic, where one imagines feeling and sensing the activity from the perspective of the doer(27). Given that the performance effects may come via activation of the brain’s neural network, it makes sense that kinesthetic imagery (in the first person) is the best way to light up the relevant pathways to produce strength gains(15, 16, 23, 29).

It has also been suggested that mental imagery should be tailored to the situation, be it training, competition or rehabilitation(13). The visual and motor (movement) aspects of the task may each need specific attention, too(11, 30-32). Naturally, to optimize performance, mental imagery should be integrated into a more comprehensive set of mental skills Seabourne, 1985 #9494;Suinn, 1986 #9495}.

Specificity of Mental Imagery

So the (perhaps obvious) bottom line here is to tailor a mental imagery to the athlete and his/her performance needs(2). As a set of guidelines, a research-based checklist for mental imagery has been developed based on data demonstrating which factors best recreate the brain activity measured during actual movement. [This is known as a “functional equivalence(33).”] One might conceptualize this approach as a way adhering the principle of specificity of training, applied to mental imagery.

In this model (abbreviated PETTLEP, which stands for Physical, Environmental, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotional, Perspective), mental imagery may include some physical movement when imagining a task being performed in “real time” (e.g., not in slow motion) within an accurate representation of the environment. Per PETTLEP, the imagery should also change as the athlete learns to perform better and include the athlete’s emotional state and all perceptual information (including internal kinesthetic cues and sensory aspects like sounds and even smells)(33).  Essentially, PETTLEP is a checklist for keeping it “real” when it comes to mental imagery.

Time and “Effort”

So, why isn’t mental imagery known far and wide as an essential component for strength training? As a corollary to this question, why haven’t there been more practically relevant studies published about mental imagery training for improving muscular strength?

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In the calf study mentioned above(22), it took just about four weeks for strength gains to manifest when 250 mental contractions were performed per week. That’s lot of mental reps to produce an effect. This likely explains why four weeks of only thirty imagined “explosive,” but isometric knee extensions per week had no impact rate of force development(34).  Similarly, this may be why eight weeks of training (only 18 imagined contractions / week) were also ineffective(29). Incidentally, a 16-week training program of isometric contractions performed with the intention to move quickly not only improved rate of force development, but also increased strength during rapid contractions, even though there was no actual movement during training(35).

It seems that a significant training effect requires substantial commitment to mental rehearsal, i.e., the careful inclusion of regular, well-conceived mental imagery training over a long period of time. You’ll have to work for it and this may be more than many of you reading this might be willing to devote yourselves to, not to mention what potential research subjects would be willing to do. Ironically, it may also be that the prevalence of mental imagery is limited by the nature of the activity, and that there may be little to “see,” except for the athlete performing the mental rehearsal.

A Nudge in that Direction

As I noted above, I don’t intend to provide you with a customized, all-encompassing formula for creating your own ergogenic mental imagery regimen. There are entire books devoted to that topic, and this may be something better customized in conjunction with one’s coach, teammates, and/or lifting partners. However, as a nudge in that direction, I leave you with the following:

  • Although neurological gains are typically associated with beginners, it’s thought that more experienced athletes may reap greater benefit because they already have accurate and detailed mental images(36), developed over years of physical training(10).
  • Mental practice is typically most successful for experienced performers when the tasks are simple, and mental and actual physical practice are concurrent. Also, its likely best to spread out mental imagery rather the perform large blocks of mental imagery in isolation(9, 11)
  • Excessive mental practice may be detrimental(10), and diminishing returns are likely if you are trying to replace actual training with mental imagery(25). However, imagery can be effectively utilized between sets(26) without causing of neurological (brain) fatigue(27).

Practically speaking, one mustn’t necessarily set aside an exorbitant amount of extra time for mental imagery, per se. On the other hand, don’t count on mental imagery producing overnight results. The great athletes known for diligent mental rehearsal are often those who have been practicing these imagery techniques for years on end(37).

What About You?

In the comments section below, I’d like to hear form those of you who employ mental rehearsal on a regular basis. What is your imagery strategy, how did it come into being, and how (much) do you feel it benefits you?

For those of you who haven’t used mental imagery, why is this the case and will it remain so?


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Disclosure: Elitefts does not profit from the sales of The Fortitude Training eBook or traffic to Scott Stevenson's website. We choose to share his work, products, and services simply because we believe he is among the best coaches in the industry.  - Dave Tate


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