I want to alert my readers to an exciting new study that was recently published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. The study deals with mental imagery, also known in the literature as imagined contractions. I briefly mentioned this phenomenon in a T-Nation article I wrote three years ago with my colleague Brad Schoenfeld titled Why Bodybuilders Are More Jacked Than Powerlifters. I actually used mental imagery during my deloading the week prior to my last powerlifting meet, and I truly believe that it helped me achieve my goal of deadlifting 600 lbs. I also used mental imagery when I first pulled 585 lbs two years ago, which I mentioned HERE.
Simply imagining muscle contractions, without actually contracting the muscles, has been shown in several studies to increase strength. Click HERE to check out the abstract of the latest paper on this topic. I’ll paste an image below:
As you can see, immobilization decreased strength by 45%, impaired voluntary neural activation by 23.2%, and prolonged the corticospinal silent period by 13.5%. However, mental imagery training attenuated the loss of strength and voluntary neural activation by approximately 50% (23.8% and 12.9% reductions, respectively), and eliminated prolongation of the corticospinal silent period (4.8% reduction).
WTF Does this Mean?
Immobilizing a joint (think of being in a cast or a sling) causes muscles to shut down. Voluntary muscle activation diminishes, delays in the motor cortex emerge, and muscle strength diminishes. However, using mental imagery (imagining contractions) helps maintain these functions and reduces the losses in neuromuscular drive.
What Are the Practical Implications?
I suppose that one could perform mental imagery every day, but I can’t think of anything more boring. Therefore, I recommend saving mental imagery for strategic times during the year, when you’re not going all out in your regular training. I can think of three primary ways in which you can use mental imagery to improve your performance:
1. First, you can use mental imagery during times of injury to attenuate (reduce the effect) the losses of neural drive and strength.
2. Second, you can use mental imagery when deloading to mimic the effect of heavy lifting in the motor cortex, theoretically enhancing the supercompensatory effects of deloading.
3. And third, you can use mental imagery when peaking for a meet or going for a PR.
How Does One Go About Utilizing Mental Imagery?
In the study mentioned above, here’s how they did it: Five days per week, subjects performed 52 contractions each session. Contractions lasted 5 seconds with 5 seconds of rest. Four blocks of 13 contractions were performed with one minute rest in between blocks. EMG was used to confirm that subjects were not actually contracting their muscles – the contractions were imagined in the mind.
Subjects were instructed as follows:
Imagine that you are maximally contracting the muscles in your left (or right) forearm and imagine that you are making your wrist flex and push maximally against a hand grip with your hand. We will ask you to do this for 5-secs at a time followed by a 5-sec rest period for a total time of around 2-mins. When we tell you to start, we want you to imagine that you are pushing in against a handgrip as hard as you can and continue to do so until we tell you to stop. After a 5 second rest we will ask you to repeat this. Ready, and begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push… and stop. (5 seconds of silence) Start imagining that you are pushing in again as hard as you can, keep pushing, keep pushing… and stop. (5 seconds of silence)… This verbal cuing and imagery continued for 2-minutes at which time the study participant was instructed that they would have a short break (1-min), and then the next blocks would subsequently begin. It should be noted that this mental exercise was not simply a visualization of oneself performing the task; rather, the performers were instructed to adopt a kinesthetic imagery approach, in which they urged the muscles to contract maximally.
Do you have to do it just as the authors arranged it in their study? Absolutely not. You can get creative and figure out your own system, just as we do when we design real programs. But realize that the protocol listed above was fairly “high-volume” in that 52 five-second contractions were performed each session (260 total seconds of motor cortex activation per day), so don’t assume that dedicating a minute or two to mental imagery once a week will cut it.
Awesome! In the swimming world, we practice visualizing our races from start to finish, incorporating as many of our senses in our imagination as possible. Mentally rehearsing the race over and over allows it to be automatic come competition day, which is ideal because you don’t want to be thinking much at all during the race.
Hi Bret, I’m a girl and I have 21 years old, sorry about my language, I’m from Spain…
I always monitoring all my workouts at every mesocicle, I have three years training strenght and moving between stages of hypertrophy, maximum strength and power. I make the necessary downloads but now started with hypertrophy and had to stop because I feel like my nervous system is very tired, accelerated pulse when I try to make some effort and I am unable to keep scheduled with programmed weights. I love lift and i need to keep training … I’m like tired and a little dizzy, so I take about 3 days after my last session of hypertrophy where I am with Upper and Lower Body routine without excess volume and intensities of 75% RM … is this normal? Your opinion would help me a lot, I need to re-build this energy without fatigue 🙁 I need lift
It definitely works. I began working with now Dr Johnny Clay Johnson at Texas A&M University. Johnson was working in his PhD, with an emphasis in Sport Physiology.
We had a once a week session. I then preformed visualization before and after work.
SPORTS PSYCHING: Playing Your Best Game All of the Time
This is one of best book on the topic.
Dr. Judd Biasiotto, a Psychologist, wrote a great series of book on hypnosis in the use of sports. Biasiotto used it to squat 575 @ 132 lbs back in the 1980s. It was the second highest squat in the 132 lb weight class at that time.
I purchased Biasiotto’s book series. I would call Biasiotto from time to time with questions. He was great about taking time with me.
While visualization worked, in working with Marlene Goble (Hypnotherapist), I found visualization was not the most effective method for me.
Kinesthetic Learning: Some people like myself, do better with kinesthetics.
Rather than seeing the movement in your mind, you Feel It. You kinesthetically, know the feeling of being in the right position. Thus, is self hypnosis with the emphasis on kinesthetically “Feeling the groove” of the movement.
Example: When I preform a Deadlift correctly, it Feels like the bar is on rails. The bar smoothly gliding up to the locked out position.
Another good book, provide an interesting visualization method. The book talked about Mike Schmidt (3rd basemen for the Philly’s) use of it for batting.
Schmidt would watch videos prior to the game of his best batting performances. That did two thing: 1) Reinforced his batting technique and 2) Made him confident in his skill.
I found visually watching some of my best competition lifts on tape combined with the self hypnosis focus on kinesthetics of the lift to be very effective.
Kenny Croxdale, CSCS
Around 5 years ago I ruptured my Achilles while performing stair sprints in an attempt to impress a girl ☺
I was rushed to accident and emergency where they put my leg in a cast (platarflexion) and immobilized the injury
Once the shock of what happened subsided I researched my injury and the proposed methods of rehabilitation – surgery vs non surgery etc and became very frustrated as I learned that using a fixed cast was NOT the best option for speed of recovery and prevention of re-injury (many specialists now recommending early mobilization/movement etc)
I wasn’t able to get it removed – yet wasn’t happy with 6 weeks of being immobilized
I sat there pissed off looking at the cast on my leg and sobbed on the inside as I noticed my calf atrophying away to nothing and the prospect of many months passing before I was able to return to the gym and be active again
Then I decided to stop being a victim and to take things into my own hands
I decided that even if I was cast and immobilized it doesn’t mean I have to be cast and immobilized
I did 4 things (that resulted in a fast recovery from the injury)
1. I visualized that my Achilles tendon was healed and formed into a strong steal cable
2. I visualized strong contractions of the muscles loading the tendon and adding to its strength (which I tried to do actively although no actual movement took place)
3. I would slide my hand into the cast and grab my calf and pull on it to add longitudinal traction to the tendon
4. I would visualize jumping and hopping and explosive movements
I repeated these steps every day
When I had my cast removed the surgeon was shocked at the level of healing – I had no swelling, no bruising and no palpable signs of injury around my Achilles and I was I able to actively move my foot in dorsiflexion (few degrees)
He had never seen this level of healing before and asked me what I had done?
As I went into detail about the methods I used – he glazed over and in a polite way dismissed it and showed no further interest (no surprises there)
I was then put into the adjustable boot and started rehab
Long story short – I was out of my boot and walking in 12 weeks (full strides and toe off) and back in the gym squatting (heavy) and performing full range single leg calf-raises (body weight using slow to fast tempos) by 16 weeks without fear or concern ☺
5 years later and I still lifting, sprinting, jumping and teaching rugby players explosive side steps techniques etc – with no pain, stiffness or hint of re-injury
So thanks for sharing the article Bret – I feel it is very valuable information for trainers to know
I hope my real life experience adds support to your teachings ☺
What do you think about Delavier’s books? The whole Strength Training Anatomy series?
There’s a book called Peak Performance published in 1987 that was one of the things that got me started on mental imagery. Tom Platz used to talk about this a lot.