The Power of Mental Imagery in Strength Training
According to Terry Orlick, Professor of Human Kinetics, “In sport, mental imagery is used primarily to help you get the best out of yourself in training and competition.” He also contends, “The developing athletes who make the fastest progress and those who ultimately become their best make extensive use of mental imagery. They use it daily as a means of directing what will happen in training, and as a way of pre-experiencing their best competition performances.”
Orlick, who holds a Ph. D. in the psychology of sport and physical activity, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the psychology of excellence and quality living. His thoughts on mental imagery seem easy and manageable, but I often wonder how many bodybuilders or athletes actually apply this tactic to weight training.
Visualization Techniques and Bodybuilding
More than likely, we tend to disregard the mental aspect of the sport and focus on external habits. But as Arnold Schwarzenegger stated, “Bodybuilding is much like any other sport. To be successful, you must dedicate yourself 100% to your training, diet, and mental approach.”
Building a great physique is much like building any other structure: You must create a vision of success and turn that vision into reality. An athlete should always have a mental image of the performance product they aim to achieve.
When you walk into the gym, do you envision your workout? Do you picture yourself executing and intense workout? When you have a crappy day, do you take time to put positive thoughts and images into your mind before you begin lifting?
Maximize Muscle and Strength by Going Mental
The focus of this article is to give readers to tools to maximize strength training by using mental imagery. Anecdotal evidence shows that individuals who practice mental imagery have experienced increased confidence during resistance training workouts. The exact mechanisms by which mental imagery works remain unclear, although recent work using brain imaging techniques confirms that the right hemisphere of the brain is the primary imagery center.
In a bodybuilder’s ideal world, the science and research would be black and white. Imagine this hypothetical situation: It’s “leg day” and you are going for a personal best of 405 pounds on squats. Do you think it makes more sense to walk blindly into the rack and go for it or to create a mental image of yourself nailing that squat?
Nobody wants to experience failure; however, we often attempt a great feat with feelings of doubt filling our minds. In all honesty, if you don’t want to fail, why would you envision failure? Instead, mentally prepare yourself by imagining what a successful personal best looks and feels like.
According to Richter, Gilbert, and Baldis, imagery can be performed from either an internal or external perspective. Internal imagery takes place when the individual visualizes an image from the first person point of view. For example, before you perform a max lift, you envision yourself going through the exercise.
External imagery takes place from a third person perspective. From this point of view, you are a spectator and you watch yourself successfully executing a task.
The reviewers explain that mental imagery is most effective when the images are clear and include specific details. They note that using information from various senses can help provide clarity and increase the overall effects of imagery. Finally, imagery is most effective when we focus solely on successful results and avoid thinking about negative outcomes.
When you walk into the gym, do you envision your workout? Do you picture yourself executing and intense workout?
Incorporating Imagery Scripts
In order to perform internal or external imagery, you might find it very beneficial to incorporate imagery scripts. Imagery scripts are sequential descriptions of movement including key words and phrases. An imagery script for a weightlifting movement, such as a deadlift, is organized around four phases: a pre-workout phase, a pre-lift phase, a during-lift phase, and a post-lift phase.
What exactly would the four phases look like? On the deadlift, the pre-workout phase would consist of the athlete mentally preparing himself for the required energy level. During the pre-lift phase, the athlete would build on the momentum of the pre-workout phase by visualizing more specific components to the particular lift.
For example, the athlete would get set in the proper position to begin the deadlift. The during-lift phase is just a continuation of the pre-lift phase. Finally, the post-lift phase is an opportunity to visually reinforce a successful lift; the athlete will envision nailing the lift.
Wrapping It Up
In a nutshell, the ultimate goal of mental imagery is for your mentality to become your reality. Mental imagery can be used as a way of improving strength training performance. The reviewers from above Richter, Gilbert, and Baldin indicate that mental imagery is correctly executed when athletes visualize successful outcomes and avoid pictures of unsuccessful outcomes.
Mental imagery is most effective for improving strength training performance when athletes create mental scripts before, during, and after a lift. Before entering the gym, make a deliberate effort to generate positive thoughts about your workout so that you are fully immersed in the process. Make your mentality become your reality and get after it.
Richter, Gilbert, & Baldis. (2012). Maximizing Strength Training Performance Using Mental Imagery. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 11.
Editor’s note: This article by Chris and Eric Martinez first appeared on machinemuscle.com.