Think Big—Mind Over Muscle
Jerry BrainumJust thinking about contracting a muscle can make you stronger
An often overlooked factor in promoting gains in muscular size and strength is the power of the mind. A clear indication of that power is the way beginners’ initial gains nearly always involve a greater connection between the brain and the muscular system. What happens is that as people begin to lift, they develop a higher level of brain and muscle coordination, resulting in greater neural input to trained muscles. That leads to strength increases. As they get stronger, their muscles begin to grow.
All initial muscle gains result from the power of the mind, but that process is automatic. You don’t have to think about it; the brain and muscles go into an instinctive mode, one not requiring any increased focus. If you want continued, consistent gains, however, the mind must be brought into play.
One way to do that is through mental imagery. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a firm believer in mental imagery during his competition days. When he trained his biceps, he pictured mountain peaks in his mind. The technique apparently worked, judging by the way Arnold’s biceps looked at that time.
But what if you don’t actually train—can mental imagery still improve such aspects of training as increased strength? A new study examined that issue and came up with some surprising results.1
Thirty young subjects were divided into three groups. The first did mental contractions of their little fingers; that is, they visualized exercising without actually moving. That particular group of muscles was chosen because it isn’t ordinarily directly exercised. The next group did mental contractions of their biceps muscles, again with no actual movement. The final group did nothing and served as a control group.
Each mental contraction lasted for five seconds, followed by a five-second rest, with 50 “sets” performed. Subjects were instructed to imagine that they were maximally contracting the little finger or biceps, even though they weren’t doing any actual movement. All exercise occurred only in their brains. They did the workouts five days per week, with each lasting 15 minutes.
Those in the little-finger group showed strength increases of 35 percent, while the biceps group showed an average strength gain of 13.5 percent. So that researchers could compare mental-only training to actual physical exercise, some subjects in the little-finger group did direct exercise for the finger, which resulted in a 53 percent gain in strength. The actual exercisers did experience some increase in muscle size, although the authors didn’t explain how that was determined.
They did suggest that the mental-imagery training increased the neural input to muscle, resulting in increased strength. An interesting aspect of the study was that strength didn’t return to starting levels in the mental-imagery groups for more than 10 weeks after the study ended. Those in the little-finger group retained their strength gains for 18 weeks following the study. The authors say that neural tracing on the brain established new, long-lasting brain connections. In other words the mental-imagery training imprinted a hardy degree of muscle memory.
The same effect occurs in many bodybuilders who take extended layoffs, then return to training and not only replicate their previous gains but also make additional ones.
The differences in strength gains shown by the little-finger and biceps groups occurred because the little-finger muscles weren’t accustomed to exercise and were thus more amenable to gains. The effect is similar to the often rapid gains made by beginning bodybuilders, as opposed to the slower gains made by their more experienced counterparts.
Another practical aspect of the study was that when the little-finger group did actual exercise, they not only retained the strength gains made through mental imagery but also produced additional gains through an 8.3 percent increase in muscle hypertrophy. The implications for normal bodybuilding workouts are clear: If you want maximum gains, you must involve not only your muscles but your mind as well. You must picture in your mind how you want a muscle to look. The rest is up to the brain and your muscles.
1 Ranganathan, V.K., et al. (2004). From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia. 42:944-956.