Think Big—Mind Over Muscle

Jerry Brainum

Just 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.


Secret Sauce

Butch Lebowitz

Secret Sauce

The guy who sold me the vial of little blue Dianabol pills made them sound more potent than Jack’s magic beans. Awesome size. Freaky strength. Energy out the yin-yang. He wasn’t just whistlin’ “Dixie.” Once I put them into my supplement mix, I grew like a fairy-tale beanstalk—almost overnight. I’d been lifting for years and had never felt anything like the full-flush sensation of synthetic hormones rushing through my veins. I was turning into Godzilla! My traps were bulging up next to my ears, my arms were ripping out of my shirts, and I could see the raw power in my forearms crackle every time I made a fist. That’s the kind of shit that makes bodybuilders’ mouths salivate more than a juicy steak served on a beautiful fitness babe’s bare-naked booty.

Muscle-Training Program 47

Steve Holman and Jonathan Lawson

Muscle-Training Program 47

We’re calling the latest version of our routine the every-possible-variation-of-every-exercise-for-every-bodypart program. Okay, it’s not that extreme, but we are trying to vary almost every set of every exercise so we trigger growth in as many fibers as possible. The idea is to max out hypertrophy by getting to as many fibers as we possibly can with enough stress to force them to grow, and that takes variation. Even subtle exercise tweaks can sculpt a bigger physique.

Add-ing Leg Muscle

Michael Gundill

Add-ing Leg Muscle

Adductor exercises are frequently considered for women only. Nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, the adductor muscles tend to be relatively bigger in women than in men, but everyone can benefit from regular adductor work.
The adductors are a large muscle group, and your leg development isn’t complete without them. If you want to see some big adductors, check out a photo of Tom Platz in his prime. His legs are legendary—not so much because of his quadriceps as because of his phenomenal adductors.

Catabolic Cardio Combat

Ron Harris

Catabolic Cardio Combat

I’ve often written about the catabolic effects cardio can have on muscle mass and suggested limiting cardio during specific periods, such as the so-called bodybuilding off-season, when you’re trying to gain strength. But what about when you’re trying to get ripped? Most of us find it necessary to do cardio on a regular basis and for substantial amounts of time to experience the fat-loss results we want during a cutting or precontest phase. The trick is to know how much is too much and when to do less in terms of frequency and volume.

Train With Zane

Frank Zane

Train With Zane

Many bodybuilders don’t realize that weight-training sessions do not build their bodies. When you train with weights, you’re actually destroying your body. Intensive exercise induces microtrauma: Muscles heat up, small capillaries burst, and waste products like cortisol accumulate. Weight training is actually catabolic. For our muscles to grow, recuperation is necessary in the form of sleep and deep-relaxation stress-management techniques based on the principle of entrainment.