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  • Writer's pictureDoug Joachim

Strength Training and Jedi Mind Tricks In the Gym

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

The 17th-century French philosopher Descartes believed in a dualistic bifurcation of the mind and body. For him, the mind and body were two separate and independent entities. I always had a problem with this dualistic view and the contemporary field of neuroscience has rightfully invalidated it. The interconnectedness between the mind and body becomes self-evident in the arena of sport and athleticism.  Too often athletes and fitness enthusiasts neglect the psychological component of training; an oversight which unfortunately impedes progress and success. We know the brain controls all movement. What was only apparent until recently, is that the body directly affects and informs the function your mind and the creation of your very consciousness.  Your body has the ability to transcend physical limitations, so long as your mind will allow it. Think about the grandma who lifts a car to save her grandson. Or the injured vet who, after being told he will never walk again, defies all odds by running a marathon. The expectations and beliefs our minds generate are the single biggest barriers to achievement.  Once you learn how to control your perception, you can harness and unleash your inner Jedi. These mind tricks will help you move past plateaus and improve training outcomes.

There is a fair amount of evidence that one can activate and embolden neural connections in the brain and muscles by simply imagining a movement or task (aka visualization). In order for a muscle to contract, it requires electrical signals from your brain to activate the motor units in the muscle. Strength (the amount of force a muscle can produce) is controlled by many things – primarily by neural, mechanical and muscular factors. However, one could argue, the foundation of voluntary maximal force production is within the nervous system and brain. Neuroanatomy is heavily involved in the strength (force) a muscle group can produce. The central nervous system is the muscle’s puppet master.

Thoughts produce the same mental instructions as physical actions. Ridderinkhof et al stated in their research regarding visualization and sport:

“The activation of this motor representation leads to an internal emulation process of the planned motor act that has a high degree of similarity to the actual motor output.”- Journal of Physiology

Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. The brain is essentially training for actual performance during the visualization process. This happens because when the mind anticipates movement it marshalls all sorts of physiological responses ahead of that movement. This phenomenon works even on an unconscious level. For instance, when you decide to get up from a seated position, your brain instructs your circulatory system to funnel extra blood into your legs, long before you begin to move. That way when you stand up, you won’t pass out.

In the 1970s the Soviets were widely using visualization techniques (mental rehearsal) in many of their athletic programs. Today it is commonplace throughout the world of sport. It is usually part of the training foundation of all top athletes. The process involves creating vivid, highly detailed internal images and run-throughs of the entire event, engaging all their senses in this mental rehearsal. Golfer, Jack Nicklaus once said, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head”. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Muhammad Ali, Micheal Phelps, Kobe Bryant and Micheal Jordan are part of a large group of elite professional athletes and Olympians who practice some form of mental visualization. Feltz and Landers published a meta-analysis of 60 studies that evaluated the use of visualization in mental practice and found a significant improvement in performance when used.

One of my favorite experiments as detailed in the book “Mental Imagery” 1969 by Alan Richardson. (Side note: I’m not sure this was ever published in a proper peer reviewed journal). The aim of the experiment was to observe the effects of visualization on basketball foul shots. Richardson separated a cohort into 3 groups and ran the experiment for 20 days as detailed below:

  1. The first group would practice 20 minutes every day.

  2. The second group would only visualize themselves making free throws for 20 minutes a day, but no real practice was permitted.

  3. The third group, the control, would not practice or visualize for the entire 20 days.

The results showed group one improved by 24%. The second group, the individuals who visualized taking foul shots for 20 minutes a day, improved about as much as the first group, an astounding 23%. The control did not improve at all. The mind is a terrible thing to waste. It is no mistake to say great athletes have a sound body and mind.

How to Use Sports Visualization For Successful Performance:

  1. Visualize the outcome you want – When you mentally rehearse your performance in your head, make sure you see the event as to how you want it to unfold. If your mental images turn negative, stop the mental tape, rewind and restart. Visualize again until you see the performance you want to see.

  2. Use all your senses from a first-person perspective. Visualize your sports performance in detail. What would you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste? Try to tap into the sensations your body would feel as you go through each motion of your performance. Try adding in some physical movements that coincide with the visualized images. Feel the excitement of successfully fulfilling your performance goal.

  3. Practice frequently. Mental rehearsal for athletes is a skill that becomes better with repetition. Practice your visualization or imagery daily.

A study done in 2004 by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation sought to find out whether thinking about exercise would increase strength.  Many people don’t even like to exercise let alone dream about it.  However,  the researchers reported that just thinking about an exercise can improve your strength.  This study affirms the findings of another project published in 1992.  Thirty “young, healthy volunteers” participated in the 12-week study.  They were broken up into 4 groups:

  1. Eight participants thought about exercising their little finger abductor muscle for 15 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

  2. Eight participants imagined exercising their biceps for 15 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

  3. Eight subjects were in the control group…they did nothing outside of their regular routine.

  4. Six subjects actually did maximal little finger exercises for 15 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

At the conclusion of the study, the groups who did imaginary exercises improved in strength almost as much as the real exercise group did.  The 1st finger group (which did not move their finger muscle at all) improved their strength by 35%.  The biceps visualization group jumped 13.5% in strength, all without any actual muscle contractions.  Don’t quit your gym membership or throw away your running shoes just yet. The physical training group, who did the physical exercises, showed an average gain of 53% in muscle strength, compared to a 35% average gain by the mental imagery group. The control group showed no significant change.

A small study titled “The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness” published in 2014 in “The Journal of Neurophysiology” illustrated the profound effects mental imagery has on strength.  The cohort of 29 healthy adults was split into two groups.  Both groups wrapped their wrists from their elbow to fingers in surgical casts for 4 weeks. The control group was told to do nothing while the experimental group was asked to sit quietly and focus on imagining strengthening their muscles (for 11 minutes a day 5 days per week). When the casts were removed, the volunteers that did not do the mental exercises had wrist muscles that were two times weaker than those that had thought about strengthening. In the end, neither group got stronger but the experimental group preserved more strength. And the experimental group regained strength faster, owing to the maintenance of the neural pathways.

Weird Science: The Journal of The American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine (1969) and the Journal of Sex Research (1976) and The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (1977) all published research showing how hypnosis and visualization techniques can be successfully used to increase breast size. Before you go out and hire a hypnotist let me say this research is seriously flawed – it has not been replicated in over 30 years, the sample sizes were small and statistically insignificant and no control groups were used. 

So why don’t we all just stay home from the gym and just imagine working out instead?  The mind alone cannot keep the muscles strong. There is a deep brain-body connection that needs constant stimulation to combat the natural catabolic state. Actual resistance training exercises are still the best way to improve muscle tone and strength.  It’s not a bad idea to add some metal imagery to your training session.  The next time you prepare for a workout, spend 5 minutes visualizing the exercises, you’ll give yourself a free and notable boost!

More Sources:

1. From mental power to muscle power; gaining strength by using the mind, Vinoth K. Ranganathan, Vlodek Siemionowa, Jing Z. Liu, Vinod Sahgal, Guang H. Yue, Neuropsychologia 42 (2004) 944-150;956.

3.Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing, “Mind Over Matter: Mental Training IncreasesPhysical Strength“, NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY.


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