Movies like Lucy that touch on the idea of ‘mind over body’ never cease to fascinate me. And today’s topic may seem taken from a sci-fi, but… What if I told you that you could change your physicality purely by mental thought alone? Would you be a believer?
Let me give you highlights of some well known thought-power to inspire you. Back in the 1970’s, the Soviets used mental imagery in their competitive sports; Phil Jackson, one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, used guided mediations for his players to improve their focus; Tiger Woods has used highly detailed internal images since his teens; Jack Nicklaus claims his success is hugely owed to practising visualisation techniques; and even former England rugby international fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson, used imagery as a mental preparation technique by listening to a pre-recorded imagery script. It’s called visualization and it’s the process of creating a mental image or an intention of what you want to happen or feel or even achieve. And you don’t have to be a famous athlete – this can be used by anybody.
Visualization or mental imagery isn’t just for the elite athletes, dancers, and rehab patients. There are some useful and efficient preparations you can do, right off the couch even, to help add strength, power, coordination and agility to your body, without even moving a finger. Imagine that! So yes, you can strengthen your muscles by thought alone. Let me show you! Imagining movement vs. actually doing it
Even though research continues today to demonstrate the blend of movement science and psychology, we find historical evidence that connects back to William James in the late 1800’s, who has been called the “Father of American psychology”, and said in The Principles of Psychology: …every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement… You might find this quite amazing: research shows that whether you imagine a movement OR actually do it, it activates the same areas of the brain. In other words, motor imagery, or thought alone, leads to the activation of the same brain areas as actual movement.
Since the basics of coordination and skill reside in the brain, these two seemingly different activities are actually very much alike when looking at them from a neurological perspective. How does this tie into strengthening your muscles?
In 2004, a team of scientists at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio explored the benefits of a strength program by simply imagining, or visualising, exercising a muscle. They titled their breakthrough study “From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind.” The group of 30 young and healthy volunteers was split into three subsets. Two groups were instructed on how to make the directed imaginary movement, finger and bicep movement, as real as possible inside their heads. The third group was a control group. When the researchers measured muscle strength before, during and after the ‘imagined’ training sessions, they saw a positive increased strength in both groups of imaginary movement! In fact, their finger strength increased by 35% and the bicep strength by 13.5%. Huge numbers strength-wise!
This shows that new motor units are recruited within the muscle and new connections with the brain, all of which promotes muscle strength.
How does the brain do that? The scientists concluded that the mental training adopted in their research augments the signal which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength. Can you get a sense of the unified connection here?
Numerous studies following that one evidenced that training by internal mental imagery of forceful muscle contractions is effective in improving muscle strength without physical exercise. From biceps to bench press and leg press. How visualization may complement a fat loss program So here’s a scenario to consider.
Are you currently on a weight (fat) loss programme? The results achieved through visualization, like improved strength and more muscle quality, can offer a powerful supplemental bonus for you with regards to losing weight by adding lean muscle tissue. Here’s what I mean. Muscle tissue is a metabolically active tissue. It uses calories and requires energy to be built, used and maintained. That means your metabolism will stay elevated with the more muscle or even better quality of muscle you have. This benefits your weight loss programme in two ways: your body will burn more at rest and it will also burn a higher number of calories when you participate in physical activities. That’s a win-win!
Tying it into your life Albert Einstein once said “Imagination is more important than science.” So, as you can see, you can develop strength and optimize what you specifically want to do by imagining that actual act without moving a finger or budging a bone. You can strengthen your muscles by thought alone! Known by several names: mental imagery, kinesthetic imagery, visualization, mental practice, and motor imagery, they all point to the same effect, that it is a cognitive process where you imagine performing a movement without actually physically doing so. This dynamic state involves a specific motor action that is internally activated without any motor output.
Remember, there is a strength in that mind-body connection and it has to do with linking your thoughts, imagination, behaviors, actions and results. Similar to using music to enhance power and strength, as we’ve seen before. Can you imagine creating a very positive life for yourself by getting inside your own head and setting up success by thought alone?
If the world’s top elite athletes do it, I’d say it’s definitely worth giving it a try!
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