Can You Strengthen Your Muscles By Thought Alone?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
strengthen your muscles by thought alone

Photo Credit: flickr

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 visualisation 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.

Visualisation 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 visualisation may complement a fat loss program

So here’s a scenario to consider. Are you or your client currently on a weight (fat) loss programme?

The results achieved through visualisation, 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 optimise 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, visualisation, mental practise, 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, behaviours, 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.

Your visualisation success

Have you had success with using mental imagery for yourself or with your clients? How have your results been? Are you willing to try it out and experiment?

Join in the conversation below and share your story so we can inspire each other. If you know someone who could use encouragement in the mental practice area, forward this to them for some extra inspiration!


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6 Comments

  • Diane Corriette

    Reply Reply October 23, 2014

    Yes, Yes, Yes – I LOVE it :)

    As I use visualisation all the time I have recently been using it to help me visualise myself as a size 12, fit and healthy. Right now I am a size 20 – going into an 18 after coming from being a size 22!

    I have used visualisation to help me with my appetite too. I am using vegetable juicing and a healthy veganish (not given up meat yet) diet full of plant based foods to help me lose nearly 3 stones (another 5 lbs to lose to reach 3 stones) since April 2014.

    Last time I tried to lose weight I focused on exercise and felt great but my body didn’t change as much. Plus I still did things like eat pizza and oven chips.

    This time I am conquering my food “demons”, overcoming my addictions to carbs and strengthening my mindset. I never thought I would do something like fasting (intermittent fasting) but here I am experiencing success with what I am doing.

    We are told that over 40 weight loss becomes more of a challenge but it has been the easiest it has ever been thanks to visualisation. Don’t know why I didn’t use it before because I have been using it for years.

    I used to blog about it too. Its a great topic and I am so happy to read this.

    I love to walk but exercise is a challenge right now. I have lost weight while doing very little in terms of an exercise routine. Now I will focus my mind of seeing strong, toned muscles.

    I have no doubt I will exercise eventually but right now success with managing my food and mindset are my priorities and completing my advanced clinical weight loss course so I can help others once I reach my goal. :)

  • Margaret Shenken

    Reply Reply October 23, 2014

    So does this mean that by visualising how we want your muscles to look DURING a workout, that we can produce better results from our workouts? I have believed this for some time. I teach female Fuse-Fit classes and when I’m instructing I always mentally “switch on” the muscles I am working. As a result. I look like I lift weights which I never do!

  • Elaine

    Reply Reply October 23, 2014

    This makes me think of, ” IMAGINE IT, FEEL IT, SEE IT!” Or Wayne Dyer’s book, “Believe it to see it” (I think I have that title right) I have certainly noticed more success with something I have ‘felt’ rather than just going through the motions of a visualisation . I have sort of let all that slide so I am grateful to this well written article and the positive comments made so far.

  • Leslie

    Reply Reply October 23, 2014

    This is great information, and being utilized by many weight loss coaches currently, to varying degrees. As a vegan personal chef who is branching out into coaching, I’d love to keep digging deeper into this subject. It would be great to have more tools developed along this line to assist clients who are doing a lot of the right things, but still frustrated with body image. Thank you for this article and I’m sure we are going to see this concept utilized in some of your teachings!

  • Catherine Brown

    Reply Reply October 23, 2014

    ABSOLUTELY !!

    What an empowering read, thank you.

    I find the mind-body link fascinating and recently did a seven day “Neuro Linguistic Programming” Practitioner course. The basis of this is using tools to understand how our thoughts, actions and feelings work together to produce our experience. The practice of visualisation in achieving one’s goals was a key focus. So it ties in with the Secret’s philosophy of “what you think about, you bring about”.

    One of the main things I learned from the course was that all change and learning takes place on an unconscious level, which is the hub of every memory, experience and belief you have about who you are, your capabilities, and your self-set limitations. By being in rapport within yourself – via meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis, daily “quiet-time” to visualise – you can start creating the life you want (even if that includes bigger muscles heh).

    The course really changed my outlook on life (however my partner things I’m just a “crazy hippy”). So maybe this isn’t for everyone, and I’m steering away from the particular example of using mind-power to generate muscle-power, but I just thought I’d share with those that are interested…

    Due to applying the techniques, I actually saw people healed of their physical ailments merely by letting go of unresolved emotional events that acted like barriers and held them back. WOW! The power of healing with the mind just by asking your unconscious to let go of the hurt/anger/sadness/self-doubt/mistrust you’ve been carrying around like a backpack.

    We all have our unique life stories and it seems that a lot of us focus on the adverse events, which we allow to define who we are (maybe we are not even consciously aware of this, yet on an underlying level this often influences our choices in life). On a personal note, throughout my life I self-sabotaged due to a Limiting Belief I had about myself that I was not worthy. Fortunately I have recalibrated this untruth by digging deep to the core issue and determining what purpose “self-sabotage” served me, which ultimately came down to self-preservation and avoiding failure. Weird right – the very thing I was doing to avoid failure was in fact causing me to fail by not believing in my potential to succeed. I must say, I feel so much lighter now that I am not defined by my rocky childhood, not to mention more confident.

    What’s important to remember is that the unconscious mind can’t distinguish negation so if your internal voice keeps telling yourself you are fat, or can’t lose weight, it’s like your own personal little Genie that attracts more things into your life in order to fulfil your self-statements. Good or bad, “your wish is my command”.

    WE ARE THE CREATORS OF OUR EXPERIENCE.

    Your mind is the painter and the world is your canvas :) So be kind to yourself fellow students, use positive affirmations and strategies to achieve what you want in every aspect of life (love, work, health & fitness, financial etc).

    All the best,
    Cath

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