Imagine you’re in the gym.
You’ve warmed up and you’re feeling good.
You load more weight on the bar than ever before.
You turn your music up and your stomach flutters.
Will you hit the lift? Will you get the PR?
Well, did you know that you can, right then, do something to immediately increase your chances of success?
It’s all in your mind.
Yes, you can think yourself stronger.
I know…I know…this sounds like one of those “one weird trick to lose belly fat” ads lurking on the Internet, but bear with me.
Because this quite literally is one weird (science-based) trick for gaining strength.
And by the end of this article, you’ll know exactly how to put it into use see it work.
Table of Contents
Let’s say you want to get better at a physical activity, like shooting a basketball.
What should you do?
But did you know you can further improve your skills by mentally picturing yourself shooting hoops?
If that sounds like hocus pocus, I’m with you. But “mental practice” has actually been an area of scientific interest for a couple decades now.
It’s referred to as “active imagery” and research going back as far as 1994 has shown that just visualizing yourself doing a task can improve your actual ability to do it.
The exact mechanisms of how this works aren’t fully understood just yet (chalk it up to the incredible complexity of the human brain), but we do know that picturing yourself doing a task can elicit similar brain activity as actually doing it.
That is, as far as your brain is concerned, imagining doing something is very similar to actually doing it. In fact, in some cases, imagining can stimulate even greater brain activation.
This is significant because the “muscle memory” that many people speak of in motor learning goes much deeper than just the muscles involved.
Specifically, research suggests that the more frequently you perform actions, the more frequently certain areas of the brain are activated.
Theoretically, then, the more frequently those areas of the brain are activated, the more efficient those networks become. And the more efficient they become, the more skillfully and effortlessly you can perform the actions (and introduce further complexity).
This, then, could explain why mentally picturing yourself doing something can improve your ability to do it.
What type of mental picturing works best, though?
How do you make mental practice maximally effective?
And what does all this have to do with weightlifting?
Let’s find out.
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As scientists and athletes became more aware of the value of active imagery, they started asking questions.
They wanted to know which techniques worked better than others and how to get the most out of mental preparation and practice.
This led to what is now considered the gold standard for active imagery: PETTLEP.
That’s an acronym for…
Those are the factors that scientists found were highly correlated with efficacy in mental visualization.
Let’s look at each point.
This is arguably the most important component of the model.
It entails replicating the physical elements of actual practice as much as possible and seeing (and feeling) the images as physical experiences.
For example, let’s say you were going to mentally rehearse a tennis stroke.
You can increase the physicality of your imagery by focusing on how your body will move and feel with each repetition, and you can include sensory information like the things you’d see, the sounds you’d hear, and smells you’d smell.
Researchers found that going as far as wearing the same clothes as when you play, standing in the same stance, and holding your racket can help as well.
Where you perform your imagery matters.
Scientists found that to be maximally effective, mental practice should be done in an environment as close to the performance environment as possible.
Some of the most effective imagery experiments were done in the actual competitive arenas themselves.
This is impractical for most of us, of course, but we have other options.
For example, it was found that using video and audio to help replicate the environment helps increase the effectiveness of the imagery.
Another good example is a creative study conducted with golfers that had one group stand in golf shoes in a tray of sand and mentally rehearse hitting bunker shots.
(And in case you’re wondering, after 6 weeks, scientists found that active imagery was equally effective at improving bunker play as physical practice itself.)
The content of the imagery should be specific to the skill and focus level of the performer.
That is, if you’re still trying to learn simple tasks, don’t spend time imagining performing complex ones.
This refers to the speed at which the imagery is done.
Timing is a crucial aspect of sports so the general recommendation is to run your imagination at “real time” speed.
That said, research shows that slow-motion imagery has several uses as well.
The content of the imagery should change as your skill improves.
That is, what you see, hear, smell, think, feel, etc. in your mind’s eye must replicate real life as much as possible.
As you get better and more perceptive and attuned to the actions in real life, you must do the same in your imagery.
Researchers that found without such updating, the effectiveness of visualization declines.
The more emotion-laden your imagery is, the more effective it will be.
Not just any emotions, though–the realistic emotions you would expect to feel while performing the task.
(It was hypothesized that “overriding” realistic emotions by imagining a feeling of relaxation instead would produce superior results, but this didn’t pan out in research.)
This refers to the actual viewpoint of the imagery.
In other words, viewing from inside your head (first person) or from an external position (third person).
For the most part, first person imagination is recommended because it most closely mimics performance conditions.
That said, external perspective was especially beneficial for some form-based skills such as gymnastics.
Individual preferences mattered, too.
Although first person is theoretically better, some people found it difficult and/or liked third person more and, in those cases, got better results with it.
If your head is swimming a little after that breakdown, I understand.
PETTLEP has quite a few moving parts and it can be a lot to wrap your wits around.
The following example laid out by Dr. Stephen Walker should help.
Yanda is a high jumper who has fallen into a slump.
She had a personal best jump at the end of her sophomore year. She jumped 5’0″ in a great meet under perfect conditions. She duplicated that performance twice in her junior year, but has been unable to improve upon it.
Now she is frustrated, unhappy with her performances and hungry for a breakthrough.
Her biggest test of the year was the State Meet. We began meeting a few weeks out in preparation for that performance.
Up to that time, Yanda had reviewed her techniques with her coach, understood the importance of a pre-jump routine, but was confused about exactly what to do.
This had resulted in sporadic attempts at changing up the routine, a lack of consistency and continued frustration in experiencing performances where she felt she left a lot on the table.
It’s also important to note that when we first met to discuss her situation, Yanda was highly stressed.
This suggested that she was used to turning successes quickly and her jumping fell out of the norm for her.
I encouraged her first to take a broader view of her training…and that we were going to employ a number of skills she would be unfamiliar with, and, that she would need to practice them to develop competence.
Among these skills were some stress reduction techniques, breathing exercises and techniques she could employ at school, at home and in situations where she had no expectations at all.
I provided an overview of the PETTLEP method and recorded a couple of simple audio files (for an Ipod) she could listen to and review at different times – especially down time.
The key, however, involved developing the game plan with her coach.
We got VERY PRECISE with the pre-jump routine using PETTLEP, and we went over it multiple times until she felt both comfortable with the process and could repeat it with precision.
By now you probably realize that her coach’s participation was very helpful, and that Yanda was motivated enough to practice at odd times and employ skills she learned to enjoy.
A certain synergy was developing for her, and she began to become more engaged, fully involved in the creative process, and finally – she began tuning her focus to the “process goals” in improving individual components to her jumping technique – physical sensations in her experience of focusing on the “process”.
She then decided that the methods were worth the experience and that the “outcome goals” would take care of themselves.
This was not a small piece – for she completely embraced her focus in the “NOW” moment. This was critical because it enabled her to focus on aspects of her sport “only she could control.”
That alone eliminated many distractions for her (both external and internal) that had held her back, limited her focus, and caused her to be more concerned with her frustrations than the jumping itself.
Most of Yanda’s PETTLEP practice occurred on the track, in her cleats, outside the jump itself.
Even when she was employing techniques in other settings her physical actions included ‘dancing’, springing when she walked, skipping, closing her eyes and jumping to experience the feel of the spring in her legs…
Anything that reminded her of the feel she wanted to have – “when gathering before the plant” – and – “feeling the spring from her plant to elevating”. These terms were ones she was familiar with and part of her training.
By making the “sensations” fun, part of everyday life, and something she could do outside of practice.
Because of Yanda’s sport, she could incorporate images of her jumping anytime she was outside.
She’d feel the wind and measure how she’d adjust to the conditions.
She wore her running shoes all the time – and even though they weren’t her cleats – she could “feel” the sensations, spring, and practice her footwork – inside, outside, in the gym, at home…
Again the precision to the approach shifts with the height of the bar, and the jumper’s adjustments to their approach, steps, gather and plant are adjusted accordingly.
Yanda’s tasks involved breaking down the component parts of her jump, pre-jump routine, and PETTLEP imagery before every jump.
Her pre-jump routine became a consistent repeat of each of the following:
- Find your spot
- Jump up and down – “feel” the spring
- See your steps, especially the first one – all the way through to the gather & plant (adjusted for the height of the bar)
- Feel the run up, feel the steps, feel the gather, the plant, her hips “up” in the leap
- Focused quickly on her “Resource Spot”
Yanda practiced with a stop watch to make sure she was able to execute her pre-jump routine & PETTLEP jump – in approximately the same amount of time it would take in a real meet.
These things were measured and discussed with reasonable detail.
As Yanda became proficient in the process, she began to notice details about her jump that had previously been unavailable to her (remember distractions).
She became more focused on learning from each jump – and in preliminary competitions she made a game of performing efficiently with the fewest number of jumps necessary to win.
This enabled her to concentrate on bettering her PR.
Also, it should be noted that Yanda did the long jump, triple jump, and ran anchor on the 4X100 relay.
Yanda even developed an appreciation for the “sensations” of feeling the finish in the pit – enjoying the flop, the pad, the roll, every detail including the emotional release that came with each successful jump.
She began to really appreciate the “JOY” of jumping again.
She knew she was doing the right things – she felt it every time she jumped.
Yanda did other things to help with the PETTLEP process.
She began shooting video of practice sessions so she could look at herself from multiple perspectives.
This turned out to be a useful tool in that there were technique flaws she was able to “feel” while she watched…ultimately correcting them.
Her pre-jump routine though, employed PETTLEP from her perspective in approaching the jump.
Yanda was able to perform well in her State Meet breaking her own PR twice in the process, setting a new school record, and improving upon her previous best during the season by a full 4″.
Ironically, when Yanda stepped up to the bar for her last jump – she realized that the bar was taller than she was (not an image we had planned in her visualization process.)
That was the first time she felt a doubt entering her mind during the competition – and one that we will incorporate into her PETTLEP training going forward.
If we can improve our athletic skills with our imaginations, why not our strength, too?
Well, we can.
In one study conducted with untrained individuals, 6 weeks of first-person (but not third) active imagery alone increased biceps strength by about 11%.
The subjects were healthy, non-exercising folk so we can’t assume that well-trained individuals would experience the same type of results, but it’s evidence nonetheless that the mind can influence the muscle.
A study more relevant to us experienced weightlifters was conducted by researchers at the University of Lyon with competitive athletes.
Subjects did a workout program consisting of the leg press and bench press and were split into two groups. The only difference was one group used active imagery techniques to imagine performing sets while resting in their workouts and the other didn’t.
After 4 weeks, the active imagery group gained more strength on the leg press but, interestingly, not the bench press.
Another great example of these effects is a study conducted by scientists at Bishop’s University with thirty male university athletes, including football, basketball and rugby players.
They were randomly assigned to perform mental training of their hip flexor muscles, to use weight machines to physically exercise their hip flexors, or to form a control group which received neither mental nor physical training.
After two weeks, the group using the weight machines increased their strength by 28% and the group doing just mental practice increased theirs by 24%.
Yes, in college football players, simply thinking about training was basically as effective at improving strength as training.
(In fact, the football players made the best strength gains out of all.)
So, how can we use all this information to improve our weightlifting?
Let’s break it down.
You can do it elsewhere too, but this is the easiest way to fulfill the physical and environmental criteria of the PETTLEP model.
You’re wearing your workout clothes, you’re in your workout shoes, and you’re in the actual performance environment.
I personally like to do the “mental sets” in between my physical sets, while I’m resting.
For mental practice to be maximally effective, it needs to be as lifelike as possible.
Let’s say you’re going to mentally rehearse your squat in the first person.
You want to see the entire process in your mind’s eye–getting under the bar, stepping back, dropping, rising.
You also want to feel your body move and your muscles strain against the load. You should feel the bar on your back, how your knees and hips shift, driving out the hole, and so forth.
You also want to feel the emotions you would normally feel–the determination of walking to the bar, the anger as your muscles begin to burn, and the relief and satisfaction as you rack the weight.
Here’s a quote from the paper from Bishop’s University on how the subjects performed their mental workouts:
During each training session the participant was instructed to mentally envision himself using the hip flexor machine for four sets of eight repetitions, each set being followed by a 60 second period of rest.
During each session, he was instructed to imagine himself using the hip flexor machine and increasing the lifted weight by five pounds each day.
It was emphasized to the participant that this mental exercise was not simply a visualization of himself performing the task, but that he was required mentally to imagine an increase in weight lifted with each five pounds added.
This mental process is referred to by Ranganathan et al. (2004) as ‘visualization-guided brain activation training.’
Five pound increments were used in order to provide a change for each session that could be readily imagined.
In this process, the mental training subjects were asked to first visualize themselves standing on the platform attached to the hip fiexor machine.
The subjects were then requested to imagine themselves extending their left leg sideways as far as they could within their range of motion.
This speaks to the importance of imagining a task that is slightly but not greatly beyond your current level.
The easiest way to apply this to weightlifting is envisioning achieving your goal in the set you’re about to do.
For example, if you’re following one of my programs, your immediate goal is get a number of reps and then move up to a heavier weight.
Thus, you can visualize hitting that rep target.
(And, just to be clear, you would visualize each rep of the entire set, just as you were doing it.)
Most research suggests that you’ll do best with a first-person perspective, but personal preference can change this.
This is especially true of more intricate exercises that require a fair amount of technical skill, like the squat, deadlift, and overhead press.
If you’re new to the lift or still working on your form, you don’t have to use slow-motion visualization exclusively, but you’ll probably benefit from including some in your routine.
This will allow you to really focus on how your body moves and feels as you perform the movements.
As you get better at weightlifting, certain aspects of the exercises will work on autopilot.
You’ll learn to naturally maintain a neutral spine on your deadlift, hit your depth on your squat, keep your elbows tucked on your bench press, etc.
This should be reflected in your imagery, which means you’ll be able to focus on the finer details of the movements.
Remember that as you improve physically and become more aware of how your body moves and works, you should strive for the same in your imagery.
Similar phenomena to active imagery have been found for the observation of movements.
You can improve your physical capabilities by simply watching other people do things.
(I should note that when it comes to watching people lift weights, you should opt for people with a physical structure similar to yours. It will help groove in the best movement patterns for your body.)
If you can’t train for an extended period of time due to injury or life circumstances, active imagery can help you preserve your strength.
This was demonstrated in a study conducted by scientist and Ohio University.
Subjects’ wrists were placed in a cast and one group was randomly chosen to also visualize contracting their forearm muscles five times per week.
In each “workout,” subjects did 4 sets of 13 imaginary maximal contractions, which were held for five seconds each, with 1 minute of rest in between each set.
After four weeks, the active imagery group lost about 50% less strength than the control group.
The takeaway here is simple:
If you’re hurt or taking time off or unable to train for whatever reason, you can use your mind to dramatically decrease strength loss.
Bodybuilders have been talking about the “mind-muscle connection” for decades now.
Well, what they discovered through simple trial and observation has now been fully validated by scientific research.
You can absolutely influence your muscles with your mind and “think yourself stronger.”
You’re probably skeptical but give active imagery a go in your weightlifting and/or sports and see what happens. You might be surprised.