Do Visualization Exercises Help Build Strength?

Athlete concentrating with his eyes closed
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Visualization is a skill that athletes often use prior to competition to mentally rehearse every aspect of their event. You will often see ski racers or gymnasts or divers doing such an exercise before they compete. Eyes closed, heads bobbing and weaving and bodies moving slowly through all the gates or rotations in an imaginary competition.

Many athletes believe, and some research is backing up their claims, that this rehearsal does indeed provide a competitive advantage on the field.

Research on Visualization and Strength

The ability for an athlete to use the power of mental rehearsal to improve their actual skills and subsequent performance is somewhat of a mystery, but the general belief is that such practice increases confidence and helps build the pathways in the nervous system that are aligned with reducing anxiety and distractions. 

Others point to the athlete's ability to improve focus and attention and, much like a meditation, the mental visualization is not that different from actual physical rehearsal in that it helps an athlete prepare for their sport.

Perhaps even more mysterious is the fact that new research is suggesting that visualization can actually strengthen muscles.

Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio investigated the strength benefits of imagining exercising a muscle. They reported that just thinking about exercise helped maintain muscle strength in a group of subjects.

They split 30 healthy young adults into 3 groups. For 15 minutes a day, five days a week for 12 weeks, Group #1 imagined exercising their little finger muscle. Group #2 imagined exercising their biceps muscle and Group #3 acted as a control group and did no imaginary exercise.

Those in the first two groups were asked to think as strongly as they could about moving the muscle being tested, to make the imaginary movement as real as possible.

The researchers measured muscle strength before, during and after the training sessions.

In the results of the study, Group #1 (the finger exercisers) increased their strength 53%. Group #2 (the biceps exercisers) increased their strength by 13.4%.

It does sound unbelievable, but after you take into consideration that the measurements of the participant's brain activity during each visualization session suggest that these strength gains were actually due to improvements in the brain's ability to signal muscle activity. With this understanding, it's easier to understand how visualization can improve not only muscle contractions but many athletic skills.

Researchers expect that these results will assist in the rehab techniques and therapies for stroke patients as well as those with spinal cord injuries, and possibly they will enhance the traditional rehab protocols for injured athletes.

The researchers also believe that anyone who has difficulty doing physical exercises can use mental training and mental rehearsal methods to improve the muscle strength they may have lost or maintain the muscle strength they have.

Visualization Is No Substitute for Physical Strength Training

Even with such interesting research study findings, it's clear that when it comes to building strength and power for a specific sport, there is really no substitute for actual strength-training.

Sport-specific exercises are still the most effective method for building and maintaining muscle strength, speed, power, and coordination.

For athletes, mental rehearsal and visualization exercises may be helpful when recovering from injuries but are probably not the best means of building strength for sports.

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

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.