Science Says Imagery Is a Powerful Psych-Up Tool

In a new study, a quieter version of psyching up was proven effective, as long as the timing is right.

We’ve all seen powerlifters, strongmen, and fighters screaming and shouting or being slapped prior to competition. There are many ways to get fired up, and we know it works. That leaves many athletes wondering how to go about it. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, one particular psyching up strategy was examined.

Study Design

The biggest variable to the success of psyching up is the amount of time that passes between it and competing. This was the primary focus of the researchers in the Journal study. Sixteen sprinters completed tests in two conditions:

  1. The experimental condition, in which the sprinters psyched themselves up.
  2. The control condition, in which they were distracted from the sprinting.

For each condition, the participants were randomly tested during five different time intervals each, for a total of ten tests. The time intervals refer to the length of time the participants waited after being psyched up or after being distracted before they would run their sprints. These five time intervals were as follows:

  1. Immediately after the psych up/distraction
  2. One minute after the psych up/distraction
  3. Two minutes after the psych up/distraction
  4. Three minutes after the psych up/distraction
  5. Five minutes after the psych up/distraction

To get psyched up, the sprinters used an imagery approach. They were instructed to close their eyes for thirty seconds and imagine themselves setting a new sprint personal record. By contrast, during the control condition, the sprinters were instructed to count backwards from 1,000 by sevens for thirty seconds – a mental task with enough difficulty to make it impossible to think about the sprint ahead.


The psyching up did indeed work. The greatest effect was on the acceleration phase of the sprint, which lasted for the first ten meters. The total run of thirty meters also improved significantly as a result of greater acceleration. The max speed portion of the sprint, which occurred after the first ten meters, was only slightly improved.

The researchers discovered that psyching up is a short-lived and delicate endeavor. The effects were strong immediately and up to two full minutes after getting psyched up, but they vanished pretty rapidly. The top speed portion of the run (from ten to thirty meters) seemed to be affected the strongest by a delay, with a significant boost happening only if the run was completed immediately after psyching up. All in all, the effects of psyching up were most marked when it happened immediately before the sprint.


Psyching up works, but it needs to be performed immediately before activity to work at its best. The imagery technique used in this study doesn’t require making a big spectacle of yourself, and it only takes thirty seconds to be effective. That means you can employ it before each set at the gym or before you engage in any intense activity.


1. Sarra Hammoudi-Nassib, et. al., “The time interval moderates the relationship between psyching-up and actual sprint performance,Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2014, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000530

Photo courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.

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