Science Says: Visualization Improves Strength Training

Can your thoughts determine whether you set a PR? Science says “yes.” According to new research, mental imagery can be a powerful tool for strength training.

Can your thoughts determine whether you set a PR? Science says “yes.” Have you ever visualized a successful lift in your mind before attempting it in the gym? If so, you’ve used mental imagery to enhance your performance. Mental imagery can be a powerful tool for strength training, reports a recent study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

The authors recommend a four-step process. First, visualize the workout to come and the goal you want to achieve. Visualize yourself achieving your goal. Next, just prior to taking the bar, imagine a successful lift. Next, repeat the previous visualization while lifting. Finally, replay the lift in your mind. Use this post-lift phase to begin correcting a problem or even imagine adding more weight. If you identified a problem, imagine another successful lift in which you correct it.1

I have personally used visualization in my own training and have coached athletes to do the same. I use mental imagery in two ways: visualizing success, as the authors suggest, and visualizing a stressful event from the past to create an adrenaline rush. The latter technique is far less researched, but it works for me.

About twenty seconds prior to a lift I begin re-living a stressful scenario that caused an adrenaline rush. I imagine the situation in detail, recounting my surroundings and thoughts. Whenever I “feel” the rush, I take the bar and lift. I’ve coached others to use this technique as well. I don’t tell them what to visualize, because it’s got to be real to them. I also don’t ask them what they’re visualizing, because that’s not really important and it’s none of my business. One of my athletes, Dan, used this technique to deadlift 400 pounds for the first time. Since breaking that barrier using visualization he has added 25 more pounds to that PR.

But I don’t recommend using this technique often during your training day. Honestly, it just becomes too fatiguing. I limit it to one or two uses during PR attempts. Also, don’t start the visualization until right before you take the bar. The rush doesn’t last very long, and if you start too early (30-60 seconds before lifting) then your body will realize reality is much safer than in your mind, and you won’t make full use of the rush.

So whether you’ve determined your own visualization technique or you use something similar to the one outlined in the research above, science has found links between what our minds see and what our bodies do. What visualization or imagery techniques have you used? Please share in the comments below.

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