Can Just Thinking About Exercise Strengthen Your Muscles?

Imagine a scenario where the very act of thinking about a workout strengthens your muscles, without you moving even an inch. This is not a scene from a sci-fi movie but a phenomenon backed by science: Mental imagery.

This technique doesn’t only activate the same brain regions as actual movements but also fast-tracks the learning of a new skill.

The Role of Mental Imagery in Sports Performance

Sports psychologists have, for years, employed mental imagery, also known as mental practice or visualization, to amplify athletic performance. Renowned athletes across disciplines, from the Olympics to golf, credit this technique for enhancing their edge, mental sharpness, well-being, and self-confidence.

Champion golfer Jack Nicklaus once remarked,

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a sharp, vivid picture of it in my head. It starts with the end in mind – the ball’s desired location, and then rewinds to its trajectory, motion, and landing behavior.”

Beyond the Playing Field – Mental Imagery in Other Professions

This mental power isn’t exclusive to athletes. Professional musicians often mentally rehearse challenging segments of a musical piece. By doing so, they activate the same motor, auditory, emotional, and somatosensory circuits as when they’re physically playing.

More astonishingly, visualization can even amplify muscle strength. Envisioning yourself weightlifting can bolster muscle strength by up to half of the actual act. This brain-muscle connection leads to muscle reinforcement, even in the absence of movement.

Dr. Guang Yue and his team at Kessler Foundation have applied this “virtual workout” for rehabilitation purposes. Highlighting its potential, Yue notes,

“Mental training can indeed enhance voluntary muscle strength. This could revolutionize rehabilitation, especially for those unable to undertake conventional strength training.”

Two types of imagery, internal vs external

Research outlines two mental imagery classifications:

Internal Imagery

This involves imagining the physical sensation of an action from a first-person perspective.

External Imagery

Here, one visualizes the action from a third-person viewpoint, akin to watching oneself in a film.
Internal imagery incites more physiological reactions, including variations in heart rate and blood pressure. For muscle strengthening, internal imagery proves more potent.

Mental Imagery in Rehabilitation

With neuroimaging studies establishing that mental rehearsal activates the same brain regions as actual practice, there’s optimism about its utility in stroke recovery. Australian research recently affirmed,

“Mental imagery offers a beacon of hope for stroke patients, being safe, cost-effective, and offering unlimited practice chances.”

However, while mental practice is a beneficial supplement, it cannot replace physical practice. Like actual training, mental training demands repetition and intensity to be effective.