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Visualization and Muscle Strength

Can you think yourself strong?


Updated November 19, 2007

Visualization is a skill 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 provides a competitive advantage.

Now 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 week, 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.

Group #1 (the finger exercisers) increased their strength 53 percent, wand Group #2 (the biceps group) increased strength by 13.4 percent.

Sounds unbelievable, but consider that measurements of the brain activity during visualization sessions suggest that these strength gains were due to improvements in the brain's ability to signal muscle activity. Suddenly the benefit of visualization is clear.

Researchers hope these results will assist in the therapy of stroke and spinal cord injury patients, and possibly injured athletes. The researchers believe that anyone who has difficulty doing physical exercises can use mental training methods to improve the muscle strength they have lost or maintain the muscle strength they have.

Still, there is no substitute for actual strength-training exercises as the most effective means of building and maintaining muscle strength,

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

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