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Visualize Exercise to Get More from a Workout

Research suggests that just imagining achieving an exercise goal— like powering through a workout or performing that last rep— can help set the stage for success.

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Practice might make perfect, but not all practice needs to be physically exhausting... or even physical at all. Research suggests that just imagining achieving an exercise goal— like powering through a run or performing that last rep— can help set the stage for success [1].

Mind Games — The Takeaway

Illustration by Elaine Liu

Visualization, often called motor imagery or motor rehearsal, is the process of picturing a successful physical outcome, like a lifter hoisting the bar or a gymnast sticking the landing [2]. Research has linked mentally rehearsing athletic movements to enhanced strength, stamina, and precision when actually performing the tasks [1] [3]. Imagining an exercise or skill, researchers suggest, can help prime the muscles for more efficient movements and even boost an athlete's confidence in their ability to complete a goal [3].

Visualization strategies are popular at all levels of coaching— for pee-wee athletes all the way through the professional ranks— suggesting the practice is beneficial to both learning new skills and refining old ones [4]. Exercise imagery has also been shown to benefit patients in clinical rehabilitation by helping the body more quickly relearn basic movement patterns [3] [5].

The carryover from mental rehearsal to physical activity will likely vary from individual to individual, and it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much it can benefit a specific person in a specific situation. That said, the confidence boost and motivation gained from visualization could be its biggest benefit [2]. So whether it's squeezing out an additional pull-up or going a little further on the treadmill, visualizing a goal might create the extra motivation needed to push beyond normal barriers. And though there’s no guarantee visualizing winning the lotto will work, it probably can’t hurt one’s chances.

[expert expert_id="JessicaRedmond" align="left"]"Visualization is key for those of us who embark on new athletic endeavors (or return to them after a hiatus). When you are visualizing yourself in an activity, think about past positive experiences (in that same activity or a similar one) and recall how you felt as you completed it successfully. Recall the sensations your body experienced as well as how you felt mentally during the activity. You can even use visualization during a workout! Whether you are training for an event or rehabbing from an injury, as you perform your exercise, take a moment and close your eyes, envisioning what it will feel like on race day or when you are fully healed. Think about how your body will feel but also how confident you will feel about your abilities."

[expert expert_id="ZackMurphy" align="left"]"I don't visualize much, but I would suspect it won’t actually increase a person’s max strength or force, frankly. But, if the movement is more precise, nuanced, or highly skilled (pole vault, triple jump, horseshoes), then I'll bet visualization is massive. I remember this with baseball. I was whatever athlete I was, no matter what. But I was a much better skilled performer when my mind was focused. Hitting a baseball, landing a 1-leg box jump, or doing a back tuck. Those movements are also max attempts, but not like weightlifting, where it's more plain and less complicated."


The Tip

Visualize success to prime the body and mind to achieve exercise goals.

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Works Cited +

  1. Benefits of motor imagery training on muscle strength.Lebon F, Collet C, Guillot A. Centre of Research and Innovation in Sport, Laboratory of Mental Processes and Motor Performance, University Claude Bernard Lyon I, University of Lyon, Villeurbanne, France. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):1680-7.
  2. Athletes' use of exercise imagery during weight training. Silbernagel MS, Short SE, Ross-Stewart LC. Department of Physical Education and Exercise Science, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota 58202, USA. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1077-81.
  3. Visuo-motor learning with combination of different rates of motor imagery and physical practice. Allami N, Paulignan Y, Brovelli A, Boussaoud D. Institut des Sciences Cognitives L2C2, CNRS/Université de Lyon UMR5230, 67 bd pinel, 69675, Bron Cedex, France. Exp Brain Res. 2008 Jan;184(1):105-13. Epub 2007 Sep 12.
  4. Coaches' encouragement of athletes' imagery use. Jedlic B, Hall N, Munroe-Chandler K, Hall C. School of Kinesiology, University of Western Ontario, Ontario, London, Canada. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2007 Sep;78(4):351-63.
  5. Effects of motor imagery on hand function during immobilization after flexor tendon repair. Stenekes MW, Geertzen JH, Nicolai JP, et al. Department of Plastic Surgery, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009 Apr;90(4):553-9.