I can remember reading the exercise literature over 20 years ago and learning the impact of mental imagery on strength gains. Participants who solely thought about their strength training workouts over a study period demonstrated strength gains compared to a control group. In addition, these mental workouts could also limit the amount of atrophy observed in muscles after prolonged immobilization. Many of these benefits should not come as a surprise given our brain’s decision to move our joints through muscular contractions.
Activation in areas of the brain involved in movement are strongly correlated to strength gains. Over time researchers have found strength training creates positive adaptations in these regions of the brain allowing for greater effort over time. Authors have described greater strength gains among participants who focused mentally on the muscles they were targeting, movements they were performing, and importantly on voluntary effort through these muscles compared to those who exercised alone (Spiering et al. J Strength and Conditioning Research. 2023). These results held up even when controlling for exercise prescription and duration of each muscle contraction. In short, maximal mental focus and energy leads to maximal muscle activation or more forceful muscle contractions. At your next workout, block out your grocery list, work deadlines, and other distractions to focus on the moment and enjoy the workout. Harnessing your brain can make it your best workout partner.