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Imagining Exercise: The Unusual Way To Make Yourself Stronger

Contrary to the gym mythology, true strength training is not just about your muscles but about your mind also.

Rebuilding muscle strength can be difficult, and now researchers have verified what many coaches and athletes have been stating for decades; that the mind is critical in maintaining muscle strength.

Alexander Bain was the first scientist to suppose that the body responds to visual imagery similarly to how it responds to the things we actually see, but the idea did not enjoy the further scientific attention.

However, in 1931, Edmund Jacobson studied mental imagery and was able to relate them to subtle muscle movements. In recent times, studies, using modern brain imaging techniques have shown that what distinguishes actual and imagined movements are the inhibitory signals sent from other parts of the brain to the motor system.

This means that actual and imagined movements involve the same brain activity, but in the case of imagination, there’s another part of your brain that stops the message from reaching your muscles.

That being said, simply imagining exercise can tone muscle, delay atrophy, and even make your muscles stronger.

Well, a remarkable new study from Brian Clark at Ohio University shows that sitting still, while just thinking about exercise, might make us stronger.

Study Details

These researchers at Ohio University conducted an experiment using two sets of healthy individuals. The researchers wrapped the wrists of one of the sets in a cast and gave them instructions to sit still for some minutes, five days a week, for four weeks, and perform mental imagery of strong muscle contractions or exercising.

Clark et-al recruited 29 volunteers and wrapped their wrists in surgical casts for an entire month.  During this period, half of the volunteers thought about exercising their immobilized wrists, and for 11 minutes a day, 5 days a week, they sat completely still and focused their entire mental effort on pretending to flex their muscles.

When the casts were finally removed, the volunteers that did mental exercises had wrist muscles that were two times stronger than those that had not done the mental muscle flexing at all.

The idea behind the research is one that has been often neglected in the field of neuroscience. Our bodies and our brains evolved together, and even though we treat our mind and bodies as two separate entities, they are ultimately and intimately connected.

To further examine brain-muscle pathways, the researchers placed a magnetic field above the motor cortex and stimulated neurons in the brain.  When they turned on the magnetic field, they saw the muscles of the volunteers flex and then become momentarily paralyzed.

Thus, by measuring the amount of muscle contraction and the duration of paralysis, this group of researchers was able to make inferences about the connections in the brain.  The longer the paralysis lasted, the weaker the neuromuscular connection and that is the reason why the volunteers that performed imaginary exercise had stronger neuromuscular pathways and stronger muscles.


At the end of the four-week experiment, the volunteers had all lost strength in their immobilized limbs when compared to the control group, but the group that performed mental imagery exercises lost 50% less strength than the non-imaginative group.

The nervous system’s ability to fully activate the muscle (voluntary activation) also rebounded more quickly in the imagery group compared to the non-imagery group.

These findings suggest that neurological mechanisms, most likely at the cortical level, contribute significantly to disuse-induced weakness and that regular activation of the cortical regions via imagery attenuates weakness and voluntary activation by maintaining normal levels of inhibition.

Thus, this findings that imagery attenuated the loss of muscle strength provide proof-of-concept for it as a therapeutic intervention for muscle weakness and voluntary neural activation, and imagining exercise can tone muscle, delay atrophy, and make your muscles stronger.



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