What if I told you that every elite athlete does exactly this? That there is a wealth of scientific studies showing that this is possible?
No, I’m not pushing you some magic new supplement with outrageous promises. I’m talking about visualization.
In the world of sports psychology and elite performance, visualization has long been known to improve strength and performance. Your brain is a very interesting piece of kit. You see, it cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined.
Your brain will build and strengthen new neural pathways in response to a stimulus – whether it is real or simply imagined. That means just visualizing an exercise can make you better at it.
Not because your muscles have become bigger or stronger, but because the neural pathways have become stronger. This means your nervous system can contract the muscle, faster and harder. This will increase your power and allow you to train at a higher capacity than you might otherwise be able to.
It’s Not What You Have, It’s What You Use
Have you ever heard of people performing amazing feats of strength and power when their life is in danger? Or their child’s life?
Lifting cars from on top of babies and the like?
We all have a much greater strength potential than we have the capacity to show under normal circumstances. See, our muscles generally only contract at 40-60% of their capacity. If they went at 100% they risk rupturing the tendons off your skeleton and causing serious damage.
With training, you can increase the potential that you can tap into. This is why athletes and especially power athletes like weightlifters and throwers are exponentially stronger, pound for pound than the average person.
They get stronger not by adding significant muscle mass, but by increasing the nervous system’s ability to fire those muscle fibers. That is how you get stronger without getting significantly more muscular.
Well, this is what you can use visualization to do.
Think of it as training the nervous system. Really, all that you are doing when you lift weights or exercise is training the nervous system anyway.
To a degree you are training the muscles – that is why they get sore – but most strength gains come from nervous system adaptation.
Remember that your nervous system cannot differentiate between real and imagined. By visualizing yourself going through a movement, you can get that same nervous system adaptation.
You can practice a movement thousands of times, without overreaching your body’s ability to recover from it.
They say it takes 10,000 repetitions to attain mastery. 10,000 repetitions physically take a long time to achieve, simply because you have to break them up, allowing your body to recover from the demand of doing them. You will maybe do 100 at a time – and that is a lot for one training session.
By using visualization, you can shortcut the road to mastery of a movement. Strengthening the neural connections, without also taxing the muscular-skeletal system.
Of course, you do actually have to train physically as well. If you overreach what your tendons and ligaments can handle, you still won’t be able to display this new strength – or you will, and quickly get injured.
The physical training in many ways is just strengthening the support structures so that the main players – the nervous system – can do their thing at full capacity.
Think of it like having a supercar with 800 horsepower and no brakes. You can potentially go really, really fast – but if you haven’t got the supporting structures to slow you down again, it is not going to end well.
How To Do Visualization
The key to effective visualization is in using the senses and emotions to make it seem real.
To begin, you want to have a routine that you go through when getting set up for a lift or performance. Again, look to elite sport and everyone has their routine they go through pre-performance.
From the way tennis players bounce the ball and spin their racket as they’re about to serve, to how a sprinter sets up in the blocks, placing one foot, then the other. One hand, then the other. Deep breath and slowly looking up…
You’ll notice that every individual is different, but their personal routine is always exactly the same.
So, you need to establish your pre-performance routine.
Then as you begin a visualization, you go through this pre-performance routine in your mind. It sets off a trigger in your nervous system, to ‘amp you up’ ready for the coming performance.
As you’re going through the performance, maintain the same tempo that you would in real life and do not skip steps. Go through every step that you would in a real performance.
If you’re in the gym doing a bench press, that means laying down on the bench, setting your body, taking your breath, lifting the bar off, bringing the bar down – all before you actually lift it.
As you become more experienced with visualization, you will be able to tap into the emotions and senses that you feel in reality. You should get an adrenaline surge through your body as you visualize performance.
Now here is the most important part:
When you complete a performance successfully in your mind feel the emotions you will feel in real life. That is what makes it real. It comes with practice, as you get better at being in the moment and tricking your mind into thinking it is real, it becomes easier to feel the feelings you would feel in real life.
It is the emotions that will really trick your mind into thinking it is real.
That includes some nervous energy before the performance, the pure focus during, the adrenaline dump and wash of happiness afterward.
Yes, you still have to train to actually make progress, but practicing in your mind is going to double the speed of your results.
You can use it both pre-real-performance, and completely separate. It will make you better. Give it a try.