Would you believe it if you could simply think yourself into increasing your muscle strength? Some fascinating evidence indicates that merely imagining the performance of motor exercises may indeed increase muscle strength.
Pinky & elbow mental workout
In one 2004 study, 30 subjects were divided into four groups and observed over 12 weeks to see if mental muscle contractions produced strength gains. “Exercises” were performed 5 days per week at 15 minutes per day.
Little finger abduction contractions were strictly imagined in one group; elbow flexion contractions were imagined in another group; actual physical finger abductions were performed in the third group; and the fourth group was the control group that didn’t receive special training to perform either physical or mental exercises. Significant findings were as follows:
- The group performing mental exercises for the pinky finger increased their finger abduction strength by 35%.
- The group performing mental exercises for the elbow increased their elbow flexion strength by 13.5%.
- The group performing actual physical exercises for the finger increased their finger abduction strength by 53%.
- The control group showed no significant changes in either finger or elbow strength.
More mental elbow flexion
One of the authors in the previous study also participated in another study published in 2013, where elbow flexion strength was evaluated among a a couple different mental workout groups and a control group with no workout training. The same frequency and durations of mental workout routines were used as those in the prior study.
- The group that mentally imagined the feeling of flexing their elbows had a significant strength gain of 10.8%.
- Muscle strength in the control group without any mental or physical exercises decreased 3.3%.
Mental workout for the legs
In another study in 2010, a similar experiment was performed with 19 participants but this time tracking whether or not mental imagery could improve upper and lower limb strength. Subjects were divided into 2 groups: the mental workout group and the control group without any new mental or physical exercises.
Both upper limbs and lower limbs were evaluated. The mental workout group was instructed to mentally picture and feel the corresponding muscle contractions for both upper and lower limb exercises. Maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) and the maximal number of repetitions (MR) were measured before and after the study.
- The mental workout group significantly increased their leg press MVC (p<0.05) & marginally increased their leg press MR (p=0.76) compared to the control group.
- There were no significant differences for the upper limb bench press measurements between the mental workout group and the control group.
Mental workouts that include imagining the feeling of corresponding muscle contractions appear to increase muscle strength.
It could be that the amount of muscle strength gain varies according to which muscles are “mentally worked out,” as the previous study had indicated that leg muscles had greater strength gains than arm muscles. Ideally, more extensive studies (and with larger sample sizes) might be able to more definitively describe these differing strength gains.
Who benefits from these findings?
- The person unable to perform physical exercise
- The person undergoing physical rehabilitation
- The “average Joe” who wants to further maximize strength gains
- The well-trained athlete who wants to further maximize strength gains
Skip the gym?
Well…it should be noted that the strength gain effects of mental workouts do not appear to be as powerful as the strength gains that can be earned from actual physical workouts, as one might imagine.
So if you’re able to physically work out, try not to replace your physical workouts with mental workouts! There’s a lot left to still explore in this topic, but do enjoy the physical strength benefits that your own mind can cause. The mind-body connection is amazing!