Strange Psychology I: Thinking your muscles bigger

Thinking about honing your muscles can make you stronger.  A recent study by Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing at Bishop’s University measured the strength gains in three different control groups of people. The first group did nothing outside their usual routine. The second group was put through two weeks of highly focused physical training to increase the strength of one specific muscle, three times a week. The third group listened to audio CDs that guided them to imagine themselves going through the same workout as the exercising group, three times a week.

The control group, that didn’t do anything, saw no gains in strength. The exercise group, who trained three times a week, saw a 28% gain in strength. No big surprises there. But, the group who did not exercise, but rather thought about exercising experienced nearly the same gains in strength as the exercise group (24%).

The group that visualized exercise got nearly the same benefit, in terms of strength-gains, as the group that actually worked-out.{1}  There are many theories listed in the piece below that detail what we know of the brain, and its power over the various regions of the body, including the muscles, but they can’t specify the exact nature of how this works.  If they could, of course, we’d all be doing it right now.

As it stands in current research, we still have to hold onto our gym memberships, we still have a responsibility to our health and well-being to engage in rigorous exercise, or pay the long-term consequences.  As it stands right now, researchers state that the mind and the body naturally work in conjunction during periods of exercise, but that process is automatic.  The key to using mental imagery, based on the latest research, is to increase the mind’s role in your workout beyond that which is automatic.  In other words, most of us space off during workouts, we watch others workout, or we listen to music or TV shows while we work out.  If we can focus our mind on the muscles we are attempting to work out, we can achieve more consistent and continued gains.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was a firm believer in this form of mental imagery during his competition days.  When he trained his biceps, he pictured mountain peaks in his mind. The technique apparently worked, judging by the way Arnold’s biceps looked at that time.{2}

The general excitement that such studies have brought forth is the idea that it may, one day, open up a whole new world of virtual muscle training exercises.  Though we are only on the cusp of the cusp of understanding this whole new world of the power of the mind, it is believed that these findings may eventually help those suffering from muscular degenerative diseases.  They also believe that we may, one day, be able to provide the elderly with a mental imagery work out that is sufficient to the demands of the human body without causing the progressive damage to an elderly body that a relatively rigorous workout can cause them.

The specific excitement that may erupt in some obsessives that could become overly specific and overly excited at the prospects of this research could be disappointed however.  So, let’s clarify: The study is suggesting that by using mental imagery, in conjunction with a rigorous workout, it is possible to achieve consistent and continued gains of muscles.  Muscles.  Your reproductive organ is not a muscle.  Imaging that it is larger will not assist you in accomplishing your dream.  The best method clinicians have come up with for increasing the mental imagery of this organ is to lose weight.  In other words, if the rolls of fat that surround it are removed, the mental imagery can be increased.  No further inquiries to the editor, on this subject, will receive a response.



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