The mind is a powerful thing, just look at the placebo effect for example. A simple sugar pill can cure headaches and make people less depressed.
Part of being a great athlete is a strong mental game, and this extends to a whole host of disciplines such as bodybuilding, figure, strongman, powerlifting, Olympic lifting and CrossFit. The list goes on.
For example, the rarely disputed greatest bodybuilder of all time Arnold Schwarzenegger was and is known to have an amazingly strong mental game. He often spoke of the visualisation process he used to achieve his success, especially in bodybuilding. For example:
''The first step is to really believe that becoming massive is possible ... In the same way you can command your muscles to lift heavy weights when everything else suggests that you cannot..you can mentally coax your muscles to grow larger and stronger."
Well known for his massive biceps, Arnold has said on record that he'd often imagine them as large, peaked mountains. Surely, merely just visualising and imagining your muscles growing and getting bigger and stronger can't make a difference though? Let's see what the science has to say on the topic.
The Science Of Imagining: The Power of Visualisation
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is no study comparing the effects of people's visualising muscles growing and getting strong and not doing so, in something resembling a standard resistance training protocol. That is not to say that there isn't some research that can allude to the strength of the mind.
A study conducted by Brian Clark from Ohio University demonstrated that just sitting still and thinking about muscles working, might make you stronger. The study took 29 subjects and split them into two groups. Both groups had their wrists wrapped in surgical cast's (yep, like when you break your wrist and can't move it) for a month. The researchers instructed one group to simply stare at their wrists in complete focus and think about exercising them, for 11 minutes a day, five days a week.
After the casts had been removed, the group that just thought about exercising their wrists had wrist muscles that were two times stronger than the group that didn't think about exercising their wrists. Interesting, huh? Just by thinking about exercising they were able to maintain more strength. This increase in wrist strength was due to stronger neuromuscular pathways, the researchers concluded.
Another study, had people lift weights produced some interesting results when it came to visualisation, or as they called it ''internal imagery'' (imagining yourself in the first person performing it). Researchers took a group of eighteen subjects and tested their biceps strength. They then divided the group into three; one group visualised themselves exercising for ~fifteen minutes, five days a week, for six weeks. As a result, they showed a 10.8% increase in strength compared to the other groups. 10.8% isn't bad considering they did nothing but use Jedi mind power and visualised themselves lifting.
It would be interesting to see a study that was a bit longer in duration or using well-trained lifters, looking at the effect of visualisation on muscle growth - similar to what Arnold used to do in his body building days.
But, there is definitely something in visualising yourself performing lifts or as researchers term it 'active imagery'. This imagery can be a useful tool in a variety of contexts, especially when performing the big three lifts such as bench press, deadlifts and squats. Or, technical lifts such as Olympic lifting.
There is evidence to show that doing this can make you stronger and even more confident when squatting heavy weights and there is no reason to suggest this wouldn't apply across the board.