Mind Over Muscle: Get Stronger With Your Mind

Become a monk and get jacked.

What’s this sorcery, you say?

Well, you only look for external solutions to build muscle and burn fat. Right

But have you ever considered the solution might be within that noggin’ of yours?

You’re surely ready to call my bluff, but science has come to my rescue with recent research showing mental training (i.e. meditation and visualization) leads to more muscle and strength gains in the gym.

The study results

According to a recent study first reviewed in the MASS Research Review service, two groups of high-level male kickboxers performed the same weight lifting program over 12 weeks.

One of the groups did additional mental training, including motivational self-talk and visualization.

While both groups got stronger, the mental training group experienced larger strength increases, along with decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, and improvements in their testosterone:cortisol ratio.

All good things if being healthy and looking better naked are your goals.

Graph provided by Lyndsey Nuckols
Graph provided by Lyndsey Nuckols

What Did The Mental Training Consist Of?

The mental training group performed motivational self-talk between sets and meditation at the end of each workout.

The athletes were told to identify negative self-talk and to restate that negative statement as a positive or motivating statement.

For example, if the kickboxer caught himself thinking “I’m not sure I can lift this much weight,” they’d instead be instructed to repeat something like, “I could lift more weight” between sets.

Meanwhile, the mental imagery session after the workout consisted of internal kinesthetic imagery. Basically, they were instructed to imagine themselves performing each exercise successfully, looking out through their own eyes in a first person view.

The study also notes that they “urged the muscles to contract maximally,” during the meditative exercise, though according to the MASS Review, it’s unclear whether the participants actually maximally contracted their muscles, or just imagined their muscles contracting.

Putting It Into Practice

So how can you implement this mental program with a job, kids and Game of Thrones to watch?

First up is the self-talk – which was used during rest periods to mentally prepare for the next set – and is an easy strategy to implement.

Simply stay focused (put away your smartphone and try not to gawk longingly at the girl doing tricep kickbacks on the next bench over) and believe you can lift the weight on the bar, reframing any negative thoughts into positive ones.

No need to give yourself a pep talk in the mirror ala Paul Rudd in Wanderlust. But getting yourself into a positive frame of mind before getting under the bar is key.

For example, if your squat normally sucks, particularly when coming up quickly out of the bottom position, focus on overcoming that issue in your head before the set (state “I know I can drive up fast with this weight”) rather than simply dwelling on it in a negative light (“I suck at squats and I’m slow out of the hole”).

The second piece, the mental imagery meditation session, may be harder to make a habit of.

Study participants spent 30 minutes in thought, post-training, which is a long extension of your workout when you’re probably already late to pick up the kids.

However, the timing of your mental imagery is likely not going to break you, according to the MASS review. Start with five minutes of meditation at some point during the day, visualizing yourself lifting successfully in the gym, and build up slowly from there.

Get Mitch’s handy “Mansformation Cheat Sheet” to simplify your diet and start reprogramming your brain through nutrition.

Study link: Effects of Mental Training on Muscular Force, Hormonal and Physiological Changes in Kickboxers. Slimani et al. (2017)



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Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.