What you’re getting yourself into:
3400 words, 11-23 minute read time
1) Active mental imagery has shown itself to be useful in a variety of contexts where skill and muscle activation play key roles.
2) Because success in powerlifting and weightlifting depends in large part on the lifter’s skill, they’re perfect candidates to benefit from active imagery.
3) For active imagery to be most effective, the conditions under which you practice it should mimic the conditions under which you perform the skill you’re envisioning. In other words, your best bet is probably to practice active imagery between sets. Put your phone down!
4) Most importantly, active imagery can aid your performance without cutting into your ability to recover. Even if the benefits are small, they’re worth the time investment, and you’re certainly not missing out on anything by practicing active imagery.
In 1992, an Italian study was published detailing some intriguing findings about the (pre)motor cortices of macaque monkeys. Specifically, the researchers had found (by a serendipitous accident) subsets of neurons that were responsive not only when the monkeys performed meaningful hand movements (e.g. grabbing a piece of food), but also when the monkeys simply observed the experimenters doing the same motions. This groundbreaking study was one of the first leading us to the idea of “mirror neurons,” or those that are active both when planning/executing an action as well as when observing another person executing that same action.
Since then, researchers have speculated that mirror neural networks play an important role in learning motor skills – and maybe even social behaviors – from our peers during early childhood and throughout life. The concept has even inspired contemporary idols, leading to such masterful lyrics as, “Don’t believe me; just watch.”
Okay, maybe that song is about something else. But the rest still stands!
I would love to go into a 5,000-word spiel about why this is probably a pretty important evolutionary feature as well as just awesome in general, but for the purpose of this article, suffice to say, there has been a lot of evidence suggesting that this phenomenon is real.
Now, while we’re somewhat limited in our ability to resolve the inner workings of the human brain (at least when compared to what is being done in animal models), there has been a good amount of work suggesting that some manner of a mirror neuron system is also present in humans (examples one and two) and, perhaps more importantly for the focus of this article, that similar activity can also be elicited in the human brain by active motor imagery (examples one and two), which is essentially the mental picturing of oneself executing a motor task or skill.
Before you start wondering if this article was posted on the wrong site, let’s get to the point and talk about what this all has to do with lifting performance.
In a nutshell, it boils down to this: While physically practicing complex motor tasks (e.g. the power lifts) is probably almost always going to be the most productive path to becoming more skilled at their execution, we also have the ability to generate similar cortical activity (and thus potentially improve upon our motor skills to some degree) by either watching skilled individuals performing the task (observation) or mentally picturing ourselves doing the task (henceforth referred to as active imagery or motor imagery).
The idea of using active imagery to enhance athletic performance is not exactly a new concept. It has actually been studied quite a lot in the past couple of decades, yet it’s a concept that I think a lot of people either never think of or quickly dismiss as new-agey hocus pocus. While I’m not about to claim that this practice will make or break you, it seems evident that it can help in several contexts.
So, how much of a difference can active imagery actually make?
Before we move on to that question, I want step back and point out that I’m not saying the mirror neuron system is the sole mediator of the effects I’m about to discuss below. Rather, I just wanted to preface this discussion by providing some evidence that there are neural substrates that can at least in part explain how both observation and active imagery can be productive for motor learning at a physical, non-hocus-pocus-y level. So, on we go!
Active Imagery as a Performance Enhancer
As I mentioned above, the idea of using imagery to enhance performance is not a new one. In fact, as early as 1994, this meta-analysis concluded that mental practice could indeed improve skill and/or performance to varying degrees depending on aspects such as the nature of the task and the amount and timing of practice. As the authors pointed out, a major contributor to the skepticism surrounding motor imagery at that time had been a fairly loose definition of what constituted a proper imagery paradigm (as well as a lack of clear distinction in some of the research between the concepts of mental practice and mental preparations, like psyching up directly before an event).
Since the early 2000s, though, this has been somewhat rectified with the advent of the PETTLEP model, a gold standard for active imagery that was developed by considering which factors of imagery were most highly correlated with its efficacy in the literature up to that point. PETTLEP is simply an acronym for these identified factors:
I won’t dive into each item individually, but the main takeaway of the model is that active imagery is most effective at improving performance when the conditions during the imagery are as similar as possible to the conditions that will be present at “game time,” a point that was demonstrated nicely in a two-part 2007 study from Dr. David Smith’s lab.
If you’re interested in a brief but informative rundown of the PETTLEP model of imagery, check out this piece (or this publication for more depth) by Dr. Smith, one of the primary names currently in the field.
In Part 1 of this study, 48 varsity field hockey players prepared for a scored session of 10 penalty flicks (basically the equivalent of a soccer PK) using one of 4 strategies:
- Sport-specific imagery (completed while wearing competitive gear and standing on the pitch).
- Clothing imagery (completed while wearing competitive gear but standing at home).
- Traditional imagery (completed while sitting at home in normal clothes).
- Reading hockey literature (control).
Conveniently enough, the magnitudes of the resultant improvements in total score for 10 penalty flicks for each intervention type followed the same order, with the sport-specific group improving upon their pre-training score by 15.11%, the clothing group by 9.47%, the traditional imagery group by 5.59%, and the control group by 1.14%. These relative changes seem quite impressive, but to be fair, it’s worth noting that most of the point value changes appeared (judging from figures, as raw data was not available) to be on the order of magnitude of a few points on a scale where the max was 30 points, which doesn’t sound quite as astonishing. On the other hand, these athletes were already skilled and well-trained in the task, so one could make the argument that even small absolute improvements are pretty meaningful here.
Part 2 of this study involved 40 young female gymnasts attempting to learn a move they had not previously attempted, a full turning jump on the balance beam, using one of 4 interventions:
- Actual physical practice.
- PETTLEP imagery (imagery performed whilst in gymnastic uniform and standing on the balance beam).
- Stimulus imagery (similar imagery as the PETTLEP group, only performed at home in normal clothes).
- Stretching (control).
Quality of the execution of the task was scored by a gymnastics coach who was blinded to all pertinent information, even including whether the videos were from pre- or post-training time points. Again, the magnitudes of score improvements for different interventions followed the same order that they were presented in above, with the physical practice group’s scores improving by 43.93%, the PETTLEP group’s by 36.36%, the stimulus imagery group’s by 15.22%, and the control stretching group’s scores actually decreasing between pre- and post-training time points. It’s worth noting that only the physical practice and PETTLEP groups’ improvements were statistically significant and also that the use of a judge—even a blinded one—introduces some level of subjectivity into the results.
That being said, both parts of this study provide evidence that: 1) active imagery can indeed improve motor skill learning and performance, and 2) the efficacy of this imagery appears to increase to some extent as the conditions of both the imagery itself and the setting in which it is practiced become more specific to the task at hand. As with many things, context is key!
While these findings are pretty neat by themselves (and just to clarify, there are many other studies showing similar outcomes), it is also useful to further narrow the question and ask if (and if so, how well) active imagery works for actually increasing muscle force output.
Along those lines, this study demonstrated seemingly remarkable results whereby internal (first person point of view) – but not external (third person) – motor imagery actually led to a significant (10.8%) increase in biceps strength in the absence of physical resistance training. However, these were untrained individuals (described as healthy, but non-exercising), and this is certainly one of those cases where I would be a bit astounded if the same effect magnitude was observed in a well-trained population. That being said, I think that this study does provide compelling evidence that, in addition to its motor skill/learning benefits, active imagery may lead to some improvements in overall motor drive and the strength of specific mind-muscle connections, especially for less experienced lifters.
Another study (probably more relevant to our interests/applications) had subjects participate in a program of leg pressing and bench pressing and found that subjects who performed active imagery during rest periods between training sets exceeded those who did not in both 1RM strength and in maximum reps completed with 80% of pre-training 1RM on the leg press after 4 weeks of training. When it came to the bench press, however, no significant differences were observed between the two groups. While the subjects in this study were all competitive athletes from a variety of sports backgrounds, it is certainly worth noting that they did not regularly participate in resistance training, so again, we must be careful in trying to generalize these findings to veteran lifters.
Benefits for Lifters
Honestly (I say, having no concrete data to support it one way or another), I have a feeling that if studies similar to the last two were conducted on well-trained lifters, active imagery in and of itself (and maybe even its addition to resistance training) would likely not cause a direct, drastic difference in muscle strength. The point is more that it is a useful tool for practicing technique, and improvements in technique can help you move more weight more efficiently in a safer manner over time.
Again, that’s not to say that imagery should be a substitute for the real thing; there’s obviously no perfect substitute for actually getting under the bar and physically practicing the skill in question. Active imagery simply provides an additional avenue to hone your skills to some degree, with one pretty awesome advantage: the only cost is time. It doesn’t cause fatigue, and there’s obviously no financial cost.
Imagery imposes no demands on your limited recovery resources and requires no equipment or extraneous energy expenditure. The only cost is the time you spend doing it, which needn’t be more than a few minutes here or there.
Lastly, in addition to the benefits discussed above, active imagery might also have good utility during times of either injury or planned rest. A recent study from Ohio University demonstrated that, in subjects undergoing 4 weeks of wrist immobilization (using a cast), the observed decreases in wrist flexor strength (maximum voluntary contraction) and voluntary activation capacity (MVC relative to electrically stimulated contraction) were mitigated by about 50% in the group that practiced motor imagery 5 times per week compared to the group that did not (45.1% and 23.2% decreases in MVC and voluntary activation in the non-imagery group versus 23.8% and 12.9% decreases in the imagery group).
In short, participating in motor imagery allowed subjects to maintain better function and strength in muscles that were immobilized for a month.
So, whether it’s a cast or a period of bed rest/minimal movement, if you find yourself dealing with some level of immobilization following injury, your muscles will probably thank you in the long run if you think of them each and every day with some motor imagery exercises. Additionally, disuse-induced losses in muscle strength aside, taking the time to perform active imagery of your fundamental lifting skills (e.g. squatting) will probably also help you keep the patterns a bit more grooved for when you are able to return to training (which applies both to times of injury and to times when you might just be taking a break for whatever reason).
How to Do It
This is the part where I give you some vague suggestions about what may or may not work for you. I say this largely because, when it comes to the application of active imagery, individual preferences seem to have a large effect on how productive the exercises are for improving athletic performance.
What the available evidence does seem to tell us pretty reliably is that we will probably be best served by forming our imagery strategies around as many of the PETTLEP components as possible (or convenient).
It might sound like kind of a silly example at first, but for a competitive powerlifter, this would basically mean that we would expect “optimal” efficacy of the imagery on the lifter’s performance come meet day if they were to do the imagery while standing on the platform in their competition gear with a crowd of spectators in front of them. I included the “at first” in that previous sentence because this seems a little less silly when you consider that this is more or less what a lot of successful lifters actually do in the moments leading up to taking the stage for a big attempt. Of course, if we’re talking about using active imagery to enhance day-to-day training, the “optimal” imagery will likely shift to mimic the conditions of day-to-day training instead.
Drawing from both the principles of the PETTLEP model and my own experiences/preferences, I’d recommend trying out some active imagery on the way to the gym and/or during your warm up routine/between your working sets. This is a time when you will be close to the task both physically (e.g. wearing gym clothes and gear) and environmentally (because you are at the gym or on your way), and it is also a time when it behooves you to get focused on the task at hand.
As to how you actually engage in active imagery, it’s as simple as thinking your way through the task (e.g. a squat) with as much detail as you can muster, including that of your surroundings, emotions, etc. Think about the way that you want your body to move, and try to actually feel the sensations that you normally would during a real squat (e.g. the way your knees and hips are going to move, the way that you are going to drive out of the hole with your legs and hips, the way the weight will feel on your back, etc.).
One huge consideration in all of this is perspective—namely whether you go through these mental exercises from a first person or third person point of view. The trend thus far in the available research suggests that the first person perspective seems to be the most beneficial in a lot of cases but that the third person perspective might be particularly valuable in tasks that require the execution of a strict form (e.g. the powerlifts), and, again, personal preference plays a huge role here, so try both and find what works best for you.
The work of Dr. Smith (linked above) has suggested that, while it may vary some from task to task, practicing motor imagery more frequently (at least 3 times per week) will better translate to skill improvement. Engaging in imagery every time you go to the gym probably covers your bases, but if you find that motor imagery works well for you and want to do more, try implementing a few minutes of imagery whenever you have a chance to get up and take a break from your daily work. Or when you’re stuck in traffic commuting home. Or between episodes of your current Netflix favorite in the evening (although at that point, you could probably just hop up and practice some body weight squats instead … but still!).
You could even try running through a few rounds of imagery when you lay down to go to sleep at night. One potential downside that might limit the efficacy of this strategy is that, thinking within the PETTLEP framework, this is (presumably) about as far removed as you can get from “game time” conditions (i.e. you’re lying down, wearing pajamas (or whatever), and hopefully at a fairly low level of psychological arousal). Still, if it works for you, it works. Try out a few options and decide what seems most useful to you.
Limitations of Active Imagery and Observation
As I’ve already mentioned, we should be clear that applying observation and active imagery techniques is not exactly going to take you from squatting 300 lb. to squatting 500 overnight, but these techniques can help you hone your skills over time for essentially no cost. In short, if you really want to get better at a skill – whatever it may be – it’s probably worth a couple of minutes of your time each day to do some active imagery or study a quick clip of someone that’s really good at that skill (or why not both?). First though, a couple of considerations:
When it comes to active imagery, studies like the ones discussed above have pointed to the idea that the level of detail of the imagery needs to be scaled with an individual’s level of skill in the task and tailored with details that are personally relevant to the individual in order to remain productive, which leads us to two points:
- Similar to the physical execution of a lift, beginners will probably do well to focus on fewer, larger scale details of the movement when participating in active imagery, while more advanced lifters will be able to forgo focusing as carefully on the parts that have become autonomous so that they can give their attention to smaller, finer details. Basically, as you grow more skilled in a movement, you should update your imagery to reflect that new knowledge.
- You should still be getting a lot of practice actually physically doing the movement if you want to be getting better. The point of active imagery should never be to replace physical practice of a skill (aside from extenuating circumstance like times of injury, maybe) but rather to hone your current skills and enhance the efficacy of physical practice.
When it comes to trying to improve your skill by observing another skilled individual executing it, on the other hand, probably the most important consideration is simply that different individuals are going to perform tasks … well, differently! This is especially true for strength sports, where the most efficient grooves along which you move weights are going to be largely determined by your relative anthropometric proportions.
Someone with proportionally super long femurs, for instance, probably wouldn’t be best suited watching and trying to mirror someone like Anatoly Pisarenko (who I mention mostly because of the image of his uber upright back squat that has made its way prolifically around the interwebz) on the back squat.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to learn from skilled individuals who are built differently than you, especially when it comes to learning and mastering small details of a skill. As a personal example, I was more liable to let my hips hang back and get stuck midway up on my squats before I watched the below video of John Phung pushing his hips under the bar to finish out a heavy rep. Between proportions and preferences, my squat is by no means identical to John’s, yet watching his hips move still allowed something to click in my mind in a way that it hadn’t before.
The point here is that watching skilled individuals participating in their craft can be really useful to your own development, but it’s important to be conscious of what it is you’re taking away from the exercise. If you have super short femurs and a long torso, you probably don’t want to try to model your entire squat after Layne Norton’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t still learn something about the squat from watching him.
In conclusion, there is a good amount of evidence suggesting that active imagery and observation are valid tools for improving performance on skilled motor tasks such as the powerlifts. It’s far from a magic hack that will add 100 lb. to your squat in a month, but regularly incorporating these strategies into your routine will likely help to improve both your skill and your comfort with the practiced movements, which will in turn help you to more safely and efficiently chase those gains with good, old-fashioned planning and effort.