How your mind can affect your strength

Silhouette of human doing yoga and where has scored seven chakra points

I’ve written quite a bit about the mind-body connection in my books and in some of my blogs. Among other things, I’ve written about strength improvements through visualisation, rehabilitation following a stroke, and even how to reduce appetite by tricking the mind into thinking you’ve eaten, so I’m always on the lookout for new pieces of research.

Well, in October 2014, researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) published a great piece of research in the Journal of Physiology that showed how visualisation can slow down the loss of muscle, say after a person has had an accident and has limited use. The research is a demonstration of the mind powerfully impacting the body.

In the experiment, 29 people wore a cast from their elbow to their fingers for 4 weeks. Around half of them (14 people) did a visualisation exercise 5 days a week during this time and the other half (15 people) didn’t.

The training sessions were as follows: They had to mentally contract their wrist, given the instruction, “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push … and stop.” This would take 5 seconds and they would then get 5 seconds rest. They did it 4 times in a row and that would constitute 1 round. Each daily session was 13 rounds.

Of course, both groups lost strength in that time, which is to be expected when you’re not doing any exercise at all, but what was amazing was that the group who visualised lost much less strength than the group who didn’t.

The group who didn’t visualise lost 45% strength over the 4 weeks but the group who visualised only lost 24%. That’s half as much! It’s a significant difference.

I used to be an athletics coach and loved it. A few years after I stopped doing it formally, a young sprinter came to me devastated that he was to have a shoulder operation that would put him out of training for 3 months. So we devised a visualisation plan where he would go to the gym in his mind and run on the track in his mind.

He did about 45 minutes of this a day, 5 times a week, going to the gym in his mind and running on the track in his mind. He was totally committed to his mental workouts. I remember laughing when he told me he had just surpassed his bench press PB (personal best) in his mind. He said he could feel the great weight and the strain but had imagined pushing the bar up.

The mental effort worked wonders for him. Not only did he defy the odds and was back in training in half the time (6 weeks instead of 3 months), but he had barely lost any strength or leg speed at all. And his improvement from that point was dramatic. Within a few months he had improved so much that he was chosen for the first time ever to represent his country in an international competition.

The mind is far more powerful that most people assume. I love that there is now a great many pieces of credible scientific research in the area.

The key is that imagining something repetitively has a huge impact on the brain. It creates ‘neuroplastic change’, which is where the brain actually moulds around what you’re imagining, effectively not making any distinction between whether you’re doing the thing or imagining doing the thing.

This is great, because if you’re not yet able to do something perfectly, you can certainly imagine yourself doing it perfectly. And to your brain, that’s really the same thing. Your brain then affects how your muscles perform, whether that’s in running, jumping, swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, or even whether it’s speeding up the healing process following injury or disease, which of course I’ve written a great deal about in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, so I don’t want to regurgitate it here.

So never doubt your ability to do something. If you can imagine it, you can do it!

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  1. Tessa Guy on January 18, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    David, this is fabulous news, I love everything you do. I would so love you to speak, whether we film you or link up on a live google hangout, to support what In Mind In Body is all about – think visualise transform… create well being, aiming to ease & prolong the lives of people living with cancer – keeping toes & fingers crossed! Tess 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on January 19, 2015 at 9:47 am

      Thanks Tessa. Yes, let’s organise something soon then. 🙂

  2. Stefanja Gardener on January 27, 2015 at 11:11 am

    We are holding a Feel Good event in our local library. Just wish more doctors were aware of your books and how they could help.

  3. Victoria woodward on January 27, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Hi David…..I too love everything you do! Going from strength to strength as you do! .thank you! struck me, as I myself am in the real dark night of the soul, which I never believed could be so fearful or overwhelming in all the years I have read about it….facing loss of so much, so many deaths, divorce, hospital, the head injury of my husband during our divorce and now the parting sadly again after 15 weeks of being with him again….no home…and one serious crisis after another…it struck me how vital it is to also be careful of how easily i imagine and visualise the darkness, the fear, the overwhelm when in it ..and in so doing reinforce the reality scientifically just as we can do with our physical body as you describe in a positive way. The way must be through this mind power….surely? and acceptance somewhere along the road….it’s just finding the means to do that in the darkest moments …which is not just positive wishful thinking but scientifically changing the deepest held core beliefs which contribute to such an ongoing series of shocks and trials. Sorry to bring the blog into the shadow, but I feel so utterly lost and skinned and I know that there is a light somewhere, it’s just finding the switch as I grope in the dark. It is surely there as the dark night of the soul is ultimately about rising from the ashes. Maybe that would be a good visualisation….seeing and feeling that rising and the physical grasping of the cord of light reaching down to pull me up and out with a brand new awareness and the most extraordinary love surrounding and pouring out and into my heart. Do that in the light gymn every day…?? X

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on February 5, 2015 at 10:43 am

      Hi Victoria,
      I’m sending you much positive vibes right now. And, yes, that is a very good visualisation… not unlike some successful visualisations used by some people who were depressed. I hope it helps you, indeed, pull yourself to that place. 🙂

  4. Karin Regan on January 31, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Dear Dave,
    I have been an admirer of yours for years. Love your books and tapes and I even met you a few years back in New York City. Not only are you soooooo bright, but your sense of humor is very refreshing.
    Lately I have not been able to read or listen to your tapes because I became the caretaker of my husband who suffers from vascular dementia. It is a full time (and a half) job, but I can do it, and even more importantly I really want to do it. Because I love him!
    Here is my question to you: Do you have any suggestions for persons with Alzheimer or Dementia to stimulate their brain functions? and do you have any suggestions for their caretakers?
    Thank You for the wonderful article “HOW YOUR MIND CAN EFFECT YOUR STRENGTH” – It gave me a wonderful boost and reminded me that life is really beautiful, especially with people like you in it.
    I would be thrilled to pieces if you answered this mail.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on February 5, 2015 at 10:40 am

      Hi Karin,
      Thank you for your kind words. I wish you and your husband well and I hope the following might help:

      Here is a link to a scientific paper that found that when dementia patients observed hand movements it led to improvements in attention and facial recognition:

      The study compared Alzheimers’ patients watching videos (30 minutes a day for a month) of simple hand movements with other patients watching regular videos for the same time periods. It worked a little like taking the brain to the gym. Watching hand movements, odd though it may sound, activates the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) in the Alzheimers’ patients’ brains, which is an area affected by Alzheimers’ disease. The effect was like taking the brain to the gym, shaking off the plaques in some ways.

      I wrote a little about it in my book, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’. I’m not really trying to plug my book here, only that it’s the only place I know of, other than the research link I’ve given you, where you might read about this study.

      I dearly hope this helps, Karin.

      Best wishes,
      ps: If the link doesn’t work (they sometimes expire), the paper is called, ‘Observation of Hand Movements by Older Persons With Dementia: Effects on Cognition’.

  5. Anthon Petersen on March 27, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Hi David
    I would be amazing if these mind drills also work with stretching. I could use some more flexible legs when Iplay tennis

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 2, 2015 at 7:56 am

      Hi Anthony, from personal experience, I have indeed found that they help with stretching. I clearly remember the first time I spent 15 minutes doing mental stretches, trying to imagine as best I could the effortless stretch of my legs, I then did a 1k training run around 15 seconds quicker than I normally did. I also did my usual actual physical stretching too, but it seemed that the mental stretches had added to this. I hope that helps. 🙂

  6. Anthon Petersen on April 5, 2015 at 2:05 am

    Hi David
    Thanks for your reply that is cool news 🙂
    I´m 35 years and a few days old 😉 I have loved tennis from the first time I tryed it but i never got the chance to practice as much as I wanted to and have never felt that the conditions was got enough to make sure I could reach any thing near full potential and It has haunted me for years. My struggle with OCD have also contribute negative, as it make me struggle to maintain focus and confidence and makes me feel to curious and look up to early to see the quality of my shot. I plan to practise as much tennis as possible the neXT year or two and I will try to implement all the knowledge you share in your books and on your blog in to the training. I intend to do my best to play at the highest level possible for me. I look forward to be supprised by the result I will get and to thank you for it!

    My Brother an aquired brain damage and either schitzophrania or hear a voice in his head that he think is telepathy that is caused by the brain damage (the symptombs appeared 1.5 years after the accident). The person that he feel is present exists and live in Denmark. Currently therapy dosen´t help him and he is very convinced that the telepathy is real. He belives that the person leaned it from buddhist monks in Asia and have false memories about how and when the telepathy stated. So I was wondering if it would be possible to setup somekind of event involving a buddhist master monk look a like and maybe the person he think he is communicating with where the monk stops his telepathic powers because of miss use of powers or somethink. My Brother is convinced that he does it to annoy him. So if he is convinced that thi event ends the telepathy maybe he could be cured by spontaneus healing? and the voices will stop.
    If you by chance have any interests in such a project I would be more than happy to recieve your help. I´m not rich but if you feel there is high enough chance for such a trick to work I might be able to offer enoug money to make it happen.

    Looking forward to read you latest blog about dead people. I´m currently on a mission to find the truth about as much as possible and I saw my self as a atheist until 6 months ago.

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