Visualization is one of the strongest, yet underutilized & underdeveloped tools we have at our disposal. The mind can either be our greatest asset or biggest liability, our subconscious has the ability to blur the lines of imagination and reality. If we so choose, we can create our own victories, by beginning in the mind. This, however, is a doubled edged sword, if we begin with negativity, we will not end with success. How many times have you heard somebody say things like: “I can’t lift that weight”, “Our team will lose this game” “I’ll never lose all that weight” and prove themselves wrong? I bet the number can be counted on one hand. On the other hand, how many times have you heard people say: “I will lift this heavy weight”, “We will overcome adversity and win this match”, “With time, hard work and dedication, I will achieve my weight loss goals” and actually achieved great things? The mind controls our body and our actions. They say showing up is half the battle, well the other half is believing you’ve won the battle.
Visualization helps create the blueprint for moving into new body space. Acute sensory awareness teaches the body how to grow into this new space – Frank Zane
Recently, I’ve been using visualisation techniques as part of my training. Now before you call me crazy and new aged, many successful bodybuilders, like Arnie & Zane have used visualization as a big part of their strategy for success.
“I also used a lot of visualization in biceps training. In my mind I saw my biceps as mountains, enormously huge, and I pictured myself lifting tremendous amounts of weight with these superhuman masses of muscle.”
This doesn’t mean that simply by imagining yourself with massive arms you’ll magically grow 23″ guns, far from it. The second part of Arnie’s quote is just as important as the first, he used this mental image to move huge amounts of weight (135lb bicep curls for reps anyone?). Science tells us that lifting heavy weights will lead to hypertrophy (this is obviously oversimplified), however, applying this knowledge is the key. Arnie’s mind didn’t just establish a want, but a need to curl heavy weights, allowing him to push himself further than most people would ever dream of. This is not to say that from a simple physiological standpoint he couldn’t curl that weight without the correct mindset, but the process began in the mind. If you believe you can’t do something, then why would you try?
I use this visualization technique before max lift attempts or when I need a boost on the last few sets. I’ll take a minute right before I am physically ready to visualize myself. I use three different images/stages:
- With visualization I prefer to think big and start by visualizing myself from an out-of-body perspective lifting double the weight I am about to lift. Visualizing how my body will move through each rep for the entire set, making sure my form is perfect and every part of my body is moving where and how it should be.
- I then picture myself in the first person perspective. Feeling the massive weight create pressure on my body, almost crushing me. As I move through each part of the set I feel myself pushing/pulling up the weight, feeling the muscles tense up, my heart rate elevating. Again I will picture myself using a bar bending amount of weight.
- My final visualization is to get my adrenaline pumping, where I imagine myself in a life or death situation or lifting the impossible, e.g., I would picture myself lifting up the side of a car before I do a deadlift, or picture a fallen building on top of me before I squat. Channel any aggression I have stored up and place it into the bar. I notice an increase in my heart rate and jump in mental clarity right before I open my eyes and grab the bar. Right when I feel ready to lift the weight, I don’t hesitate to get under it or pick it up.The combination of these three images before max lifts has so far meant that I have not missed a weight or rep goal yet.
Psyching yourself up before you lift creates a mental state that I think is missing from a lot of people’s training. There is a lack of intensity that holds people back. Lifting weights is a great way to channel aggression & harness that inner ‘lizard brain’ that lurks within us. Everyone needs to get into this mindset whilst training to get more out of exercise. The whole notion of this ‘paleo/caveman’ diet style is lacking a very important factor, the caveman lifestyle. Our ancestors didn’t sit in a chair for eight hours a day. They would have been lucky to make it through a day without being killed. Simply going through the motions in the gym will do nothing to help us get in touch with our inner caveman. There is no aggression, no intensity, no hunger, which all leads to no improvement.
Remember the last time you were in a fight/flight situation? The adrenaline was flowing, your heart pumping, blood boiling, breathing was heavy and there was this mental clarity that heightened your senses? It’s in this state that our bodies are capable of achieving great things. Short of creating actual life/death scenarios in the gym, like dropping a building pillar on your back and telling you to squat, performing pullups over a bottomless pit, sprinting away form grizzly bears, we have to at least mentally emulate this heightened sense when we train so that we can push the body to great limits.
I don’t use this for every lift, I don’t have to, I know I can squat 135lbs easily, but load up 385lbs and I’ll need a moment to get my mind into gear. Visualization has really helped me on heavy sets, when I am mentally fired up it feels like I’m lifting an ‘easy’ weight that I’m very capable of lifting, when in fact I’ve never lifted that much weight before. When training before I used to ‘just try’ this weight and it would be a hit or miss affair as to whether or not I would actually be successful.
If you believe you can’t lift the weight, or you’ll ‘try’ to lift the weight, more often than not, you won’t lift that weight. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy of the worst degree, your mind has already established that you can’t pick it up, so what motivation is there that would make your body pick the weight up?
In bodybuilding/powerlifting, often the weakest part of the body is the mind. Our muscles have unimaginable capacity, it is our minds that tell us to stop or hold us back. The reason the gazelles at the zoo are still captive is because of the barriers the zoo keepers have established in the gazelles’ minds. The gazelles are placed in a pen with an inwardly bent fence, that they are unable to jump over at a young age.
An adult gazelle can easily clear a 9′ fence, however because of the mental conditioning the keepers have instilled since birth, they simply need to make an 8′ fence with the top bent in, to stop the gazelles from even trying to jump over the fence! How is that for a mental barrier? We as people do the same thing, however, we only have ourselves to blame. How many times have you said you can’t achieve something and how many times have you said you will achieve something? How did the results differ depending on how you thought? Just like a trainer can stop an animal from escaping the enclosure with mental conditioning, we are in essence our own trainers preventing ourselves from escaping the barriers we’ve put up.
Visualization is another great tool to have in the kit. It will help establish an energy within, a hunger that will push you to do more than you’ve ever done before.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi