Mind over Muscle

Mental exercises to maximise your body’s potential

“It is the brain that develops the muscle.” So wrote the father of bodybuilding (and Mr Olympia trophy namesake), Eugen Sandow, 119 years ago. In a literal sense he was wrong, but figuratively he was on to something big. It’s your mind that sets your goals, visualises your success, feels your targeted muscles contracting and drives you to get those extra reps that stimulate growth. In effect, bodybuilding is a mental pursuit.

A few years ago, The Checklist Manifesto was a best-seller. It isn’t another wishy-washy self-help book. It’s by top science writer Dr Atul Gawande, and it examines the scientific rationale for step-by-step plans to complete virtually every challenge in our lives. We humans thrive on such checklists because our brains are wired for just such sequential thinking.

Tell yourself you need to go from Point A to Point Z and you’re likely to get lost along the way. You might wander off the path and forget the mission. But map out a route from Point A to B to C all the way to Z, and you’ll eventually get to the end. What’s more, what otherwise probably seemed like a daunting quest will instead be broken into easy attainable steps. Only in retrospect will you see how great your full A-to-Z accomplishment was.

Let’s bring this back to body-building. You need to set two types of goals, a single long-range goal and many short-term goals. The long-range mark may be such things as your lean body-weight target or personal bests in the power lifts or success in a bodybuilding contest. Whatever it is, schedule it for three to 12 months away. The short-term marks are progressive steps that lead to the long-range objective. So if you want to add 10 kilos to your bench press in four months, aim to add 2.5 kilos per month. Whether you use kilos and reps, your body weight and fat percentage or status photographs, write down at least five sequential short-term aims, perhaps in a note on your smartphone and ideally in the form of a checklist. Then check these off as you progress to your ultimate goal.

“Throughout my bodybuilding career, I was constantly playing tricks on my mind. This is why I began to think of my biceps as mountains instead of flesh and blood. Thinking of my biceps as mountains made my arms grow faster and bigger than if I’d seen them only as muscles.” So said Arnold Schwarzenegger, who owned two truly mountainous arms in the ’70s. The right one was bodybuilding’s Everest. Of course, the seven-time Mr Olympia was taking his biceps to places no man had climbed before, so it makes sense he would visualise something greater than mere flesh and blood.

As a zero-time Mr Olympia, you should visualise your physique as you want it to be in the future. Alternately, you can picture yourself achieving a personal best in a lift. Such imagining is a skill, and like any skill it requires practise. First, find a quiet, comfortable place. Next, picture an apple. We all know what an apple looks like, tastes like, smells like, feels like and – when you bite into a fresh one – sounds like. Visualisation is a misnomer, because the more senses you can involve in addition to sight, the more effective this technique will be. An apple can easily involve all five senses. Make that apple as real as possible by seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling and hearing it.

When you’ve mastered the apple, move on to you. Visualise yourself as you want to be. Be realistic but optimistic. See your own physique but with improvements. You may want to take inventory of yourself first because you’re not going to alter your structure and change the shape of things like the outer contours of your pecs. The more realistic you can be, the better. Focus on a new and improved you for at least 10 minutes three times per week. In bed, before going to sleep is a great time to do this. With practise, you’ll be able to recall this imagining at any time throughout the day.

If you’re visualising yourself achieving a personal best in a lift like the squat, deadlift or bench press, picture the environment, too – the gym, your clothes, any people you know will be there. What does the gym look like, sound like and (perhaps unfortunately) smell like? What does the bar feel like, and how do your muscles feel as you lift the bar? If you drink an intra-workout shake, what does it taste like? Use as many senses as you can to make the event come alive, then picture again and again the successful lift. Get to where you can see (and hear, smell, feel and perhaps taste) yourself doing the lift successfully at various times throughout the day. Make it regularly occur in your mind, and it will more easily occur in the gym.

In the simplest terms, the mind-to-muscle connection is the ability to feel your muscles working. The stronger this nervous system link is, the greater your contractions can be, especially in difficult-to-target areas like the inner back. The most common way to strengthen this is via flexing. You can tense body parts virtually anywhere throughout the day, thus conditioning yourself to feel those muscles working. Going through the eight compulsory poses (such as front double biceps, rear lat spread) is an excellent way of flexing, regardless of whether you ever intend to stand on a dais.

There are two other exercises for boosting the mind-to-muscle connection. One is to heat yourself up and the other is to levitate, or so it might seem. Let’s get hot first. Lie on your back on a bed in a quiet room and close your eyes. The fewer clothes you wear the better. Now focus on one biceps. Imagine it heating up. Think of it getting hotter and hotter. Picture it glowing red from the heat. Of course, your arm won’t get that hot (though the skin may grow warmer), but your brain will think otherwise. Next, do the same with your other biceps while maintaining the sensation of heat in the first biceps. With this, you can bring the heat everywhere. This is especially useful for strengthening your mind-to-muscle connection to lagging areas.

The turn-off technique is similar to the heat-up, but instead of feeling something that isn’t there (heat), you’re going to not feel something that is there (the bed). Again, start by lying flat on your back on a bed. Close your eyes. This time, focus on not feeling the back of your arms. Imagine your arms raised ever so slightly off the bed. When you can no longer feel your arms on the bed, do the same thing with your legs. This exercise is more difficult than the heat-up, but with enough practice you should be able to turn off the sensation of your back and butt as well, and this is when you may feel as if you’re levitating slightly above the bed. This technique can also be done lying facedown to turn off front-facing muscles. As with the heat-up, the turn-off is best used to strengthen connections to your weakest areas.

All the preceding mental techniques do your body no good if they don’t lead to more reps or a greater focus during your workouts. Apply them to your training. Using a logbook or a smartphone, check off items from your list when achieved and plot a strategy for reaching the next step. Visualise success before beginning each set. Eliminate doubts by focusing only on hitting your rep target. And tense your muscles, feeling them before and during sets to focus all the stress on the targeted area.

Studies have shown that appropriate music can increase strength levels slightly, so play your favourite psych-up songs during your heaviest sets. The encouraging words of a training partner can have a similar effect, helping you eke out that crucial final rep that makes the difference between “been there, done that” and a smash-on-through personal best.

A final technique you may want to try is called guided visualisation. This is essentially you psyching yourself up. Using your smartphone, record yourself telling you what you’re going to do during a big set – how many reps you’re going to get and what it’s going to feel like to complete that set. Some people respond better to a high-intensity drill sergeant, others to a low-intensity Zen master. Do whatever works for you. Keep it less than two minutes. Then play that recording in your headphones just before your big set. You’ll be your own encouraging voice in your own head.

Ultimately, it comes down to you versus the resistance, and that is as much a mental test of will as it is a physical one. You have to block out the pain and doubts, lock in on the task at hand as well as the targeted muscles, and go where you’ve never gone before. Back in the 19th century, Sandow figured it out. The brain is the key to building the body.