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Maximizing Strength Training Performance Using Mental Imagery

Richter, Jeremy MA, CSCS; Gilbert, Jenelle N. PhD; Baldis, Mark PhD, CSCS

Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2012 - Volume 34 - Issue 5 - p 65–69
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182668c3d


Kinesiology Department, California State University, Fresno, California



Jeremy Richter received his Master of Arts in Kinesiology: Sport Psychology Option at California State University, Fresno.



Jenelle N. Gilbert is a professor in Kinesiology who specializes in Applied Sport Psychology and Performance Enhancement.



Mark Baldis is a lecturer in Kinesiology who specializes in Clinical Exercise Science.

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Imagery is the use of the senses to create or recreate a physical experience in the mind (15). The connection between imagery use and performance success has been well documented in sports such as golf, track and field, and soccer (e.g., 7,9,13). To date, there have been limited investigations concerning the use of imagery and optimal performance in weightlifting contexts (9,14,19), but results have been positive. For example, imagery has been shown to elicit strength gains in novice weightlifters (1). Participants were required to perform repeated elbow flexion while imaging lifting a heavy weight. The participants followed this protocol 3 times a week for an 8-week period. Electromyography indicated that both elbow flexors and elbow extensors were contracting during the imagined elbow flexion movement. Strength measurements revealed a statistically significant increase in both elbow flexors and extensors (44 and 32%, respectively).

An increase in strength is not the sole benefit when imagery and strength training are combined. A recent study revealed that collegiate athletes who used imagery found increases in confidence during their strength training workouts (11). Correlations between confidence in weight room and imagery effectiveness were significant at the 0.05 level. In a more recent study (5), 22 college-aged students were tasked with imaging their agonist muscle group contracting during the rest portion of a leg press workout. Results indicated a statistically significant increase in the maximum number of reps completed at 80% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM). The authors suggested that “strength gains were more directly related to the psychological effects of motor imagery rather than to the pure physiological adaptations.” Results of these studies suggest that athletes who are more confident and who use effective imagery during strength training may be able to perform at a higher level.

Given the positive results of these studies, and the clearly established link between imagery use and peak performance in other sports (2,9,12,13,17), a discussion of imagery and its application to strength activities is warranted. Therefore, the purposes of this article were to describe imagery characteristics and how these can be applied to a strength training context as well as share a tool (in the form of an imagery script) that athletes can use to include imagery in their strength training workouts.

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Mental imagery is most often associated with imaging oneself from either an internal or external perspective (6). Internal imagery occurs when athletes use an image from the first person point of view (i.e., seeing the image “from behind their own eyes”) (6). Athletes may see some of their own body and the surrounding environment consistent with the normal visual field. Thus, the internal perspective can simulate a lift before it is actually performed and help athletes feel confident about their ability to be successful. An external perspective is a third person view, where athletes' entire body in the surrounding environment can be seen in action. Therefore, when using the external perspective, athletes see themselves in their image similar to how they would look if they were watching themselves on television (6). A benefit of the external perspective is that, with imagery practice, athletes can manipulate (i.e., control) the image to see themselves from multiple angles. This may be beneficial for making adjustments to lifting technique. With increasing skill in the use of imagery, the image can be shifted fluidly from an internal perspective to an external perspective.

Mental imagery is most effective when images are clear and include specific details (4). Using all the body's senses during imagery (i.e., polysensory imagery) helps one in achieving vivid or “lifelike” images. Lifelike imagery helps the body to respond physiologically the same way it would as if the person was actually physically performing (1). For example, a polysensory image could involve an athlete seeing the weights in a workout room, smelling chalk or gym odor, feeling the texture of the bar on his or her hands, and even tasting sweat on the upper lip. By using all, or as many of the senses as possible, the imagery is more authentic and the body responds to the image as if the lift is actually happening. Then when the athlete attempts to physically perform the lift, he or she has already done so mentally. This may lead to a more successful physical lift.

Controllability is another important imagery variable. More specifically, individuals should be able to control and manipulate their images. This skill provides an opportunity to see positive processes and outcomes, regardless of the actual physical results. For example, if an athlete physically fails at a lifting task, the athlete could then use imagery to see him or herself correctly performing and completing the next attempt. Control should also be used to temporally align the image with the actual physical performance because imagery is more effective when this occurs (8). Therefore, if it takes 20 seconds to physically perform a lift, the image should also be 20 seconds in length. This prevents details from being omitted and adds to the authenticity of the image. Consistency between the physical lift and the mental image of the lift helps in achieving peak performance.

In summary, the image can be from an internal or external perspective, or it can shift between the two depending on the athlete's goal. Regardless of the perspective used, the image needs to be lifelike, which is achieved by including multiple senses. Finally, athletes need to learn to control or manipulate their images at will. Athletes wanting to incorporate imagery into their strength training regimen, as a means to achieve improved outcomes, can make use of imagery scripts.

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A convenient and effective way to incorporate imagery with strength training is by using imagery scripts. Imagery scripts comprise descriptions of movement and pictures as well as cue words or phrases. An imagery script that focuses on the deadlift is provided. For athletes to best understand the script, its construction, and intended use, some background information is first discussed.

When constructing an imagery script, the text is very important; it needs to be purposeful and clear to be effective. Imagery based on the PETTLEP model (3) has recently been shown to be successful in the strength training context (5,16,19). PETTLEP is an acronym that represents 7 key imagery components: physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective (19). Physical pertains to the physiological response by individuals when performing (19). The environment aspect refers to making the imagery as real as possible by completing the imagery in the same environment as the sport (19). Task implies that imagery should be focused on task-related concepts that occur during the activity (19). As previously stated, the timing of imagery should be temporally aligned with the physical movement (19). The learning aspect means that as the athlete learns more about the physical performance, the imagery script should become more detailed and complex (13). Because emotion is an important part of sport, emotion should also be included in the imagery script (19). Finally, athletes can benefit from alternating between an external and internal perspective depending on the current circumstance (3). Because of the effectiveness of the PETTLEP model in strength training (5,16,19), the deadlift imagery script includes details related to these 7 components.

Imagery scripts should be structured to emphasize the most relevant information and/or components of the physical performance. The deadlift imagery script is organized around 4 central phases to assist athletes with this task. To start, the imagery script uses a “pre-workout phase.” The pre-workout phase includes imagery that can be performed before arriving at the workout facility. The purpose of this part of the imagery script is to help athletes think about the energy level they need to execute the upcoming lift, mentally rehearse the lift, and gain confidence in their ability to persevere and be successful. The “pre-lift phase” is also designed to help athletes prepare for the upcoming lift but includes more specific emphasis of the lift's components. The goal of this phase is to make the imagery as vivid as possible by using multiple senses. The pre-lift phase should be used just before beginning the actual performance of the lift. Authentic simulation, achieved via imagery, can fuel athletes' confidence. The “during-lift phase” mirrors the pre-lift phase but is done while the athlete physically performs the lift. The “post-lift phase” is used immediately after the lift and offers an opportunity for athletes to reimage what just occurred and analyze their performance. Performance mistakes can then be corrected in a follow-up imagery performance. Successful lifts can also be reimaged. These “extra” imagery sessions, when completed in the post-lift phase, serve as the blueprint for successful imagery and physical performances in the future.

The 1RM deadlift imagery script is provided below as an example or guide for use with other lifts. A 1RM attempt requires 100% physical and mental readiness. Using the imagery script can help athletes achieve this level of preparation. The script's content was reviewed by 6 certified strength and conditioning specialists (CSCS) with 2 to 13 years of professional strength training experience (mean = 6 years). After reading and then using the script, all the CSCS individuals indicated that it was “user-friendly” and that it would be beneficial “as written” for their athletes. However, they also indicated that the script could be easily adapted.

To use the script, athletes should begin by reading it several times in a comfortable setting. This will provide an opportunity for familiarization with the script's content. Some athletes may want to take the script to the gym to have it available while they use it. Others may choose to commit it to memory and not need a hard copy at the workout facility. A third option is for athletes to convert the script into an audio file. For example, the script could be recorded via a digital recorder or a software program. The audio file could then be transferred to a personal music player. This option would be beneficial to those who commonly listen to music when exercising because they could listen to the imagery script as they complete their workout.

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Pre-workout phase

“Before you arrive at the workout facility, imagine the upcoming physical lift. Become aware of your body's current energy status and adjust the energy up or down to achieve the most effective level for the workout. Know that the max lift will be difficult. You will be expected to physically and mentally push yourself to your maximum ability. … (with … indicating a pause) It will take all of your strength and focus to achieve an accurate one repetition max on the deadlift. You have been training hard for some time; this is your chance to show the progress you have made. … Imagine lifting your goal weight. … You may struggle at times due to the physical exertion, but you will persevere and successfully complete the lift.”

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Pre-lift phase

“Stand by the platform with the barbell loaded with weight. Image the sounds, facility temperature and location of the lift. If chalk or a weight belt is commonly used, those too should be included as part of the imagery. … imagine your surroundings as you would see them through your own eyes. … Image looking at the bar and seeing how much weight is on it. Acknowledge it will be heavy, but it doesn't matter as you are confident that you will complete the lift. … Imagine approaching the bar and adjusting your feet so they are the correct width apart and next to the bar. Look down at the bar and start to adjust the body's energy so it meets your ideal level, as you will need to be explosive and powerful to complete this lift.… Reach down and place your hands on the bar, feeling the familiarity of the bar on your hands as you grasp it. Prepare for the lift and image in an instant, exploding through the ground with your legs. The grip tightens as you take a breath in and start the lift. With maximal energy drive the feet towards the floor. Your muscles are tightening, but your breathing is slow. The force from the bottom up is intense on your body. The weight pulls against your back, hands, and legs. Keep driving your legs with maximal effort. Slowly the weight is coming up. … Towards the top you give one final movement of strength to get the bar up and finish the lift. A gratifying feeling of accomplishment and fatigue hits you as your body is extended holding the bar. You feel the pressure on your hands holding the bar, and you return the bar to the ground.”

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During-lift phase

Because the content and images are the same in the pre-lift and during-lift phases, the pre-lift imagery script should also be used when the athlete is lifting (i.e., in the during-lift phase). Athletes are encouraged to remember that the timing of the lift in their imagery should be temporally aligned with the physical performance. Thus, the imaged lift follows the same pace as the actual lift.

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Post-lift phase

“If the repetition just completed was a true max lift, congratulations! Take a moment to imagine the lift one more time and pay attention to your form, energy level and the overall success of the lift. … If the lift went smoothly, but you could have lifted more weight, imagine the lift again, but do so with more weight on the bar. … If the max lift was not able to be completed, identify the problem area and image fixing that problem to perform the lift successfully next time. … As you review the max attempt as a whole, consider the following questions and points: Were you able to get the right level of energy for the lift? Were you able to stay focused throughout the lift? Were you able to control the imagery during the entire lifting period? Were the images clear or fuzzy? Identify things that went well or poorly, and picture doing them better the next time. imagine yourself in the same situation, but overcoming the obstacle that held you back. Remember that imagery is a skill, and like other skills, it too takes practice before it is mastered.”

Athletes and their coaches are encouraged to use the script's general structure and content but to personalize the text in two main ways. First, the athlete can modify the content to emphasize the type of lift they want to accomplish. For example, the imagery script provided is for a 1RM deadlift. However, by changing the content, the script could emphasize a 4-rep bench press or an 8-rep squat. The athlete would need to identify the key components of a multiple bench press or squat exercise and replace the deadlift content with this information. Second, the cue words and phrases included in the deadlift imagery script are somewhat generic. In the pre-workout phase, athletes are encouraged to “adjust the energy up or down to achieve the most effective level for the workout.” Athletes may wish to use a specific cue word or image (e.g., “settle” or an exploding bomb, respectively) that better resonates with their goal of adjusting their energy level. Also, the general description of the workout facility provided in the script should be updated with specific details about the lifting environment. These changes are important because personalized imagery scripts have been found to be more effective than those that are more generic (18).

Regardless of how relevant or personally meaningful imagery scripts may be, athletes will only incur their greatest benefits when they can competently use imagery skills. Focused practicing for as little as 10–15 minutes each day (10) can help athletes gain better control over their images, assist them in using the internal and external perspective, and facilitate the inclusion of multiple senses.

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SUMMARY and Practical Application

When looking for an advantage in strength training, some athletes turn to overtraining or supplements. However, these options can be costly from both a fiscal and health perspective (14). A safe alternative that can help one capitalize on strength training workouts is imagery. The research literature supports the use of mental imagery to increase strength training performance (1,11,19). Thus, imagery can help enhance physical capabilities without the risk of injury. In essence, using imagery with strength training allows one to work smarter, not harder.

The information throughout this article can be implemented directly by athletes and strength training coaches. Imagery scripts can help athletes get started with working on their imagery. Nevertheless, it is suggested that athletes personalize the scripts as much as possible to gain maximum advantage from using them. Additionally, this article emphasized the use of imagery during strength training. However, imagery is just one of the many mental skills that are commonly used in sports. Mental skills often overlap with each other. Therefore, increasing the use of one mental skill such as imagery, may lead to greater use of others such as focus and pre-performance routines, which ultimately will help athletes achieve the most consistent mental preparation and approach to their sport.

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imagery; strength training

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