Mind over matter: Use visualization to increase your one rep max

If you’ve ever had a ‘max day’ in the weight room and found yourself staring at an amount of weight you’ve never seen before, much less lifted, wondering what in the heck you are thinking taking on such a task, you know what I mean when I say weight lifting is extremely mental.

For those of you who walk out of a good weight workout feeling more confident and powerful than when you walked in, you know what I’m talking about: weight lifting expands the mind just as it expands the body.

But did you know that the mind can actually benefit from lifting weights even when the body cannot?

Read further, this is just plain amazing.

Mind or muscle?

According to, “there is a temptation to focus entirely on an idea of humans as motors when one considers resistance training.”

Sure, the human body is an incredible machine with lots of motors (aka muscles). In addition to our motors though, there are a lot of things that make humans physically unique.

  • We can run farther than almost every other animal on the planet - up to 100 miles or more.
  • Our bodies can cool themselves more effectively than other mammals - we have more sweat glands.
  • Humans have the highest brain-to-body mass ratio (aka the Encephalization Quotient, or EQ).

Now, this is just a theory, but maybe that last one is the reason why our minds are so effective in changing:

  • How we feel about our bodies and ourselves in general
  • What our bodies can physically do
  • How our bodies grow.

 Why weight train?

This one won’t be too surprising to anyone who’s exercised and felt better about themselves for it, so I’ll start with it.

In a study by the Journal of Applied Sports Science Research,“self-concept of college females seems to increase as a result of strength training”.

Human Kinetics also put in their two cents about how weight lifting can change our psychological states, saying, “…resistance training can be a powerful influence on participants’ psychological states… [and] weight training resulted in significantly higher self-esteem…as compared to values in a non exercising control group.”

While this improvement in self-image and esteem was also observed in runners, I think it’s pretty impressive that weight lifters, who don’t particularly do a lot of cardio, don't compete in teams, or move with swiftness, achieve the same “self-high” as long-distance runners.

There are dozens upon dozens of studies relating to how exercise can alleviate depression and improve self-esteem, but the fact that that two completely different sports achieve the same mental result is pretty dang impressive.

Why mental weight train?

Take it from Natan Sharansky: Visualization isn’t just a way to prepare you for improvement, it in and of itself IS improvement!

Sharansky, who spent nine years in solitary confinement after being accused of spying for the US, spent much of that time visualizing playing chess. Come to find in 1996, after his release, he beat the then-current world chess champion.

Shockingly, our brain does little to distinguish between actual movement and just imagining movement, and Psychology Today states that “[brain] patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting” and “mental practices are almost effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone”!

Mental practices are almost as effective as physical practice, and doing both is more effective than either alone.

The physical effects:

This final point is the real eye-opener. If it doesn’t amaze you, I don’t know what will.

Your muscles will actually grow by force of mental will.

That’s right: Your muscles will physically grow as a result of visualization. You can urge them to grow bigger, stronger, and more flexible by the force of your mind!


In his study on everyday people, Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared “people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workouts in their heads”. Literally, people who didn’t physically work out at all.

He found a 30% muscle increase in the group who went to the gym and a surprising 13.5% increase by the group of participants who conducted mental exercises alone.

(But don’t think you can get off by sitting on the sofa! This average only lasted for three months following the mental training and then lost speed to those who did visualization and physical training together.)

Finally, this amazing study from Bishop’s University about visualization and hip flexor strength put me over the edge. It really solidified how important visualization is to competitive athletes, male or female, no matter which sport they play.

This time, the study included three groups: a mental “lifting” group who visualized doing exercises on a hip flexor machine, a physical lifting group who actually did the exercises, and a control group who did nothing.

I’ll let you read the details of the study on your own, but will give you some quick highlights. It shows that participants who lifted weights mentally (that is, by visualization) gained as much physical muscle strength as those who physically trained.

Again, if that brain power doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will!  

 Coaches: How can you apply this knowledge to your training? What students could benefit from mental weight training?

What if you could do something to ensure that your athletes are in a good headspace before they step on the field?

The BRAVR Method™ is an easy-to-implement, 5-minute, pre- and post-competition routine that will:

  • Get your athletes to compete at their best, regardless of uncontrollables
  • Help your athletes recover quickly from mistakes and avoid getting into a self-defeating headspace 
  • Teach your athletes to reflect on their performance to learn valuable lessons from every win and loss


Get your copy today and join the thousands of coaches across the world who are using The BRAVR Method™


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