Visualization Techniques – Mental Tips for Better Workouts


So, you are disappointed with the progress you have made in the last year. You look at the dude that comes to the gym right before closing, does a few sets here and there and – boom! He has almost doubled in size in a few months time now exposing his cartoonish muscles with cut-through striations. The freak doesn’t put in even half of your dedication and planning to the training. For sure, he must be using something you don’t have yet. But don’t try to find a breakthrough solution on your plate, in the weight stack, or in the pill bottle. The key primer is in the mind. This is where the muscle growing begins.

Before the freak went jumbo, he has made up his mind to become one. Do it or die. Period. Whatever it takes and there is no way back. He has directed his mind to drive him through any all obstructions that may appear on the road to the final destination. But what’s more important, he visualized himself getting through training plateaus, overcoming psychological setbacks, imagined himself training with electrifying energy, he was himself a winner. Bodybuilder, visualization can be your secret invisible piece of equipment or that virtual bench-pressing shirt that lets you lift twice the usual weight.

The Virtual Reality of Visualization
The skill of visualization is probably taught in every Sport Psychology book or course. But not too many bodybuilders take it seriously because they haven’t been properly shown how to. Visualization is an extremely powerful technique that can help you achieve your goals and make lasting changes to the mind and body alike. It is the process of creating through believing. You are much more capable of committing to doing something, and doing it right when you first see yourself executing the action in your mind. And because the most consequential roads to successful bodybuilding are consistency and precision, visualization is your map to keep you on track getting you closer and closer to the body of your dreams.

Some of the most successful people from all traits of life commonly use visualization as a way to rehearse their event or sporting activity before actually going through it. Through visualization they are able to anticipate things that may go wrong or areas that may be difficult and see themselves getting through them. Excellent speakers mentally practice their speech, golfers visualize the perfect swing, basketball players the perfect shot, baseball pitchers the perfect throw, etc. If you are looking for specific examples, there are plenty, including Dale Carnegie, Michael Jordan, Frank Zane, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Platz, and many others. Just by “day dreaming”, these people have significantly improved their chances in achieving goals and perfecting them. They saw themselves in their minds as much bigger, better in the skill, taking their performance to the next level. Many bodybuilders have broken through their “mind plateau” by forcing their mind to believe in what they can achieve.

visualization-techniques-workouts-1There is tremendous power in your thoughts. Remember the old saying: “the body won’t go, where the mind has not gone to first”? The body is the servant of the mind. You probably don’t realize, but every action you take is pre-played in your subconscious mind when you don’t force the thought. Subconscious mind engenders your reality mirroring the message it is given. It has no values, preferences, beliefs or logic, and as a creator of your thoughts, you direct the destination of your subconsciousness. And this becomes a platform for the next action you take.

‘Day dreaming’ is a great tool of creating your own reality through thoughts and feelings projected into the mental image of yourself as you want to become. Transferring the thoughts to your subconscious mind will help you push through your emotional barriers and break through the limitations of your physique. Your strong but delicate body will readily respond to the impressed thoughts of your choice. If you think that imposed task is difficult to achieve, chances are you will not attain your goal. But if you think, see and feel the goal, be prepared for the unexpected and unbelievable results. As one coach has put it: “If you can dream it, you can do it!”

Evidence shows that when athletes use visualization – their performance and results improve. One study presented at the Annual Meeting of Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California in November 2001 has proven the point. Researchers asked middle-aged volunteers to imagine flexing one of their biceps as hard as possible during workouts five times a week and recorded the electrical brain activity during the sessions. After a few weeks, the strength of the volunteers’ muscles envisioning flexion showed a 13.5 per cent increase in strength compared to no improvement seen in the controls. Interestingly, the results were maintained for three months after the training stopped.

Remember, that your thoughts become habitual with a tendency to shift to the most familiar state. Permanent transition is a gradual process and takes monumental willingness, desire, effort, dedication and time to become the new familiar state. So, if you saw yourself weak for a long time, your mind may sometimes slip into this old confinement building blocks of stagnating energy and making you even weaker. Instead, try to stop these impure thoughts and create a clean and powerful vision of yourself being a strong, big, lean, full of vigor, health and grace.

The mind can be a great partner in losing or gaining weight, adding muscle or lifting heavier resistance. But it cannot be efficient if it is stressed and tired, so relaxation is the most paramount task of beginning visualization. Just like you have to get a good night’s sleep before a potentially stressful day, you have to relax before you can concentrate.

The main goal of relaxation technique is to reduce anxiety under conditions of high emotional arousal. It is an irreplaceable technique that will teach you to remain calm during any stressful situations. When you are relaxed, you are more capable to deal with negative feelings and wondering distracting thoughts. The muscle to mind relationship created through relaxation lets your muscles become sensitive to any level of stress and tension. Muscles move in response to impulses from nearby motor neurons. The firing of those neurons in turn depends on the strength of electrical impulses sent by the brain. When calm, your brain is not wasting any energy on unnecessary and unimportant tasks and can better message your muscles to function by sending larger signal to motor neurons.

Relaxation is the best way to turn your mind off from the exterior worries and will help you reach the subconscious. Turning off your mind from everything else and concentrating on what’s important at the moment will take you to any dream place you want to be.

  • visualization-techniques-workouts-2Before your relaxation sessions, make sure you won’t be disturbed – lock the door, switch the phone off, loosen all clothing. Now find a comfortable position, preferably sitting on a comfortable chair with back supported. Let go and feel the relaxation spread through your body like a warm soothing wave of heat . Breathe easily and slowly.
  • Become aware of all the muscles in your body. Tighten them and then relax, slowly, each muscle group at a time. Feel sensations in your feet, calves, thighs, glutes, abdomen, back, shoulders, arms, neck and head. Observe any areas of tightness and relax them. Enjoy this wonderful state of complete relaxation.
  • Focus on your breathing. Breathe easily and slowly allowing your stomach to rise and extend. As you breathe out, let all the tension evaporate into the atmosphere. Slow down every breath, sink deeper and deeper into a calm and peaceful state of complete stillness. Stay alert and completely aware of your body from inside out. It may be easy to fall asleep, especially if you are lying down, but remember that this is the preparation stage for the task at hand.

The Practice
Practice visualization first thing in the morning, before the worries of the day haven’t got to your restless mind, and right before you go to bed, when you are trying to clear out the hard drive of your brain and sort out the important events of the day. This guarantees you will have a great day you set yourself up to and will have a very restful sleep.

  • Put together images that charge your emotions. Using present tense, make them real, alive and colorful. Visualize yourself as you want to become – as lean and as muscular as you would like, and your mind will work on that image. See and feel yourself with confidence, pride, power. Create the sensations of having big muscles, tight skin, getting the pump before you even touch the weight.
  • If the imagery gets too intense, take a few deep breaths to slow down, but keep the complete control over your vision and sensations. Think of the sculptured body, strong mind, knowing where you belong.
  • Experiment with fading in and out of your visualization. Bring yourself back to reality and then to the imaginary state. Contemplate on that transition trying to capture the subconscious thoughts that arise.

Before the Workout
Mental preparation for your intense workout is critical. It allows you to create more muscle tension leading to greater muscle growth when you rest. Start thinking about yourself pumping weights early. This will give you a higher level of arousal and intensify your sensations when you actually get to the racks. A few minutes of visualization may be that groundbreaking hand you need to cross the threshold.

You have to practice and experiment to see how much time you need before the session and everyone’s response varies. Frank Zane used to sit and meditate before the workouts visualizing himself working out – every set, every rep. But by the time he got to the gym, for him the workout was over. “It was like I’d already worked out; I was bored”.

  • Use all of your senses and visualize your gym, racks of dumbbells, rows of machines, stacks of iron plates, the bench, voices from the aerobics room, tunes of your favorite energizing music, water fountain, mirrors,…curvy voluptuous women walking on treadmills, or trim, fit, sexy, hot chicks sweating away on cycles, and whatever else captures your mind when you have the best workouts. See the space, smell the rubber and sweat around, hear the smashing plates of iron and other people sharing their bodybuilding secrets. Feel the heaviness of gear in your hands, the comforting tightness of gloves on your palms, the softness of shoes. Get yourself to the actual state of presence and simply be there.
  • Now visualize yourself performing each exercise, every set, every rep. Imagine the flawless execution, the perfect form, the impeccable range of every motion. Run through a set of each exercise you will perform in your workout inside your head. Concentrate on breathing. Use as much details in your visualization as possible. Note the way the weights feels in your grip, feel the burn on your muscles as they slowly lower the weights. This prepare the mind to handle the actual workout doing wonders for your form.
  • Imagine how you feel after the workout. The soreness, the pain, the sense of completion and achievement. Remember how hard it is for you to walk up the stairs to the locker room after the grueling squats, how the tightness in your biceps makes it almost impossible to fully extend your arms, experience the sensations of absolute exertion.

During the Workout
top-5-bodyweight-exercisesAnother good time to practice visualization is during an actual workout. You can do it in two ways – right before you perform an exercise and during the actual execution. This is a great way to keep your mind on the target. Imagining the exercise before you do it can give you exhilarating intensity so you can push through the plateaus and sticky points with effortless ease. Arnold envisioned his pumped-up biceps as if they were huge mountain peaks when he was training arms. Use whatever images you want that will drive your mind and your body.

  • Feel the heaviness of the weight and the strain in your muscles, see yourself pushing the entire stack twice, and experience the feather-like weightlessness that liberates your body. Visualize the perfect movement, flawless alignment, and undergo the complete movement without getting tired.
  • Now take action before your mind begins to slow down. When the time comes to actually doing the set, you will have programmed your mind and overcome any type of mental block that might have been in your way.
  • As far as the exercise is concerned, you’ve already accomplished your goals. Now it’s just a matter of going through the motions. Your mind has gone there and now your body will follow.

Even though the theory seems simple – visualize what you are about to do and you will actually do it – you have to be reasonable and keep your expectations within reasonable reach. Imagine what visualization can do to your delicate ego if you picture yourself bench pressing 300kg with angelic ease, apply that to practice, but in reality you can hardly bench 100kg. Disregard overly expressive faces of the buffs around, that is not your point of attention at the moment. Keep in mind that you are trying to think of what YOU CAN achieve. Have a clear idea of your immediate and long-term goals, generate purpose, faith and needed willpower to give you enough confidence in overcoming obstacles. Visualization takes practice and concentration, so don’t give up on it if you are not successful straight away. It may be one of the few things that you can do to overcome your genetic limitations.

Use visualization as your guide to achievement. Practicing something in your head, whether it is a powerful squat or a heart-pumping run, can make the difference between a mediocre performance and a spectacular one. Your brain thinks in pictures, and creating a visual image of a victorious exercise completion in your mind is an extremely compelling way of getting something done. Use this technique before and during your training session and you will notice immediate improvements. Visualization is a form of self-hypnosis that can be applied to practically anything you anticipate bringing strength, confidence and energy to the actual happening. First, relax yourself by closing your eyes and taking 10 deep breaths. Before you get to the gym, visualize the place and the equipment you plan to use. While using all of your senses, try to feel inspired by the sounds you hear and the people you see. During the workout, envision any particular move you find hard to perform, feel the strain and see yourself getting through the obstacle. Re-experience the feelings of confidence and strength when you are actually completing the movement.

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About Author

Elena Voropay

Elena Voropay is a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Instructor and Certified Nutritionist. She also holds accreditations for her knowledge in Iridology and Herbal Medicine. Elena has conducted presentations and lectured on various health, fitness and science-related topics. See my profile page for more information!

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