Visualization and Imagery for Bodybuilding Success

Visualization in Bodybuilding

There are Many Facets to Bodybuilding Success

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For years we've all heard the term "mind & muscle connection" applied to body-building, and for years I've personally taught that concept to all my clients. There's no denying that mental imagery and focus are important parts of athletic training and com-petition. Without both I believe most athletes couldn't go very far. Understanding mind/-muscle connection can be difficult when the origin of the concept has never been properly explained. That's what I hope to do in this month's column.

I've heard everyone from football players to track athletes to fitness competitors talk about how they visualize and imagine them-selves winning before an event. One fitness personality I know said that before she runs an obstacle course, she sits down in a quiet spot and imagines herself running the course perfectly. Not only does she picture a flawless performance, but at times she even imagines she is a gazelle, leaping jumps with ease. This kind of thinking promotes stellar physical performance. Visualizing success-oriented imagery before competition should be the final step in a progression of ever-narrowing focus on the part of an athlete.

I know what you're thinking: 'Athletes and experts talk about mind/muscle connection, but how can a thought translate into hard muscle gains? They're two very different ideas?' The question is valid. 1 had the same doubt when first I heard the term. I knew the theory had some validity because I was mentally better able to connect with some muscle groups than others during training sessions, and my reward was a much better-developed bodypart. Still I couldn't explain it. Well, if you're anything like me, you need to have these processes explained in detail to understand how they actually work.

A lot of the process of improving sporting reflex and skill level results from the creation and strengthening of nerve pathways. Some of these pathways are found outside the brain in the spine and other concentrated areas. Those pathways found outside the brain must be trained by physical exercise in order to develop. You can train neural pathways in the brain by learning and thought process They, in turn, are stimulated by imagery and visualization.

How can mental imagery synchronize with physical exertion to create a mind & muscle connection? Using imagery in conjunction with some form of stimulation is the key. Imagining an action (training or competition) strengthens pathways important to the coordination of your muscles - all by training purely within your mind. The act of using mental pictures during exercise can coordinate these pathways and cause imagery to correlate with performance.

Another benefit of using imagery as a means to train neural pathways is that you can do it not only in conjunction with physical training, but also as a substitute for actual training. That makes imagery a highly useful practice tool for competition. You're more likely to become what you see yourself doing and achieving. You J can also use it effectively during injury rehab or when specific pieces of gym equipment aren't immediately available.

Skeptics may underestimate the power of imagery, but seeing benefits from this simple practice can make an appreciable difference to an already-sound training routine. Imagery allows you to practice and prepare for events and eventualities you can never expect to train for in reality. In your mind's eye you can encounter potential difficulties and overcome them by having a plan already mapped out. With visualization you encounter situations you may never have actually experienced. The feeling of having been there before allows you to approach the unforeseen with confidence and a lack of fear.

Imagining yourself going through an event allows you to respond to physical and psychological problems that do not occur normally. If the unlikely happens and they do occur, your response will be appropriate and effective. This mental preparation helps you to manage stress and distraction much better. Elaborate imagery allows you to experience the feeling of having already been a success going into the competition. The resultant sense of confidence allows you to perform at a level you might not otherwise attain.

Practicing positive mental imagery helps you to slow down and take time with complicated physical skills or maneuvers. You can isolate and utilize the correct movements in the correct order. Visualization will help you in your training by letting you identify and correct errors of technique that may be holding you back from improvement.

Believe it or not, visualization can also powerfully effect the release of some involuntary hormones, such as adrenaline. In this way people can reduce heart rate and blood pressure in life-threatening situations.

Learning how to use imagery can be as simple as letting your mind become storyteller of an outcome you desire. That is at the heart of it. Still you have to practice a bit to ensure the images you play in your head are the ones that will support your efforts to become successful.

First and foremost you want to create imagery that is as specific and accurate as possible. Powerful imagery will always leave a more lasting impression than vague imagery. The best way I can drive this point home is to ask you to recall a movie that left a lasting impression. Was it extremely visual? Were there plenty of special effects and noise? Was the story so real that you could actually see yourself in it? These are all factors that make an indelible impression on us. Create the same type of images. Make them bold - in vivid Technicolor - and try to visualize a story that has a successful outcome for you. You don't have the benefit of having a sound man in your head, but you can play music that makes the images more powerful -just like the music you listen to while you train. The more emotional impact you receive through all five senses, the more these images will stick in your head.

How to Start

Start with only five minutes of imagery a day, learning the basics and practicing at a simple level. As you develop this skill, complex pictures and events will thread together to create a movie detailing your eventual success. The best time to start is either when you go to bed or when you arise in the morning. As time goes on, you can expand the number of minutes you take to imagine yourself in successful situations. A lot of pro athletes, like baseball's Mark McGwire (who wholeheartedly believes in sports psychology and imagery), do 15 minutes of mental imagery per day. Before league championships or large-scale events such as the Olympics, the time spent in visualization may go as high as an hour or more.

Start using imagery in a quiet, relaxed environment free from distractions and other people. Slowly, over time, you can experiment by imagining increasingly chaotic or disturbing situations until you are comfortable using the technique around others and when stress is high. You'll have a means by which to manage external stress and help yourself to remain calm. If you've ever been in a bodybuilding competition, you know that stress can diminish a contest-ready physique to an image that looks far less prepared. I won't mention names, but one bodybuilder I worked with for quite a long time used to suffer from this trauma. The act of practicing mental imagery would have greatly reduced a lot of the angst that led to his repeated downfalls.

Using imagery as a form of meditation, as I've described, is the precursor to using it while actually training or competing. This technique can improve the quality of your workouts and lead to results you might never have thought possible.

Imaging of an exercise or activity before its execution can offer the following benefits:

» You can concentrate on the movement and on the skill required to perform it correctly, whereas you might otherwise just go through the motions.

» Imaging an exercise in advance allows you to break down the movements to analyze the complexities of technique and form. Picture it perfectly and eventually your body will follow.

» You can focus more on flaws you may have, and less on parts of the exercise you already do well.

» Comparing the physical movement with the perfect image helps you to detect faults in technique. Alternatively, if your technique was better than the image, you can adjust the image.

» You can use imagery to push through pain barriers or exhaustion. After a while this process can become so automatic that pain is an afterthought.

If you're still not convinced that imagery and visualization can improve your performance or ability level, try it for a month and see where it takes you. I guarantee you'll see some form of improvement within that time. When you do. You'll likely be a lifetime convert.




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