Understanding the mind’s role in motivation and behavior is one of the most critical elements in physical fitness success. If you struggle with changing habits and behaviors or if you can’t get motivated, then even the best training and nutrition program is worthless.
A fascinating fact about your non-conscious mind is that it’s completely deductive in nature. In other words, it is fully capable of working backwards from the end to the means. You do not need to have the means or the “know how” to achieve a goal at the time you first set the goal, because if you “program” only the outcome (the goal) successfully into your “mental computer,” then your subconscious will take over and help you find the necessary information and means and carry out the actions necessary to reach your desired end.
Many people are familiar with affirmations and goal-setting techniques as ways to give instructions to your subconscious mind. But perhaps the ultimate way to tap into the awesome powers of your mind is to use the technique called visualization. In one respect, affirmation and visualization are one in the same, because when you speak or think an affirmation first, that triggers a mental picture, being as the human brain “thinks” in pictures.
You can use visualization to program goals into your subconscious mind. It’s simple: You close your eyes, and mentally create pictures and run movies of your desired end results. For example, you can imagine your body, in as vivid detail as possible, exactly the way you want it to look. If repeated consistently and emotionally, mental images are accepted by your subconscious as directives to be carried out and this helps with changing habits, behavior and performance.
Although there are some new and creative ways to use visualization which you are about to learn, this is not really a new technique. Visualization has been discussed and written about in the fields of psychology and personal development for ages:
“If you want to reach your goal, you must ‘see the reaching’ in your own mind before you actually arrive at your goal.”
– Zig Ziglar
“The use of mental imagery is one of the strongest and most effective strategies for making something happen for you.”
– Dr. Wayne Dyer
“Creative visualization is the technique of using your imagination to create what you want in your life.”
– Shakti Gawain
“Perhaps the most effective method of bringing the subconscious into practical action is through the process of making mental pictures – using the imagination.”
– Claude Bristol
“There is a law in psychology that if you form a picture in your mind of what you would like to be, and you keep and hold that picture there long enough, you will soon become exactly as you have been thinking.”
– William James, 1842-1910, Psychologist and Author
Despite these glowing endorsements and a long track record, it’s hard for some people to get past feeling that this is just a “hokey” self-help technique. However, visualization is an effective and time-tested method for increasing personal achievement that has been used by some of the top athletes in the world for more than three decades.
Here’s a bit of background: The Soviets started to popularize visualization in sports psychology back in the 1970’s, as detailed in Charles Garfield’s landmark book, “Peak Performance.” They dominated in many sports during that period, which validated visualization anecdotally. In the last 10-15 years, there has been some groundbreaking new brain research which has also validated visualization scientifically.
Here’s something that was written by Dr. Richard Restak, a neuroscientist who wrote 12 books about the human brain:
“The process of imagining yourself going through the motions of a complex musical or athletic performance activates brain areas that improve your performance. Brain scans have placed such intuitions on a firm neurological basis. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans reveal that the mental rehearsal of an action activates the prefontal areas of the brain responsible for the formulation of the appropriate motor programs. In practical terms, this means you can benefit from the use of mental imagery.”
So much for visualization being a “cheesy” self-help technique.
Although visualization is widely used today, even people who are familiar with it often don’t realize its versatility and many applications. Arguably the most frequent use of visualization is by athletes (as well as musicians and other performers) as a form of mental rehearsal. Research has shown that “practicing in your mind” is almost as effective as practicing physically, and that doing both – mental and physical practice – is more effective than either one alone.
A common and simple use of visualization in the fitness context is “goal visualization,” which is simply making mental images of yourself already having achieved your perfect goal weight or with the type of muscularity you desire (i.e., see yourself with the “body of your dreams”). Alternately, you might visualize yourself completing a difficult lift like a squat or bench press. However, visualization does not need to be limited only to mental rehearsal or seeing pictures of your dream body in your mind’s eye. The technique of visualization knows no bounds – because remember, you are working with your imagination.
One creative way you can use mental imagery is called “process visualization.” It works like this: Once you’ve set your goals, it’s fairly easy to come up with a list of daily habits, behaviors and action steps you’ll need to take to reach your goal. So write the action steps down and visualize them (the whole process, not just the end result). In your mind’s eye, see yourself food shopping and making the right choices, see yourself ordering healthy foods from restaurant menus, visualize yourself saying no to sodas and drinking water instead, and mentally project yourself going to the gym consistently and having killer workouts. Some people literally visualize their entire “perfect day” as they would want it to unfold. When you do this as vividly, emotionally and in as much detail as you can, you will be neurologically priming your brain to carry out those behaviors.
The newest and least known of all mental imagery techniques is called “physiology visualization.” An example would be picturing the internal process of burning fat in your body or the seeing the muscle fibers grow larger and larger. Using this technique, could it be possible that you might actually be giving subconscious instructions to your body’s cells, organs and tissues?
Well, consider the work of Dr. Carl Simonton, a physician and cancer researcher who taught his patients (as one part of a comprehensive program), how to visualize what was going on in their bodies, down the level of imagining powerful immune cells devouring the cancer cells. I have to emphasize strongly that I cannot and will not suggest that you materialize a lean and muscular body just by visualizing, any more than I can or will suggest that you can cure cancer with mental imagery (there’s a step in between thought and manifestation – it’s called action – a step that many ‘new agers’ conveniently forget to mention). However, thoughts and mental images are the precursors to action and the fact that a mind-body connection definitely exists makes this an exciting prospect.
Scientists have established the veracity of a mind-body link in many contexts, and not just by the existence of a placebo effect. There’s also more direct evidence as in the way emotional and mental stress can contribute to disease. The mind does affect the body! The mere fact that a branch of science has been devoted to this area is proof that it’s deserving of critical investigation and is not just the domain of infomercial self help gurus. The science is called psycho-neuro-immunology.
With this “physiology visualization” technique, you could, even as you were in the middle of a workout, imagine the fat burning process taking place, and visualize fat being released from adipose tissue storage (in your abdominal region or elsewhere). You could see the stored fat becoming free fatty acids, entering your bloodstream, being carried to the working muscles and being burned for energy in the mitochondria of the muscle cells. If you’re interested in building muscle, just think about the applications of this technique as well! In fact, I can assure you, many bodybuilders have already used this method instinctively, without anyone ever telling them to do so.
Since we know more about the physiology of fat loss and muscle development today than ever before, you could make your imagery pretty detailed and vivid if you wanted to. My best suggestion is to refer to an anatomy & physiology or exercise science textbook that shows pictures of fat cells (adipocytes), blood vessels, myofibrils (muscle fibers), motor units, sarcomeres, and cell organelles like the mitochondria, so you know what the structures look like. You could also get more details about the processes by looking up lipolysis, hypertrophy, energy production, or beta oxidation of fat. This would allow you to run “mental movies” rather than just visualizing “still snapshots.”
Even if you had no idea what the internal structure and workings of the body were like, you could still use this method. Your body responds to mental imagery even if it isn’t anatomically correct. We know from the field of hypnosis that the subconscious mind responds well to metaphor – maybe even better than literal suggestions. Facts, figures and logic are the domain of the conscious mind, while emotion and metaphor can slip right past the conscious and into the subconscious. Dr. Simonton often wrote about his young patients who created (metaphorical) mental images of immune system cells as “knights in shining armor”, slaying “the dragon” of cancer cells.
This is important, because as I mentioned earlier, one of your greatest mental powers is imagination. You can visualize anything you want and you can embellish and exaggerate your imagery as much as you want. For example, you could imagine the free fatty acid being burned for energy in the “cellular powerhouse” – the mitochondria – and you could imagine that the mitochondria is literally a furnace… “incinerating” the fat!
I think it’s a pretty cool idea to “see” your fat cells shrinking and visualize your body as a “fat burning furnace.” Even your very identity begins to slowly transform into that of a lean person, as you begin to visualize your body getting leaner and leaner, and you begin to say to yourself, “I am a fat-burning, muscle-making machine!”
Should you not believe that there’s anything to the physiology visualization technique, that’s ok, because we know as a fact that the subconscious is deductive, so just give it a goal and tell it what you want and it will get you there by automatically altering your attention and behavior. Therefore, we can be confident that physiology visualization will be effective even if only as a subconscious directive about your desired goal. If science someday provides us with more conclusive evidence that visualization actually does cause cellular – physiological changes in the body, well, that’s just all the better.