Findings Friday: Using your brain to become Arnold Schwarzenegger

Ok, so maybe you won’t necessarily become a professional bodybuilder just by using your thoughts, but new research suggests that regular mental imagery can help muscles sustain strength when immobilized for several weeks.

The article, entitled The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness, was published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in October 2014.

The researchers were looking to test the hypothesis that the nervous system, particularly the cortex, is implicated in muscular strength and weakness, and that corticospinal inhibition is a major player in regulating force.

In other words, the scientists were testing whether or not the cortex (that wrinkly part of your brain) drives muscular strength, and how the cortex and spinal work to regulate how much force your muscles put into certain movements and actions. Makes sense: your muscles get commands from your brain to initiate certain actions, and so your brain should be involved in how much force your muscles will put into a certain activity. That force therefore determines how much strength your muscles will have for a given activity.

There were three major groups to the study: one group that underwent 4 weeks of hand-wrist immobilization, thereby inducing weakness, while another group also underwent those stipulations, but also performed mental imagery 5 days/week of strong muscular contractions. The imagery has been shown to activate cortical areas, including the premotor cortex, related to motor behaviors.
The last group was a control group who underwent none of the stipulations of the other groups.

The researchers tested the wrist flexor strength, voluntary activation (VA) and cortical silent period (SP: a measure of corticospinal inhibition) before, after, and 1 week following immobilization. Not surprisingly, the immobilization decreases strength, impaired VA, and affected the SP by prolonging it.

In other words, having your arm in a cast made your muscles weaker and slower.

Mental imagery, however, attenuated the loss of strength and weakness, and eliminated the SP increase. So, basically, mind over matter.

I’d like to learn more about the mental imagery, and if there are different types, and what those different types result in.

I do remember reading something about how athletes could improve their game performance (I believe it was tennis players that were studied), by imagining themselves performing a certain task of the sport. It was found that their game performance improved.

I also remember another study about how if you’re clumsy (like me; I walk into things all the time), imagining yourself walking through a store of expensive glass pieces, without knocking anything down off their precarious shelves, could improve your coordination/balance.

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