Health

Can visualization improve the quality of your workouts?

“Make your bottom half your better half” — this is the slogan for the new line of Tone-Up Fitness shoes from Skechers. “Makes your top half think your bottom half is your better half” might be a more correct statement, though admittedly not as catchy. On Monday night, the footwear company invited me to test the new line of Tone-Ups by participating in a boot-camp workout with celebrity trainer Romano DaSilva. Sketchers says the multi-layer sole of Tone-Ups encourage your feet to roll forward, forcing the muscles in your bottom half to work a little harder.

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“Make your bottom half your better half” — this is the slogan for the new line of Tone-Up Fitness shoes from Skechers. “Makes your top half think your bottom half is your better half” might be a more correct statement, though admittedly not as catchy.

On Monday night, the footwear company invited me to test the new line of Tone-Ups by participating in a boot-camp workout with celebrity trainer Romano DaSilva. Sketchers says the multi-layer sole of Tone-Ups encourage your feet to roll forward, forcing the muscles in your bottom half to work a little harder.

But I think the shoe really targets your brain by making you aware of the slight instability underfoot with every step. In a workout session loaded with lunges and squats, this means you must focus on proper alignment each time you perform an individual exercise. You’ve got to think on your feet.

The power of focus and visualization
With each lunge, DaSilva encouraged us to visualize the muscle tone we hoped to achieve. “Imagine your leg muscles contracting,” he chanted. “Stay present in this moment, and think about making each repetition count.” When we started to feel the burn, he told us to focus, instead of pushing harder. Interestingly, the more I thought about my muscles, the stronger they felt.

Many athletes rely on visualization to get into the zone before competition. In late June, I asked Gretchen Bleiler, an American professional half-pipe snowboarder, what she does to get ready just before a competition. The gold medalist admitted she gets incredibly nervous before she competes, and is at times even physically ill. In order to calm her nerves, she visualizes her entire run, feeling the snow beneath her board, seeing all the contours of the half-pipe, and feeling each and every muscle flex during the jumps and tricks she plans to perform.

Who knew that these simple mind games could also help out at the gym?

Actively thinking about your muscles and your form leads to more effective results, DaSilva told us. Each workout is as much a physical challenge as a mental one, and visualizing those challenges makes them easier to conquer, he explained.

A study from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation reported the physical benefits of imagined workouts. The Ohio researchers had two groups of people visualize either exercising one finger or exercising their biceps muscles, while a control group didn’t think about any muscles. The researchers measured the muscle strength of the participants before and after the mental exercises and found that those who thought about exercising a finger increased the digit’s strength by 53 percent, while those who imagined biceps exercises increased the muscle’s strength by 14.3 percent. Of course, visualization is powerful, but the researchers caution that wishful thinking without action won’t lead to results.

How to use visualization to boost your workouts
Here are three great tips I learned from DaSilva:

1. Visualize perfection: A set of 25 squats can be great for your glutes, but they’re ineffective unless you perform each one completely. So instead of focusing on how many repetitions you have left in a set, think about performing the best possible exercise every single time. Everyone can work out, DaSilva told us, but if you want results, you’ve got to workout well. This means consistent quality with each repetition.

2. Accept failure: Now this idea is a bit of a head-trip, and one of the oddest statements DaSilva kept telling us. “Failure means you’re working the muscle right! In my gym, failure is a good thing,” he said as we performed an epic number of push-ups. He wanted us to stop as soon as we started performing the exercises incorrectly, but I also think he wanted to motivate us to dig deep and finish each set as strongly as we started.

While I’m not entirely convinced by his logic, I admit that if DaSilva was playing at reverse psychology, it certainly worked on me. I wasn’t prepared to accept defeat — and I finished the set visualizing Michelle Obama-style biceps, performing as perfect a push-up as I could each time.

3. Breathe out when you exert force: At first, this style of breathing seemed counterintuitive, but DaSilva stressed how breathing out as we stepped out of a lunge or squat would protect our internal organs and strengthen our core. Thinking about reordering my breath helped it quickly become second nature to me. 

A great workout means being present during every movement. Exercise is a personal indulgence, and each time I go to the gym, I feel like I’m taking my heart and lungs to the spa. It’s easy to let your mind drift during a workout. But, if you treat an exercise session like a form of meditation — focusing entirely on the changes you want to see, feeling the earth beneath your feet, thinking about your muscles contracting, breathing in and out with intent — it’s so much easier to get into the zone and beat your personal best.