In 2003 scientists from the Cleveland Clinic published an unusual study in the Journal of Neuropsychologia. In it, they tried to understand pinky strength. What made this study so interesting is that the 'workout' regime didn't include heavyweights or countless reps. This study measured how the mind can build strength without exercise.
Researchers started with 30 young healthy individuals and broke them into 3 groups.
The first group was a control and they did nothing. They didn’t lift a finger.
The second group was instructed to do pinky extensions for 15 mins a day, 5 days a week for 12 weeks.
The third group was instructed to think about exercising their finger. Specifically, they were instructed to visualize themselves doing pinky exercises for 15 mins every day, 5 days a week, for 12 weeks.
The results were shocking.
Of course, the control group didn’t see any improvement. On the other hand, the second group had a 50% increase in pinky strength. Pretty impressive.
What was surprising was that the visualization group saw a 35% increase in strength without any finger exercises. This group got stronger because they visualized themselves exercising those muscles and that increased their maximum strength.
Finger strength increased because of a thought.
The team concluded that "the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength."
The motor cortex is in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex and in part controls all voluntary movements. Increase signals from this area of the brain have been shown to directly connect to voluntary muscle control. So the researchers concluded that visualizing movement ‘exercised’ the brain and increased the signal output to the muscles. The practiced thought of movement amplified the signal increasing the muscle strength.
This study suggests that our mind-body connection can be upgraded and those stronger connections, literally make us stronger. If our mind-body connection can be improved to improve our strength, what does this mean for us?
Furthering that study, Scientists from the Department of Health and Kinesiology, the University of Texas at San Antonio San Antonio, TX published a similar study in 2013 in the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
In this study, the team looked at how the perspective individuals took in their guided imagery impacted the strength gains.
The first group was tasked with internal visualization - visualizing from a first-person perspective performing the exercise.
The second group was told to externally visualize their exercises - view themselves in the third person performing the exercises.
The first group, consistent with the previous study saw similar strength gains. Interestingly though, the second group saw no strength increase at all. The way in which you think impacts the strength gains. Abstract views of yourself don't work for strength gains. Like athletes, you need to visualize yourself, first person, in order to see the gains.
Building on these studies, the Centre for Research and Innovation in Sport, Villeurbanne, France, decided to test the limits of these previous small muscle group studies. In this study, the researchers experimented with how motor imagery (MI) improves limbs' strength through with complex and multi-joint exercises. Can guided imagery impact large muscle groups?
They found that not only did maximum strength increase but they also found that the gains were directly connected to the vividness of the imagery. The more real and powerful the visualization the greater the strength gains.
Although new research, this information is already starting to be testing and researched farther.
In a 2001 study followed 13 stroke patients. All patients received therapy but 8 patients were selected to receive a 10-minute guided imagery sessions after each therapy session, as well as practicing imagery at home twice each week.
The 8 patients that participated in the additional guided imagery practice increased their Fugl-Meyer Assessment of Motor Recovery score (motor, balance, joint function test) by 13.8 points and Action Research Arm (limb function) Test by 16.4 points.
These increases, driven by a thought, contribute to stronger recovery.
So, what are the limits? How much can your thoughts influence your outcome? How connected it your mind and body?
How can we apply this to total joint recovery?
There's more research to be done but it's clear to us that the link between mind and body incredible strong.
This isn't the end of the story.