Visualization is the process of using a purely mental rehearsal of a power lift to develop the neural pathways that control your body during the physical execution of the lift. This is training your brain to make your body do what you want it to when you do a squat, bench press or deadlift.
Visualization has been used by elite athletes in professional sports, the Olympics and other world level competitions for many years. Among the most prominent examples of elite athletes who use visualization as a key part of their training are: golfers Jack Nicholas and Tiger Woods, basketball legend Michael Jordon, and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
There are a massive number of contemporary athletes who use visualization as a critical part of their training. As noted in a previous post, every major league sports franchise now employs a full time Mental Skills Coach. Visualization is used to perfect performance of athletic motor skills, managing stress in game situations, simulating game environments, dealing with unplanned occurrences and building confidence.
Training the neural pathways in the brain can be done without doing the physical movement involved. According the researchers, the brain does not distinguish between mental rehearsal and actual performance.
I noticed early on in my powerlifting career that many lifters struggled with doing the lifts correctly (according to the rules) in competition. This was particularly true in the squat. Often, they had no idea whether they were deep enough to have reached required depth.
Sometimes coaches would sit at the side of the platform and give voice commands to the lifter such as down…down…down..good to let them know whether they had reached proper depth. This seemed to work, but if always seemed better to me to be able to interpret your own internal signals that you were deep enough.
Mastering the motor skill of doing a perfect or near perfect squat means doing every rep perfectly in practice. This builds the neural connections in the brain that tells your body what to do when you tell it to do a squat or “throw to first” or any other physical action.
Likewise, if your practice is sloppy or inconsistent your brain will have no clue what signals to send your muscles you tell your body to “squat”, “hit this tee shot” or “shoot a free throw”, etc.
If you develop a consistent mental image of a perfect squat, and play this over and over in your mind, your body will respond when you do the physical act.
Building mental imagery skills takes regular practice. Recommended minimum is three times a week for 10-15 minutes each time.
What you do is compose a video in your mind of what it will be like when you do a perfect squat. You see the images as they would appear to you while you do the lift. Also, there is another technique that involves “seeing” yourself do a perfect squat as if you were watching a video someone else took while you did the lift. Initially, think about developing your ability to see and feel everything as if it were your direct experience.
Here is a “script” that I developed to use as a starting point for visualizing the squat. This scenario is a bit incomplete and only intended to illustrate how you can begin building your own mental image of your squat.
Begin with the “scene”. You are at a contest standing at the edge of the platform.
-Referee calls “the bar is loaded”
-latch your belt
-walk up to the bar
-you focus only on the bar, and the head referee
-everything else is no longer relevant
-the only thought in your mind is “I have done this before; I will do it now”
-put your hands on the bar…what does it feel like in your grip?
-step under the bar and position it on your shoulders
-adjust the tightness in your feet, calves, thighs, abs, back shoulders, etc.
-take the bar off the rack…what does it feel like on your back?
-step back from the rack
-have your feet in perfect position
-think about having perfect posture and body tension
-focus on the head referee
-hear the command “squat”
-what is the feeling as you sit back into the squat keeping your chest up, etc
-think about the feel of the descent
-think about the sensation in your butt of going to proper depth
-you are at the bottom, not drive up
-go past the sticking point
-stand fully erect and lock out
-hear the head referee say “rack it”
-step forward to return the bar to the rack
-release your belt and begin walking off the platform
-see 3 white lights on the scoreboard
-feel the surge of pride that you did what you intended
Developing your own visual image of the squat (or the other lifts) will take some practice. You will have to be conscious of how the lift “feels” throughout the full range of motion. If you tend to “check out” during some part of the lift, you need to find where that is, and focus on becoming fully aware of what is going on.
It is critical to only visualize perfectly executed lifts!! The image in your brain needs to be a perfect lift. If you have stored images of sloppy lifts, then the brain may tell your body to do those at the least convenient time.
Success from using visualization comes from consistent practice and integrating it into your training plans the same as if it were a gym workout routine. The cool thing about visualization is that since it is purely “mental” you can do it anywhere and at any time. Sitting quietly in your home or office is a perfect location.
Michael Phelps often did it just before he went to sleep. Major league baseball players often rehearse their at bats against the opposing pitcher an hour or so before a game. Pitchers will often mentally go through the opposing line up and pitch to each hitter.
Of course, a critical time to run “the video” of your perfect lift is just before your attempt.
Jack Nicholas said that he “played every shot in his mind” just before he hit the ball.
In my research on sports visualization I have come across a pair of books that I recommend to any athlete in any sport. Ninety Percent Mental is a gem of a book that is based on the career of major league baseball pitcher Bob Tewksbury. However, it covers a much wider range of visualization applications than I covered in this brief article. It also summarizes the scientific research that is behind visualization. I believe that most (or all) powerlifters could enhance their performance by starting to use the same approaches that virtually every pro athlete in the galaxy now uses.
Sport Visualizaton for the Elite Athlete provides a comprehensive summary of visualization strategies, practice techniques and the utility of each. It is 64 pages of high value content for any athlete. It is one of those gems that can help us all get the most out of the significant effort we put forth in the gym.