How To Use Visualization In Your Workout, According To A Personal Trainer

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Sometimes I think I’m physically allergic to meditation. Whenever my Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group goes into our mindfulness sessions, I break out into a cold sweat. And whenever my friends who are yoga instructors try to help me calm down long enough to stay in shavasana, I suddenly have something else to do. Something that involves a heavy barbell, because to lift, I need to engage every bit of mindfulness I can to keep my body focused and ready. And using visualization in my workout is a huge part of that for me.

The science definitely seems to be behind using visualization to improve your workouts. A 2012 study published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal found that before actually attempting it, visualizing an exercise can result in increased performance success. This visualization involves using your senses to create a mental image of a physical task before you attempt it, including imagining what the movement will feel like in your muscles and your mind.

Visualization is a form of mindfulness that can help increase focus and decrease anxiety, which is definitely something athletes often need. Whether it’s performance anxiety before a competition or simply the social pressure to kick butt in a gym loaded with cishet dudebros, visualization can lock in your performance and prep both mind and muscles for an excellent workout. Even if you’re like me and other forms of meditating and mindfulness feel like too much for your anxiety to handle.

1. Make It Part Of Your Playlist

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The only way that I was able to start practicing visualization was to time it with my music. Many forms of meditation make me feel like I have to suppress the massive amounts of extreme emotional energy that accompanies my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The only way I became comfortable with visualization was to think of it as a way to channel my emotions into my lift, rather than a way to reign it in. For me, music was an essential part of that journey.

What does it mean to visualize with music? For me, it means getting my music ready first. When I’ve chosen my song, I let my body sink into it, fully and completely: I’ll put fingers from both hands onto my headphones to make sure all other sound is blocked out, and I’ll either pick a bit of the floor to stare at or close my eyes. I’ll get my body physically set up for whatever I’m about to attempt. And, when my favorite part of the song is about to come on — that line that I absolutely love, or the totally pumped up chorus — that’s when I... go. Timing my sprint, or lift, or what have you, to what I’d imagined I would do — succeed just as my music hits an emotional crescendo — is immensely rewarding.

2. Turn Off Your Music

Alternatively, a lot of people don't want to train with music. When I’m training sans music, it’s all about me and the voices in my head. Now, the voices in my head are Not Nice. So training without music — especially practicing visualization without music — terrified me. And sometimes, some days, it still does. But here’s how I do it: I listen for the music in my own bloodstream. No, really.

There are rhythms in your body — breathing deeply from your last lift, sweat running down the back of your neck, trembling in your tired muscles — and syncing into them is a huge part of my music-less visualization. And all the better if you prefer gymming without music! I set myself up the same way as when I lift with music, except this time, I don’t have a musical crescendo guiding my imagination. So I focus instead on how I will use every bit of my body’s rhythm — that heavy breath, that sweat on the back of my neck, that trembling in my muscles — with my exercise of choice. How will my breathing change? How will my muscles feel through the movement? I picture all that, imagining my lift to the rhythm of my own body. And, I don’t want to say it’s magical, but… it’s magical.

3. Concentrate On Being. So. Still.

Different people have different things that feel good to them: and some folks (like me) like having a set of strategies that can change depending on their mood. So sometimes, standing still will help as you’re visualizing. My hands will often slip into my pockets as my eyes flutter closed, and I concentrate on imagining how I want the movement to go. I use my mind to reach into the places it will need — my brain space and willpower, a particular set of muscles — to get through that lift or that pose. Depending on my mood, sometimes standing still is the most effective way for me to do this: the stillness of my body almost forces my mind to be more disciplined in imagining what the movement will be like.

4. Go Through The Motions

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Sometimes, standing still isn’t going to cut it for me. Sometimes, it’s all about the movement. Those times are the times when I do two sets for the proverbial price of one: before I actually move the barbell, I will set up, tighten my muscles, regulate my breathing, and… lift. OK, not actually lift, because I’m not actually touching the bar yet. But I’ll move my body — and tighten my muscles — as though I were. And again, I’ll overshoot on the reps, helping my brain prepare to do more than I’m planning to do: I know I’ll need that extra burst of mental stamina when I’m halfway through my set. And bringing my body through the motions invariably helps me keep my form in check: visualizing that pain of the last few laps of a 10k, for example, can help you anticipate and prevent the ways your running form will want to break. But, if you physically trace through the motions during your visualization, you’re going to be more likely to keep excellent form during the real thing, too.

5. Breathe Into It

Whether I’m moving or not during my visualization, I’m breathing into it. What does breathing into it mean here? It means breathing exactly like I’m going to during the lift. If I'm visualizing heading into crow pose, for example, I'm going to align my breathing with where my mind is: taking a big inhale as a set my eyes on the ground in front of me, exhaling as I raise my hips into position. Whether I’m going through the motions or staying still while I’m visualizing, I’m still doing that breathing bit, because that’s the bit that’s going to sync my body with my brain. That’s the bit that’s going to keep me calm when I think I’m about to get stuck at the bottom of the squat. Visualizing success and linking that success to effective breathing will help your brain work with your body to do some of your best workouts yet.

6. When Will It Be Hardest?

There are some days when I’m too mentally drained — or too physically overexcited — to visualize. So on the days when I can’t visualize but am lifting heavy anyway, I do the quick and dirty version: I focus, right before my lift, on the part of the lift that I know is going to be hardest for me.

Whether your hardest point is the bottom of the squat, the last few seconds of holding eagle pose, or rowing those last 200 meters, if you know your weak points — mindfulness, see? — with visualizing, you can imagine yourself getting through those tough spots. It’s quick, and it can surge your confidence when you need it most.

7. Dance It Out

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It took me months to start feeling at home in my newest gym. I had just moved, I was alone, friendless, and hella culture-shocked. And one day, it hit me (hard, right over the head) — no one in my new gym was dancing in between their lifts!

So, I took a deep breath, and… took up the dancing (terribly) mantle. And I found that it dramatically helped my visualizing, and my lifting (probably not my street cred, but I don’t think I ever had that to begin with).

Because visualizing my workout helps me sync out of self-consciousness and into my body. Moving or staying still with my breath, my mind, helps me fully sink into the task I'm about to perform, getting out of my head and into my body. Which is, sometimes, exactly the kind of disconnected connection that I need to get myself ready for a workout. Picturing myself successfully completing my lift gives me that little surge of joy that I need to get it done. Because no matter what visualization strategy fits you best, and whatever kind of lifting you’re doing, it’s all about those surges of joy, isn’t it?