Tue May 07

Are imaginary exercises useful for anything? Science review

Yerai Alonso

Yerai Alonso

Are imaginary exercises useful for anything? Science review

You probably remember this man but, if he doesn't ring a bell, I'll quickly summarize what happened to him. Years ago, a video of his went viral in which he recommended training with "imaginary weights", so that you performed the muscle contraction as if you were lifting a dumbbell, but it was only in your mind.

The virality of this video was in a mocking tone, since it seemed that this concept of "mental exercises" was totally implausible.

Well, after so many years, it is possible that science has proven him right... in some aspects, but not in others. In this article we are going to see what was true in the method of mental exercises, what part was pure science fiction and how we can improve our training thanks to it.

To analyze this topic we are going to divide it into 3 sections. Mental training to improve motor skills. Mental training to increase strength. And finally, mental training to gain muscle mass.

Mental training in sports to improve motor skills

Let's start with mental training to improve motor skills. In this case, the science is clear, with hundreds of studies on the matter (I leave some references at the end of the article). Mental training or imaginary training DOES serve to improve motor skills. From improving your golf swing, your tennis drive or your basketball shooting mechanics. Or, with examples that may interest us calisthenics athletes more: improving your technique in the muscle up, in the 360 swing, in the bench press or in a clean and jerk.

Specifically, in this case, the most effective thing is to do about 20 minutes of mental training in which you repeatedly perform in your imagination the movement that you want to improve, seen in first person from your perspective. And this training has to complement your real training, never replace it, unless there is a major cause such as an injury or illness that prevents you from training.

This mental training will help you improve the execution of the movements you practice and, above all, it has proven to be very useful for eliminating bad habits or incorrect movements that you want to inhibit.

Mental training to improve strength

Now we move on to strength, where science has also clearly shown that imaginary mental exercises improve strength.

For example, in this study, a group of young people increased their elbow flexion strength by 13.5% by performing imaginary contractions of their biceps.

In another study, participants performed real squats, and during breaks they mentally practiced their squat. This produced a significant strength gain compared to the group that did not do this mental exercise.

And like these there are quite a few more studies, so it is clear that if what you are interested in is increasing your strength, mental exercises are a good strategy, as we mentioned before, always as a complement to add more “training volume” in quotes, but not as a substitute, except in cases where you have no other option.

This probably has to do with the fact that to exert strength, one of the mechanisms involved is the ability of your nervous system to send a signal to your muscles with greater intensity, and with mental exercises you can train this capacity without having to perform the exercise itself.

Mental exercises to increase muscle mass

And now we go with hypertrophy, which is surely what interests many most.

In this case I have to tell you that... it is a quite complex topic, even more than it might seem.

You see, as far as we know, the main stimulus mechanism for hypertrophy is mechanical tension, and this tension is achieved by making movements against real, not imaginary, loads. Whether external loads or implements, your own body weight, or a combination of both.

Therefore, it is difficult to even generate the hypothesis that this may occur, which results in there being no studies on the matter.

Álex's approach of doing a concentric with the biceps with an imaginary dumbbell, therefore, does not seem like the most successful option, since there is no external load or body weight that makes the movement difficult. Although, seen another way, it could be compared to a kind of isometric in which the resistance is offered by the opposite muscle, in this case, the triceps, which is what stops you so that you cannot perform the movement without effort.

Furthermore, the rest of the exercises that he proposes in the video are isometric, he tells us to hold the position for several minutes. So let's see what happens with isometrics.

The scientific literature to date is clear, isometrics do serve to gain muscle mass and strength, but, and this is a big but, the studies that have been done with isometrics are always carried out against an external load, usually a relatively heavy load. These studies, from what I have seen, have never been carried out in unloaded isometrics like those that Álex does, so we have no evidence that this type of isometrics can serve any purpose.

Since there is no evidence, we move on to speculation, and, if I had to give my opinion, I think that perhaps this type of unloaded isometrics can be used to gain some muscle mass in beginners who have never trained, but I also don't think it is a stimulus comparable to using real loads, therefore it seems like a sub-optimal approach to me, to which I don't see much application in real life.

We can conclude that Álex was somewhat right, since the mental exercises that he proposed are a kind of isometric that perhaps can generate a little hypertrophy, but, as far as we know today, a traditional exercise approach with weight, is going to give superior results. On the other hand, this type of mental work or imaginary work can be used to practice motor skills and gain strength. So maybe I can help them apply some complementary techniques to improve their training.

I want to remind you that for your real workouts - not imaginary - you can use Calisteniapp, where we have free routines of all kinds, and for pro users, we have training programs and Smart Routines.

By Yerai Alonso,



Best practice for motor imagery: a systematic literature review on motor imagery training elements in five different disciplines: https://bit.ly/3UY0RT3

Mental practice modulates functional connectivity between the cerebellum and the primary motor cortex: https://bit.ly/3H9kh1H

Motor Imagery Combined With Physical Training Improves Response Inhibition in the Stop Signal Task: https://bit.ly/3oBlmZJ

Using motor imagery practice for improving motor performance – A review: https://bit.ly/3ApXzyi

Motor Imagery Combined With Physical Training Improves Response Inhibition in the Stop Signal Task: https://bit.ly/3oBlmZJ

Visual images preserve metric spatial information: Evidence from studies of image scanning.: https://bit.ly/41OMimY

Acquisition and consolidation processes following motor imagery practice: https://go.nature.com/3L1udeK





Join our newsletter



Learn everything you need to know about calisthenics


Start training calisthenics and street workout