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There’s a new secret weapon for building strength: your imagination.

In a study at Bishop’s University in Quebec, Erin M. Shackell, MA, and Lionel G. Standing, PhD, monitored three groups of 10 college athletes to find out if mental training could increase physical strength.

The first group was asked to visualize practicing hip flexions, a weight-machine exercise in which the leg is flexed sideways and lifted (with resistance) to work the muscles of the hip and thigh. For two weeks, five times a week, they imagined doing four sets of eight reps, each day adding 5 pounds to the weight they were mentally lifting.

The second group physically practiced hip flexions.

The third group did nothing.

At the study’s conclusion, the group that was actually exercising saw strength gains of 28 percent. The control group saw no significant gains. The mental-training group saw gains of 24 percent.

Exactly how visualization increases strength remains a mystery, says Shackell, but this study suggests that it can be a powerful addition to your strength-building arsenal: “Studies like this one reinforce the reality that our mental and physical systems are very much connected and have the ability to influence each other.”

Standing recommends people add visualization to their workouts — but does not advise them to replace their regular fitness regimens with it. “[Exercise] has many additional benefits besides increasing strength,” he says, like boosting metabolism, bolstering general health and improving mood.

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