Imagining Your Way to Better Recovery
An unfortunate side effect of pushing ourselves to the limit in the pursuit of a goal or victory is that we sometimes end up having to have a joint immobilized due to injury or post-surgery. The boot/cast/brace is uncomfortable and it’s annoying that we can’t do what we want. And then when we do get use of that joint back, we invariably have lost range of motion (ROM), muscle mass and tone, and most of our strength.
What if there was something that we could do while being in the boot/cast/brace that could reduce some of these negative side effects and make our rehab and transition back to activity quicker and smoother? Researchers from the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) recently published a study in which they found that people who simply imagined moving that joint and contracting the muscles in different directions (without actually contracting them at all) had 50% less loss of strength when they got the cast off than the non-visualizers. They also found that the visualizers’ brain areas that control these movements returned to normal activity levels quicker than in the control group.
This may or may not come as a surprise to you. The idea that the mind has a huge influence on the body is a basic tenant of most people’s belief systems and anyone who practices meditation or performance visualization understand this concept well. If this is a new concept to you, it’s a rabbit hole that is certainly worth going down. Either way, it’s exciting to see a scientific study that backs the “mind over matter” idea and that can serve as a framework for mental rehab programs that anyone can do.
How Does it Work? (If you don’t care, it’s cool, just scroll down to the next part on how to actually do it)
We need to get back to some basic muscle physiology for the answer. There are two aspects to making a muscle contract. The first involves the actual muscle cells themselves. They have proteins called myosin and actin that sit on top of each other and slide back and forth, making the muscle longer or shorter. This action physically moves the bones that the collective “muscle” is attached to, either bringing them closer together (contraction/shortening) or further apart (relaxation/lengthening).
The second part of this equation is the nervous system. Neurons come from the spinal cord (the signal starts in the brain in most cases) and go out to the muscle where they send an impulse to the muscle cell. This causes a cascade of chemistry that makes those proteins in the cell slide, ultimately leading to muscle contraction. Skeletal muscles cannot contract unless both the muscle cell and the neuron are intact and working.
When we train, we affect both parts. We physically rip those sliding proteins apart which causes us to build more of them and make stronger anchors for them. This makes the muscle bigger. We also become more efficient at how our nervous system stimulates the muscle to contract. Instead of only having say 50% of the muscle cells in the collective muscle that are being stimulated, we stimulate 75% of them, causing the muscle to contract with more strength.
As an aside, we never stimulate all 100% of the muscle cells in a muscle except for in those “superhuman strength”, lift a 1000lb steel beam because a baby is trapped under it type situations. In that case, our mind’s need to save the baby is greater than our body’s need to protect the muscle from injury and the neurological check mechanism is overcome. But back to muscle recruitment. The nervous system can also make the cells contract in better unison which will, again, make the muscle contract with more strength.
When we can’t contract the muscles, the body breaks them down and uses the protein to meet other demands in the body. The nervous system sort of loses parts of its programming for those muscles, reducing the impulses to the muscles and the coordination of those impulses. These actions compound to create the loss of ROM, muscle tone and size, and strength.
So why did the visualizers see less loss in muscle strength and a quicker return of their strength? As you can probably guess, when we imagine our muscles contracting, it exercises the neurological component which reduces the loss of programming. The neurons will actually send impulses to the muscles (most are “sub-threshold” which is why the muscles don’t actually contract) effectively strengthening and reinforcing that particular pathway’s programming.
When we start training again, the nervous system thinks that it has already been using the muscles and doesn’t need as much time to get used to firing those muscles optimally. We still have to rebuild the physical muscle to get full strength back but it happens at a quicker rate than if we had to reprogram the neurological system at the same time.
Mental Rehab Program
I have to stress that when doing this you only want to imagine that you’re contracting the muscles, DO NOT ACTUALLY CONTRACT YOUR MUSCLES. There’s no reason to try to bust your way out of a cast or surgical dressing like the Hulk with the hope that you’ll stay strong, it most likely won’t end well. Now that that’s out of the way we can get to the fun stuff. Below are the steps to do this program:
1. Sit or lie down and get as comfortable and relaxed as possible (Ideally you turn off the TV, iPod, phone, or any other distractions, the less other things for your brain to process the better.
2. Close your eyes and imagine the joint that is injured/immobilized, and imagine contracting the muscles to move it in one direction as hard as you can.*
*If this is tough, do a set or two on the other side and actually contract the muscles so that you get a sense of what it feels like.
3. Do the mental contraction for 5 seconds in the direction that you chose.*
*If your foot/ankle is in a boot, start by imagining that you’re contracting your calf muscles to perform plantar flexion (toes point downward). If you’re elbow is in a cast imagine contracting your tricep as hard as possible to extend your arm.
4. Rest for 5 seconds.
5. Repeat this imagined contraction for 6 sets, 5 seconds each; with 5 seconds rest in between. This should take a minute total.
6. Now do the same thing but imagine going in the opposite direction.*
* In the ankle example, contract the muscles on the front of your leg, bringing your ankle into dorsiflexion (toes pointing upwards). For the elbow, mentally contract your biceps to flex the arm.
7. Use the same protocol as in #5 for a total of 1 minute in this direction.
8. Repeat this process as many times as you want to throughout the day (in the study, the people did 13 of the 5 second sets 5x/week, so doing the program 2-3x/day would be optimal).
This is the basic idea although you can repeat this with as many or as few of the joint motions that you want. In the ankle example you could also work ankle eversion and inversion if you wanted to. Or maybe you really get into it and you imagine yourself using that foot/ankle to kick a ball or to run or swim or whatever activity you’re missing out on. This study used a specific measure to scientifically show the power that the mind has to control muscle strength, but the possibilities are endless. Anytime we imagine doing an activity our brains act as if we are actually doing it. Play around with this idea and see what performance benefits you can create!
If you have any questions about this article or want something clarified, don’t hesitate to hit the contact button and send us a message. To read the research article, click on the link at the end of the citation below:
1. B. C. Clark, N. K. Mahato, M. Nakazawa, T. D. Law, J. S. Thomas. The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness.Journal of Neurophysiology, 2014; 112 (12): 3219 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00386.2014
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