the neural origins of strength

In the last article, we discussed the idea that your mind reacts to exercise imagery as though you were actually performing the exercise and therefore how we may gain the benefits of physical activity through exercise imagery. But how far can this go? In recent times a huge amount of research has been conducted in order to examine the relationship between the mind and body. Every movement we make originates from the mind, so therefore it seems logical that our minds have a large influence over how we are able to move, how our muscles work and how our limbs work together.

Scientists Cole and Yue (1) looked into this in 1992. They looked to examine the neural mechanisms that underpin our movement and its effects on our strength. In the study participants were asked to imagine repeated contractions of the abductor muscle of the little finger, five days per week for four weeks. Amazingly at the end of the study it was found that they had managed to increase the strength of the muscle contraction by 22%, but perhaps more incredibly, this occurred before muscle hypertrophy. This provided evidence of neural origins of strength in our bodies and that there is so much more to health and fitness than simply the size and shape of our muscles.

This was taken a step further by Ranganathan et al. (2) in 2004 as they aimed to further develop our understanding of these neural origins. Again, they tested the little finger abductor muscle, but this time also had a group imagine flexing their elbow joint, a more complex muscle movement. Again the results were the same, with bicep flexion strength increasing by 13.5%. However, at the same time they measured the output signal from the brain which is directly related to control of voluntary muscle contraction. What they found was that the mental training greatly enhanced the strength of this signal and by doing so this was driving greater levels of muscle activation and therefore increasing strength.

Overall what this means is that by training with exercise imagery, people were able to strengthen their mind and their neural connections to their muscles and increase their strength as a result. They were using their minds to condition how their body worked, how efficiently and effectively it worked. Furthermore, this indicates the pivotal role our mind plays in the health of our bodies and how we can, with concentrated thought, create positive outcomes, in this case with exercise imagery and greater muscle strength.

(1) Cole & Yue, Strength Increases from the Motor Program: Comparison of Training with Maximal Voluntary and Imagined Muscle Contractions, 1992
(2) Ranganathan et al, From Mental Power to Muscle Power, 2004