Taking Your Training Further - How Mindfulness and Visualization Can Get You There

By JC Deen

Even Arnold, amidst his incredibly hectic schedule of  bodybuilding, business creation, and acting, has been known to practice  visualization, and even transcendental meditation as mentioned in his  biography, Total Recall.

Stating the concept of mindfulness, meditation, and visualization  is foreign to us Westerners would be an understatement. The way most of the  West sees the world is in an either/or type of mentality, which is far removed  from the mindset of most people in the East.

To illustrate the idea, think about your current training  program... If an opinionated authority were to look at it, he or she might  immediately label it as right, or wrong based on your individual goals.

They may see it as being good or bad depending on how they feel the  program is designed. While some may hold a neutral opinion on the matter, I’m  afraid most brought up in the West will view training, diet, nutrition, and  whatever else, really, through this good/bad,  either/or type of lens.

I should mention this isn’t bad (or good) in any sense, it’s just a  framework for making sense of our individual world, and it’s one we’ve come to  understand in Western culture.

Something that interests me deeply is how some cultures in the  East don’t possess this type of thinking. While some of us only see in black  and white, Eastern philosophy, especially as it concerns mindfulness, and  meditative practices, tends to view the world through a more neutral and gray lens.

Now I’ll first say I’m no yogi, urban monk, or spiritual guru,  but I’ve come to appreciate the power of meditation, mindfulness, and  visualization in my own training, and I’ve seen it impact the lives of my  clients’ and readers.

There’s no need for the religious stuff, just a simple concept of  counting your breath, and being more aware.

What Is Mindfulness?

 A working definition is this: a  state of open attention in which you observe thoughts, feelings, and ideas  without judgment, and with the idea of remaining focused on the present moment.

To put it simply, it’s to be still, and to focus. It’s being  present, and aware.

This means no distractions like Facebook, smartphones, or  television.

It’s paying attention to something deliberately, and with  intention.

Let me ask you this.

When’s the last time you simply sat in silence and let your mind  wander? If you’re anything like me ( I’m a busy guy in my twenties with a  social life, and a job), you probably can’t remember the last time you did  this.

We live in a world where our senses are constantly bombarded with  various visual, kinetic and auditory stimuli. We can’t stop to think because  there’s no time anymore.

We’re slaves to multitasking, and Adderall seems to be the  preferred quick fix, but is it?

Okay, back to mindfulness... I’ll give you an exercise to  practice. It’s only 2 minutes long but incredibly difficult.

Don’t skip this.

Set a timer for 2 minutes. Wherever you’re at, I want you to  close your eyes, and pick one thing to focus on. It can be anything, but to  give you some ideas, here’s what I usually tell people.

If you’re sitting down, try to focus on the weight of your  hips/butt on the chair/floor. How does it feel? Can you feel the weight of your  body pressing down against the surface you’re sitting on?

Another idea is to pay attention to your lower belly as you  breath in and out. See if you can actually feel it stretching, and contracting  with each, effortless breath. Pay attention to the feeling.

Yet another idea is to hold something in your hand. It can be a  book, a pen, piece of cloth, or a fork. Pay attention to how it feels, and sits  in your hand. can you direct your focus to how it feels on each individual  fingertip?

You can focus on anything. It can be a thought, feeling or smell.  It just has to be something you can pay deliberate attention to. This is why I  encourage people to focus on a bodily feeling or sensation over a thought, at  least at first.

Now the goal, for the entire 2 minutes, is to focus on nothing  but this feeling, whichever one you chose. Pay attention, without judgment,  each time your mind begins to wander. Don’t   get mad, or upset, or view it as being bad when your mind wanders, because it will.

Just do your best to focus on whatever feeling you chose.

Now once the timer is up, you can go back to whatever you were  doing, but I want you to think about the following:

  1. How many times did your mind wander?
  3. Was it hard to stay focused?
  5. Were you bored at all?
  7. Did the 2 minutes seem to last forever?
  9. Did you notice anything you hadn’t before about  how something felt to you?

If you did the exercise, you just practiced mindfulness.

So now that you understand this concept, let’s move onto  meditation, and then visualization.

What is Meditation?

 It’s a focused practice of being mindful. You can be mindful any  time, but meditation is more of a deliberate practice.

Think of it like this. Barbells are the tools in which we use to  train and sculpt our bodies, while meditation is the tool we use to sharpen our  minds.

And while meditation is a simple practice, it’s hardly easy. Just  like creating a body you’re proud of takes lots of time training and attention  to diet, learning to focus, and control your mind takes practice as well.

Meditation is an ancient concept, dating back thousands of years,  but it has a lot of practical application for those of us who are students of  the iron game. Many of you reading (myself included) have spent years, decades  even, training our bodies and building our fitness habits.

So why don’t we pay much attention to training our mind? Again,  for most of us in the West, this is a murky idea. Only recently (last 10 or so  years) has science began to validate some of the supposed benefits from  meditation.

Not that we really needed the science to back up our reasons for  practicing, but it makes even some of the most rigid, reductionistic scientific  thinkers less skeptical.

What Are The Benefits?

A few of the benefits, actually detailed in this MIT article, are the ability to better deal  with stress, and also a way to potentially reduce chronic pain. In the article,  they mention patients learning how to turn  down the volume on pain signals, allowing them to manage it better than  before mindfulness meditation.

It reminds me of the scene in Fight Club when the narrator says  “after fighting, everything else in your life has the volume turned down.You  could deal with anything.”

Some more benefits include improved immune function(1),  improvements in positive mood states while decreasing stress, reducing  distractive and ruminative thoughts (worry) and behaviors (2), and the benefits  of anxiety-reduction tend to stick for years after with continued practice (3,  4).

And if you’re just looking for peace of mind, moderate stress  reduction, and just want to chill out, then you don’t need any of the science  above to convince you of the benefits - just give it a try.

Visualization, and Using  Meditation for Improved Performance and Intensity

So one thing I’ve learned in my own training is I rarely pay  attention anymore. I’ve performed presses, pulls, and extensions for thousands  upon thousands of reps.

I began to notice this during my training sessions as I’d catch  myself thinking of any and everything but my training, in the current moment.

This was a problem. I wanted to find a way I could reconnect with  what I was doing.

How could I be forced to pay attention?

I began to experiment with visualization and mindful meditation  pre workout, and things began changing rapidly.

What I noticed is that I could immediately increase the intensity  of my squats, leg presses, incline flyes and even barbell curls. Virtually  every movement became harder, and more intense the more I focused on the  individual muscle group as I was performing the lifts.

Now, this is nothing new. Bodybuilders have been seeking the pump for decades, and it’s for good  reason. The concentration and focus on the specific muscles creates the  so-called mind-muscle connection we’ve all read about, and hopefully  experienced.

So are bodybuilders meditators? Sure, however most probably never  thought about it this way. Their ability to focus is on point, though.

So here was my goal: I’d go into each training session with a  purpose in mind. That was to focus wholly on each movement and muscle I aimed  to work for that session.

If I had planned to do a quad-focused training session, I’d sit  for 1-2 minutes in silence as I focused on my breath. Once I was calm and collected,  I’d begin visualizing as vividly as possible how my training session was going  to unfold. I’d see myself in my mind warming up, and getting under the bar for  squats.

As I descended, I’d pay attention to how my quads and glutes felt  during the movement. I paid attention to the fatigue setting in, and how I’d  struggle as I reached fatigue. I imagined how it’d feel to finally rack the  weights as the sweat dripped from the end of my nose to the floor.

I paid attention to every detail, to the point of completely  losing myself in the visualizations.

When I’d go into the training session, I would deliberately drop  the weight down to about 80-90% of my normal working weights, which allowed me  to get more reps, and focus intently on the mind-muscle connection.

This way I wasn’t worried about how heavy the weight actually  felt, and instead, focused on how controlled I could make the movement. No  bouncing, no jerking, and no body english.

In time, I found the intensity I was able to create far surpassed  my previous efforts. And it was simply from directing my attention to what I  was doing at the moment (mindfulness), and   visualizing my actions beforehand (meditation).

I know this sounds simple, but when’s the last time you actually  paid attention? When was the last time you slowed down, checked your ego at the  door, and reconnected with what it feels like to actually fatigue the muscles,  instead of going through the motions?

How to apply this to your training:

For the next week, pick a handful of movements you’re familiar  with but do without paying much attention to. Or if you’re a bodybuilder, pick  a few body parts that are lagging, and use these techniques above to induce  more intensity, and create that mind-muscle connection using mindfulness, and visualization.

For more info, here’s a video introduction I did on mindfulness,  meditation and how to get started.


  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12883106
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17291166
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7649463
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16272874
  9. Mahagita,  Chitrawina. "Roles of Meditation on Alleviation of Oxidative Stress and  Improvement of Antioxidant System." J Med Assoc Thai 93 (2010): n. pag.  Print.


JC Deen is a writer, fitness coach, and founder of JCD Fitness, an online fitness education and coaching company based out of Nashville, TN. JC regularly works with people of all ages, and backgrounds, helping them make fitness complement their lives.

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