Posted by: SLS | June 18, 2011

Mental training and developing neuromuscular connection

Continuing my discussion of athletic sport training, I’d like to look at the unique role of the brain and nervous system in what may be termed the mind-muscle connection and mental training. A good sports training regimen is not complete without time spent in mental preparation. This can be in the form of play visualizations, conscious muscle innervation or motor pattern training, or residual self-imaging and awareness where one imagines how they want to look or feel during sport performance. Mental training is a powerful tool in the athlete’s training arsenal because it is indefatigable, can increase muscle coordination, and can be performed anywhere at any time without the person ever lifting a finger.

What is achievable through mental training is very subjective, just like weight training and conditioning. Some people won’t take mental training seriously enough to let it work for them. In the same regard, some people will never practice proper lift form. They underestimate the long-term benefit of patient concentration or are too lazy to mentally and physically engage themselves in an activity. Others may not have the mental agility or patience to create an ideal imagined state of self and hold it in the mind long enough to extract valuable details. Details such as body position, muscle rigidity, emotional calm, and environmental surroundings. It’s like releasing that third eye and becoming self-aware in a simultaneous first person and third person perspective where you control the resolution, the speed, the angle and starting point. In some regard, this is similar to watching a movie of yourself , but unlike watching, you are actively experiencing the replay, manipulating it from all vantage points so that you see and feel the performance from every angle. Perhaps instead it is a poor man’s virtual reality.

I made a pretty outrageous sounding claim that mental training can physically alter your brain’s neuronal pathways to actually improve connectivity to the muscle and engender better coordination for a mentally practiced movement. However, it isn’t pseudo science at all. The ability of the brain to alter its form and function is known in neuroscience as plasticity. It is commonly known that the sub-adult brain has a lot of potential plasticity. It has to because it is literally wiring itself based on environmental experiences to cope with adulthood. Plasticity is highly active in development during critical periods such as with language acquisition, sensory patterning, social learning, and motor coordination. But it must persist into adulthood to allow new skill acquisition, new memories, new coordination and to respond to injury. All of our experiences shape how our brain is wired, enhancing or pruning connections based on the type of stimulation and reward association. For a long time, neuroscience was unsure of the plastic capabilities of the adult brain because of the observation that neurons do not duplicate themselves like other somatic cells. Adult neural plasticity proceeds at different rates obviously depending on who you are and what you are doing or experiencing. People who have lost a limb or lost one of their senses typically undergo a process of enhanced neural plasticity and rewiring whereby new connections are made either from reallocation of signaling, or from devoting free resources to another sensory module. This is why a loss of vision usually correlates with enhanced hearing or smell, and why the loss of a limb can result in greater coordination from the remaining appendages.

How does this happen? Well, we’re still learning, but we do have a few answers. Neural plasticity is a novel topic in the field of neuroscience, which is itself an enigmatic subject. Basically, changes made in your brain are initiated by the signals generated from synaptic activity at regions associated with particular sensory experience or motor performance. As an adult, you can selectively express the particular sensory or motor experience you wish to enhance or “train”. By this I mean that from just actively engaging your mind through a series of imagined movements, you can send signals to the motor portion of your brain that controls these movements and these signals will turn on a cascade of events (transcription factors to target genes for BDNF) to promote synaptic growth and stability. However, I cautioned above that mental training may benefit some more than others and here is why. You need to be able to visualize or imagine the movement in such a way that you feel and “engage” the muscles. You must make a connection between your mind and your muscles. If you are just passively observing a replay in your head, it may not be enough. You need to feel as if you are actually carrying out the movement and experiencing the process while not necessarily experiencing it in reality (don’t get philosophical on me here). Now, this doesn’t  mean you need to flex your muscles. Not at all! You just need to be aware in your little daydream that muscles are arranged and engaged to enact the movement. From there, memorize your body position through the movement, memorize moments where you need to emphasize force production here or strong tone there and then practice this mental exercise until no grey areas remain.

While short term synaptic plasticity occurs dynamically from commonplace signal transduction, it cannot engender long-term changes in memory of other modalities that last for weeks, months, or years. Long-term potentiation (LTP) is the most well understood mechanism by which lasting neural plasticity in adult brains can occur and it involves a complex process of signal transduction, association, specificity and antagonists. It’s far beyond the depth and scope of what I intended for this post, but the take home message from short term and long term synaptic plasticity is that in your own mental training exercise, you should be sure to reinforce your mind-muscle associations with real physical practice and continued mental conditioning.

I have successfully used mental training many times for many different situations in my athletic career. Most notably, I taught myself the difficult kayak hand roll purely from mental practice. After my first 2 hour kayak lesson, I had a week before the next and I spent my nights lying awake and mentally reproducing the motions and under water orientations. Upon my second time in a boat, I went for the hand roll and came up on the first try. For many people, this basic skill can take months or even years to learn. I did it effectively in two days. Some types of mental conditioning can occur simultaneously with your physical training. You might need to change or perfect your form for instance. At first, the proper form takes immense concentration to engage to correct muscles. It can temporarily even hinder your performance. The mental engagement along with the physical effort is incredibly exhausting and frustrating, however, the reward pays off big time if you can experience success or a positive outcome. By challenging yourself to a difficult task, you are encouraging the brain to devote resources to the associative pathways. When you experience success, you have a dopamine response that even further encourages new synaptic growth or enhancement. In time, you will need to concentrate less and less on the correct form as your muscle memory becomes ingrained. However, you are now engaging either more or correct muscles with correct form, and so you have just enhanced your overall body awareness, efficiency, and the resultant power of the movement. Mental training is hugely positive.

I could give a lot more examples of my own success using mental conditioning varying from gymnastic bar routines to white water slalom moves. Speaking of whitewater slalom, check out this video at 5:15 for some real mental training action, and if you decide to watch the full video, you’ll understand why. Suffice to say I think it’s a major fount of sports training success. Your mind controls your body, therefore you must master your mind. Never again think that you can be brawny without being brainy.



  1. Excellent post – I just finished reading The New Brain by Dr. Richard Restak (he writes a good deal about sensory adaptations and enhancements that occur when a single sense is lost or damaged).

    Especially interesting (though slightly off topic to your post) was his description of how some folks that learn to read Braille do so with 3 fingers instead of 1. If they read Braille regularly in this manner, over time the brain begins to treat the 3 fingers as a single sensory unit – these people find it difficult to distinguish the location of sensory input along the 3 fingers.

    Likewise as we bind up our toes inside of sensory-limiting shoes, the toes tend to act more like a single unit (try moving an individual toe – pretty hard). I also tried an experiment (suggested in the book) where you take off your shoes and socks, close your eyes, and have someone lightly touch a toe (your job is to guess which toe). It was easy for my big toe and little toe, but the middle three, not so much.

    Take care,


    • Thanks so much for the feedback! I love sensory neuroscience. It’s truly fascinating, but almost impossibly complex. The sensory modalities are incredibly adaptable. Deaf babies are shown to “babble” with their hands instead of vocally. Studies on ocular deprivation in young animals shows that the visual cortex completely reorganizes itself when one eye is sutured during the critical period. Then there’s the center surround inhibition and disinhibition with receptive fields, long-term depression and long-term potentiation… it’s just incredibly versatile, incredibly complex, there’s no end goal, all adaptations for optimal response in the moment, just like a microevolutionary environment. You should look up the two-point discrimination threshold and try it out (similar to what you were doing with toe discrimination).

  2. Thanks for the tip on two-point discrimination. Seems like I did something like this when I slashed a finger a few years ago during a farming accident. The Dr. was trying to figure out if I had damaged any nerves before he sutured my finger.

    Looks like I need to add even more books to my Amazon wishlist…:)

  3. I really like you discussion on Mental Training. I am a Biological Scientist from Zambia and offers consultancy in Lifestyle Medicine specifically non communicable chronic diseases. I have been using Mental training to Treat Speech & Language problems, treat muscle incoordination in Post stroke patients and Memory loss treatment.

    Neural Plasticity is a reality and the sooner we engage its principles in real situations and appreciate it in Mental training with regard to many health conditions as well as other challenges the better.

    Thank you.

  4. I am fitness expert currently involved in helping one of my clients recover from a stroke… i have in fact applied this neuroscience to my clients training. She is making great improvement…We have started from no movement in the arm to being able to curl a 2lb dumbbell…We start with imagining the movement as in seeing the movement to thinking the movement to feeling the movement to being the movement…In the beginning i would take hold of her arm and do a curl for her…while she would close her eyes and go through the process of imagining to seeing to thinking to feeling to being…Once there was the slightest amount of movement…then she would engage in the movement…Muscle fiber fully activates in the stretch position…so it is that in the stretch position of the curl the bicep muscle would begin to respond…now applying a ballistic movement in the stretch position increased her range of motion…basically what is happening now is that through hitting the stretch position she is connecting more and more of her neuro transmittors to the receptors…which is increasing range of motion and strength…We are confident that there will be a full recovery from the stroke…

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