How to get stronger without moving a muscle – ‘It really is incredible’ says Dr Mosley

Dr Michael Mosley explains the health benefits of press ups

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“I’ve tested out a range of just one things, but this one seems literally incredible,” Dr Mosley said about motor imagery on his BBC Radio 4 podcast. The doctor explained what exactly motor imagery is and why it should become the new just one thing you pick up. Here’s everything you need to know about the technique that can boost your strength from the comfort of your sofa.

“So, I’m on my sofa at home, feet up, cup of tea in hand, and I’m about to do something that apparently could boost my strength by up to 24 percent,” Dr Mosley opened the episode.

He explained: “I’m going to imagine myself doing a press up. I’m concentrating hard now. I can really imagine what each limb is doing and feeling.

“I’m not actually moving a muscle; I’m just sitting on the sofa.”

The technique the Just One Thing host describes is called motor imagery and is commonly used by elite athletes.

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“Scientists have shown that just thinking about doing something like a press up really can improve your performance,” the doctor added.

Apart from boosting your strength, motor imagery can also make you better at a particular movement, alter the way your brain operates and your physiology works.

The podcast host explained that “surprising” evidence linked to this practice suggests that imagining doing an exercise could make you a better athlete than just exercise alone.

This is not a new thing as motor imagery dates back to 1899, when people started wondering if gymnastics could be learned through thought.

The evidence

Dr Mosley said: “A study from the 1990s, researchers from Louisiana State University, asked a group of women to imagine extending their knee and contracting their quadriceps muscle for five seconds.

“They were asked to make sure that they didn’t actually do any contractions.

“Yet by the end of the study, their quadriceps muscle strength had increased by an impressive 12.6 percent.”

A similar experiment, the doctor did, found: “It wasn’t that the muscles got any bigger, we found that our volunteers were able to activate more muscle fibre.”

After using motor imagery, the volunteers used “an impressive” 20 percent more of their muscles.

This episode’s guest, Dr Helen O’Shea, who is a Cognitive Psychologist at the University of Dublin, explains that even though motor imagery can help you get stronger, it won’t help with your fitness levels.

She said: “We need physical movement to give us that sensory knowledge of the effects of our movements.

“But once we have some experience physically, we can use motor imagery to really prime our motor systems.”

How to do motor imagery

The guest doctor recommends imagining doing the activity in the same pace and flow as you would if you were physically doing it.

You should try to feel the action and your body perform what you’re trying to achieve, this includes weight shifting, power of the shot, or other necessary parts of the exercise you’re visualising.

You’re trying to get “as vivid and accurate image” as you can.

She added: “Ideally, if you could perform it in the location, it helps you form a really vivid and accurate mental representation of that movement.

“It’s not absolutely necessary but there is evidence there to say that it helps.”

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