Forget heavy lifting alone, visualization can get you where you want.

Whether you’re aiming for pro-athlete performance or you simply want to lose a few pounds and cross the finish line at a local fun run, being the best you can be takes work—and not just of the physical variety. Your mind must be part of the mix from the get-go.

We’ve all heard the expression that the difference between really talented sportspeople and the men and women who go on to become world champions is in the top two inches. Mental preparation is a hugely important part of any training program.

When it comes to building the best body you can, setting a goal (and a training schedule to get you there) is just the beginning. It’s equally imperative that you set yourself smaller targets for every time you work out: this might be squatting with an increased weight, improving your run time, or reaching a heart rate target. Remind yourself of these goals before every workout. Take time before you even begin to warm up to focus on the individual aims you have for that session. There is an incredible power in your subconscious.

When I was training full time, the night before a training session, last thing before I went to sleep, I liked to think about what my goals were, in terms of how fast I was going to run my 300m repetitions, or how fast I was going to run a five or ten km run, or how much I was going to lift in my squats. I’d also like to think about these goals a little during the daytime, before I worked out. I found that this mental preparation would make a big difference to the results I achieved during the session. If I didn’t do this and I came in mentally cold, I would do much worse than if I had prepared properly.

This is a fascinating area of psychology, with a number of possible explanations. Perhaps the most common is based around the biology of our brains. The theory goes something like this: the part of your brain that controls movement, co-ordination and spatial awareness is your right cerebral cortex. You can access that part of your brain through relaxation and visualization. When you’re in a relaxed state and you visualize yourself doing things well—performing coordinated movements with good technique, or running quickly—then it sticks.

There have been a number of studies in which, for example, one group of people physically practised a series of basketball shots for a period of time and another group just visualized the shots. At the end of the study the people who simply visualized the shots had almost as high a percentage improvement as those who practiced them.

When you succeed at something you get a psychological reward—a reinforcement of the activity—and this helps create positive habits. On the flipside, the opposite is true; if you fail, then it is dispiriting. We’re programmed to love winning, and every time we achieve these little goals we get positive reinforcement that we are on track, and this helps cement our exercise habits.

This information features in “Fighting Globesity: A Practical Guide to Personal Health and Sustainability” (Random House, 2007), by Les Mills CEO Phillip Mills and his wife Dr. Jackie Mills. Learn more about Phillip Mills here. This piece by Phillip Mills originally appeared on

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