Imagine the Lift, Do the Lift

In preparing for the changes in this coming week’s weight training, I’ve been using a lot of imagination. Well, let me start at the beginning.

hack squat
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Since my plan for next week is to take my barbell workouts (hack squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and barbell rows) and switch them out from my usual 3 sets of between 8 to 15 reps per set to a 5×5 routine or 5 sets of 5 reps each, I’ve had to do some planning. How much weight should I add to each of these exercises to make them challenging at 5 reps per set?

To get that answer, I used a 1-rep max calculator at The idea is simple. If I know that in a single set, I can lift a particular weight, say 100 lbs, 10 times before failure, how high would the weight have to be set to reach my theoretical 1-rep max, the amount of weight so heavy that I could only perform a single rep before reaching failure?

The answer, by the way, is 133 lbs.

But in addition to providing my 1-rep max, a list of percentages is also provided. For instance, 95% of my 1-rep max or RP is 126.4lbs. 70% of 1 RM is 93.1 lbs.

So what, right?

However, there’s a handy-dandy chart of what the various percentages of 1 RM mean relative to how many reps per set can be completed. As it turns out, if I wanted to do a max of 5 reps, I’d have to load enough weight to equal 86% of 1 RM, which turns out to be a little over 113.1 lbs.

Now, I can take the current weights of the above-mentioned lifts where I can do (approximately) a max of 10 reps per set, run those figures through the calculator, and figure out what my 5-rep max should be. Then, I record those weights in my exercise log before going to the gym as a reminder of the weights I need to use.

I haven’t tested this theory out yet, especially since I’ll be lifting at 86% of my 1 RM over 5 sets with a 90 second rest in between sets, so it’s possible that once I put this into action, I’ll need to make some adjustments.

So be it.

But I find that I’ve been daydreaming about my workout routines, imagining going through the motions of each lift, including the ones I haven’t implemented yet. In fact, early Friday morning, I woke up thinking it was Monday because I’d dreamed about my new barbell bench press workout (Monday is chest day).

Especially when I’m about to make some change in my exercise routine, I imagine what it’s like to do the lift. I watch videos and read instructions about how to do the lift. I sometimes even practice moving my body through the lift at home using no weights, just to check my form and to get used to the “feel” of the movement.

I know that seems like a lot of work bordering on obsession, but incorporating a new type of weight training exercise is acquiring a new skill.

strength meets size
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It’s like when I learned to write a bicycle without training wheels when I was a kid. There was a vacant lot across the street from where we lived. My Dad had me start pedaling into the field, going as far as I could go before I fell. Since it was loose dirt, I didn’t get hurt beyond a bruise or two. Once I fell, I walked my bike back to the starting point and tried again. Each time I tried, I got further and further into the lot before I fell. When I didn’t fall anymore, I’d acquired the skill.

It took a lot of practice.

So does learning a new exercise.

I learned how to drive a standard-transmission car (a 1972 VW Bug) the same way. My Dad isn’t always the most patient instructor and it was really nerve-wracking having him try to teach me to drive stick. So one evening after a particularly dismal practice session, I imagined driving the VW across town to the house of a girl I liked. I imagined every mile, every stop sign, every hill, practicing working the gas and clutch in my mind.

The next time I actually drove with my Dad, I had driving standard down a lot better.

But what’s that got to do with lifting weights?

Can your thoughts determine whether you set a PR? Science says “yes.” Have you ever visualized a successful lift in your mind before attempting it in the gym? If so, you’ve used mental imagery to enhance your performance. Mental imagery can be a powerful tool for strength training, reports a recent study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

-Jeff Barnett
Contributor to Health and Fitness News

That “recent study” was a few years back, but I think their conclusions are still valid.

Jasha Faye wrote the following for about a year ago:

The most basic tool for developing mental acuity in Olympic Weightlifting is visualization. I know it sounds simple. And it is. Itʼs ridiculously simple. And extremely effective.

Now imagine gripping the bar for your first set. You know how that will feel. Something like snapping twigs or broken glass. Each set. Donʼt skip a single attempt. Are you using straps? Or fingers? Are you using collars? Picture yourself progressing through your warm-ups flawlessly. You know how it feels when you do it right. So visualize that feeling. Over and over again. Associate it with some very real imagery. Details. Numbers. Exactly how you plan on doing it on the platform later that afternoon. Hit your weights in your head hundreds of times before you ever step into the gym. Visualize yourself crushing PRs (personal records or personal bests). Not abstract thoughts of success, but very real visualization. Invest emotion and feeling into your thoughts. By the time you actually step onto the platform, you will have already made that pivotal training lift dozens of times in your head.

small SuperboyAnd amazingly, according to this study mentioned at, it’s even possible to use imagination alone, in the absence of actual exercise, to build muscle and strength.

They split 30 healthy young adults into 3 groups. For 15 minutes a day, five days a week for 12 weeks, Group #1 imagined exercising their little finger muscle. Group #2 imagined exercising their biceps muscle and Group #3 acted as a control group and did no imaginary exercise.

Group #1 (the finger exercisers) increased their strength 53 percent, and Group #2 (the biceps group) increased strength by 13.4 percent.

Sounds unbelievable, but consider that measurements of the brain activity during visualization sessions suggest that these strength gains were due to improvements in the brain’s ability to signal muscle activity. Suddenly the benefit of visualization is clear.

I’m not suggesting that you give up your gym membership, stop all exercise, and just imagine yourself into good health, but if imagining you’re exercising yields some physical benefits, just think of how much good imagining exercising and then doing those exercises will accomplish.

I think I’m like most people when I say that I feel more comfortable going into a new situation when I’m prepared and know what to expect. That’s why I study new workout techniques, imagine myself doing those techniques, and even act them out ahead of time.

By the time I walk into the gym, load the barbell with the required amount of plates, and either lie on the bench or set the barbell on the floor and stand ready to lift it, I have a very good idea of what I need to do to execute the lift right the first time.

And if the experience is a little “off” from what I imagined, then the real-life workout fills in the blanks pretty quickly.

mutant strength.
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As an interesting aside (which explains the featured image I inserted above), while on BodyBuilding’s website, I came across an article called Mutant Strength: Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine Workout Plan. It’s an interview with Hugh Jackman’s trainer David Kingsbury about how Kingsbury got Jackman in shape for the 2013 film The Wolverine.

As you can see from the images on that webpage (and in the main image at the top of this page), Jackman was in remarkable shape as a 44-year-old man when he was shooting that movie.

The interesting thing for me was how Kingsbury described the training he put Jackman through:

Hugh hadn’t done much direct strength work prior to training with me. He mostly worked in the 8-12 rep range. I always encourage low, 1-5 rep heavy work to stimulate myofibril hypertrophy. Then after the heavy work is done we move onto the higher rep schemes to encourage sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. By increasing your strength with the low reps, you increase your capacity with the higher reps, so I always plan heavy sets of the compound movements. The combination of the two styles brings the best gains.

So strength training was the focus of Jackman’s workouts and then he progressed back to higher rep work, combining the two styles to produce that “superhero” body we see in the movies.

You can click the link to get all of the details on “how to make a mutant,” but I just want to mention that there were only four main lifts:

  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Back Squat
  • Weighted Pull-Up
  • Deadlift

Now imagine that.

He can who thinks he can, and he can’t who thinks he can’t. This is an inexorable, indisputable law.

Orison Marden


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