Using Visualization Exercises for Martial Arts by Instructor Ma
In the traditional martial arts, we often divide our training into three categories: Mind, Body, and Spirit. When training the mind to strengthen the body and spirit a common technique used is visualization. We use it often when doing our forms to imagine what attacks and defenses we are using with our techniques against an imaginary attacker.
Visualization is a technique that martial artists often use prior to competition to mentally rehearse every aspect of their form or sparring skills. You will often see forms and sparring competitors doing such an exercise before they compete. Eyes closed, imagining their heads bobbing and weaving and bodies moving slowly through all the stances and techniques in an imaginary match.
Many martial arts coaches believe, and some research is backing up their claims, that this rehearsal does indeed provide a competitive advantage on the mat.
One of the primary benefits of visualization for martial artists is that it has also been shown to improve the response time of defensive techniques. Reaction time when warding off an attacker can mean the difference of life or death. One can easily see why this is important to all practitioners of martial arts not just competitors.
Scientific Research on Visualization and Strength
The ability for an athlete to use the power of mental rehearsal to improve their actual skills and subsequent performance is somewhat of a mystery, but the general belief is that such practice increases confidence and helps build the pathways in the nervous system that are aligned with reducing anxiety and distractions.
Others point to the athlete’s ability to improve focus and attention and, much like meditation, the mental visualization is not that different from actual physical rehearsal in that it helps an athlete prepare for their sport.
Perhaps even more mysterious is the fact that new research is suggesting that visualization can strengthen muscles.
Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio investigated the strength benefits of imagining exercising a muscle. They reported that just thinking about exercise helped maintain muscle strength in a group of subjects.
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.
Those in the first two groups were asked to think as strongly as they could about moving the muscle being tested, to make the imaginary movement as real as possible.
The researchers measured muscle strength before, during and after the training sessions.
In the results of the study, Group #1 (the finger exercisers) increased their strength 53%. Group #2 (the biceps exercisers) increased their strength by 13.4%.
As unbelievable as this sounds, after you take into consideration that the measurements of the participant’s brain activity during each visualization session suggest that these strength gains were due to improvements in the brain’s ability to signal muscle activity. With this understanding, it’s easier to understand how visualization can improve not only muscle contractions but many other athletic skills as well.
The researchers believe that anyone who has difficulty doing physical exercises can use mental training and mental rehearsal methods to improve the muscle strength they may have lost or maintain the muscle strength they have. This is important for martial artists as they age or may have suffered an injury that limits their ability to train physically.
Sport-specific exercises are still the most effective method for building and maintaining muscle strength, speed, power, and coordination.
However, mental rehearsal and visualization exercises have proven to be helpful when recovering from injuries but are probably not the best means of building strength for sports.
I hope that you have gained an appreciation for the benefits of visualization as a training method for improving your techniques from this information. I wish you the best of success in your martial arts training.
About the author: Instructor Ma is a 3rd Degree Black Belt in the Korean self-defense art of Hapkido and a 2nd Dan in Traditional Taekwondo. She is a professional sports and fitness model and full-time Nursing student. She is the language, culture, and leadership development teacher for the World Martial Arts Congress. www.worldmartialartscongress.com