By Jay Williams, Ph.D.
Are you looking to get stronger, leaner or faster? Your muscles won't always cooperate -- they have a pesky tendency to get tired and sore -- so you might have to outsmart them in order to reach your fitness goals. These simple mental and physical tricks (and a couple of treats!) will take your workouts to the next level by keeping your muscles guessing.
Trick #1: Keep Calm
Your muscles want to stop working when they feel fatigue -- but what tells them they're fatigued? (Hint: You're using it right now.) "Your brain sets the pace so your body doesn't run out of energy," explains Kevin Thompson, Ph.D., the head of sport studies at the University of Canberra, in Australia.
The good news is, you can turn this brain-muscle connection to your advantage. During a challenging workout, taking long controlled breaths and staying as calm as possible will keep your brain on task and your muscles feeling fresher. So before your next set or lap, take a few minutes to clear your mind and focus on your breath.
Trick #2: Visualization
Envisioning yourself getting stronger can actually help strengthen your muscles, research suggests. A pioneering 2004 study at the Cleveland Clinic found that mental training "drives... muscles to a higher activation level," increasing strength -- a finding that's recently been confirmed.
Likewise, conjuring visions of victory before a workout has been shown to actually stimulate muscle contractions, not just psych you up. Visualization -- picturing yourself sitting comfortably on a bench while doing squats, say, or pretending you're pulling on a rope while running uphill -- can even create the sensation that you're exerting less energy than you really are.
Trick #3: Music
Turn up the jams! Research has shown that listening to music while working out provides five key benefits:
- Distraction. Catchy songs keep you from dwelling on how tired you are.
- Focus. The right tunes -- which might be different for a boxer and a golfer -- can either pump you up or relax you before a workout or competition.
- Rhythm. Songs with a beat that matches your tempo can help keep you humming during sports that involve rhythmic, repetitive motions (like cycling, running and rowing).
- Muscle memory. Listening to music while learning a new physical skill can help reinforce the movements, helping you perfect them faster.
- Motivation. Music helps you attain "flow," a state in which you're fully focused, engaged and energized.
For best results, be sure to select music that appropriately matches the desired pace -- and mood -- of your workout. And don't forget to charge your iPod batteries! (There's nothing worse than running out of music on a long run.)
Trick #4: Less Is More
If lifting 10 pounds is good, lifting 50 must be better, right? Not necessarily. If you're not a competitive bodybuilder and are simply looking to get stronger, the lower and longer approach -- lifting lighter weights for a higher number of quality repetitions -- can trick your muscles into getting toned while reducing your risk of injury and inflammation.
Treat #1: Stretching
Stretching is one of the best treats you can give your muscles. It relaxes them and helps prevent injury and fatigue. (Some stretching exercises, such as yoga, also promote mental strength and health.)
The type of stretching that's best for you depends on your goals, however. If you're primarily looking to relax and fight fatigue, try dynamic, active, passive or static stretches. If building muscle is more important to you, isometric and PNF stretching (short for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) may be a better bet.
Treat #2: Coffee
Treating yourself to coffee or another caffeinated beverage an hour or so before your workout may increase your body's ability to withstand discomfort and muscle fatigue. Research has shown that pre-workout caffeine consumption reduces perceptions of muscle pain and increases performance in activities ranging from cycling to weightlifting. So go ahead, treat yourself to that pumpkin latte!