Does the Mind Really Create the Body? Reverse Engineering Arnold’s Claim in The Year 2016

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PumpingIron“It is the mind that creates the body.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron

Remember Arnold’s famous words in his 1979 big screen debut?

If you haven’t seen Pumping Iron, you need to move it to the top of your to-do list immediately. 

I remember hearing him saying it when I was 16 years old and thinking, “Can my mind create my body, and WTF does that even mean?”

Well, after years of research, I’ve gained some new insights into Arnold’s assertion. When he said this, he was specifically talking about the aesthetics of the body, i.e. sexiness. And how do you create a sexy body? 

It can be wildly subjective, obviously, but for most people, this means increasing muscular size and losing body fat. 

The question then becomes: can we prove that this can, at least, be partially done by using the power of our minds? 

The overwhelming answer: Yes. 

Great news, right? Let’s take on the first half of this question.

Can You Increase Muscular Size?

During my college football days, I experimented with all types of performance enhancers; one of my favorites was visualization. When it came time to test our maxes, I’d sit down on the bench and go through 1-2 minute visualizations of myself successfully completing a repetition with a weight I’d never lifted before.

My coach, of course, thought I was a fucking weirdo, but low and behold, it worked. I’d hit my numbers and leapfrogged over the dudes who were previously stronger than I was.

And you know what happened when I continuously got stronger?

I got bigger, as well. Hello, #newstretchmarks. Though strength and size gains don’t always occur on a linear line simultaneously, it’s safe to say that if you’re consistently getting stronger, you’re also going to get bigger, as was the case here. 

The Research Behind It

During a study conducted at Bishop University1, researchers set out to see if visualization (dudes imagining themselves lifting weights) could create a similar result as a physical practice (dudes actually lifting weights).

In the study, they split up 30 guys into 3 different groups to look at hip flexor strength and performance over a two week period.

In the first group, the dudes literally did nothing over the course of 2 weeks.

In the second group, the dudes did 4 physical sets of 8 reps for 5 days a week, for the full two weeks.

In the third group, the dudes did 4 visualization sets of 8 reps for 5 days a week. To clarify, this means they didn’t touch any weights: they simply imagined themselves getting stronger.

At the end of the two weeks, the researchers found that the first group who did nothing didn’t have a significant increase in strength (as to be expected). The second group lifting the weights improved by 28% and the third group who only did the visualizations improved by 24%.

The dudes who lifted the weights and those who just imagined themselves doing it got almost identical strength gains.

What’s even crazier is that all the participants of this study were athletes with similar experience doing this same exercise.

Another study conducted at the University of Chester 2 looked at the effect of doing bicep curls physically versus using tow different types of visualizations. In the study, 50 participants were split up into 5 groups to be tested over a 6 week period.

The first group did nothing in between in between getting tested at the beginning and end of the study.

The second group did the bicep curls twice a week, every week.

The third group only visualized doing the bicep curls twice a week, every week.

The fourth group did a type of visualization called PETTLEP Imagery twice a week, every week. PETTLEP Imagery are visualizations that incorporate a physical element, specific task, or emotional element. Basically, it’s a really intense form of visualization that’s designed to make you feel like you’re actually doing the movement.

The fifth group did both the physical bicep curls once a week and the PETTLEP Imagery once a week every week.

At the end of the study, researchers found that the participants who did nothing got just about no results. The participants who did the normal imagery got a slight increase in strength. The group that did the PETTLEP imagery and the group that just did the physical practice performed the same and finally, the group that did the combination of both imagery and physical practice performed the best.

What this tells us again is that the imagery and physical practice created almost identical strength gains and when you combine the two interventions together, you get the best possible results.

What This Means For You

These two studies highlight that we can stimulate strength gains and muscle growth with the mental intervention of visualization.

What we can take away is a new pre-workout ritual. Before you start your first set, take a moment to visualize what it’s like to successfully lift the weight, and then begin your workout with the actual weights.

OK, But Can You Lose Body Fat? 

You betcha. In a study from Harvard 3 that assessed the physical activity of housekeepers, researchers learned that the perception of the activity you’re doing can be as important as the activity itself.

Researchers explained to one group of housekeepers how the activities they were participating in were great for burning fat. The other group of housekeepers were given no additional information regarding their daily activities.

After 4 weeks, the group that had been educated on how their jobs helped them burn fat lost about 3 pounds each, whereas the group of housekeepers who were told nothing, stayed the same weight.

What This Means For You

Your perception of an activity can influence the amount of fat you burn. The next time you’re climbing stairs or going for a walk, instead of framing it as just a normal part of your routine, think of it as exercise. 

If the example of the housekeepers is a little abstract for you, consider this: it’s established that high levels of cortisol are associated with increases in total body fat percentage, however one of the best methods for decreasing cortisol levels is meditation, another form of visualization.

In a study conducted that examined the effects of meditation 4, researchers found that participants’ cortisol levels decreased after incorporating meditation into their daily lives.

The coolest thing about the study is that it didn’t take months or years to see these levels drop off. After just 4 days of practicing meditation, researchers saw a significant decrease in their cortisol levels.

Setting aside time to meditate can be just as important as reserving time in your day to workout. 

OK, You’re On Your Own

The next time you go to the gym, try out these 3 simple things:

*Visualize successfully completing your most important sets before you physically attempt them.

*Frame everything you do in your mind as an activity that’s getting you ripped.

*Practice at least 10 minutes of meditation daily to decrease stress hormones.

Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions. 


  1. Shackell, Erin M., and Lionel G. Standing. “Mind Over Matter: Mental Training Increases Physical Strength.” North American Journal of Psychology (2013). Web.
  2. Smith, Dave, and Caroline J. Wright. “The Effect of PETTLEP Imagery on Strength Performance.” International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2011). Web.
  3. Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science 18, no. 2: 165-171.
  4. Turakitwanakan, Wanpen. “Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Serum Cortisol of Medical Students.” J Med Assoc Thai (2013). Print.
About the Author

Brandon is the co-founder of where he helps young ambitious dudes get ripped and live epic lives. You can follow him for workouts, recipes, and mental upgrades on YouTube and Instagram.

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