A true case of mind over matter: Research shows that thinking about building muscle can make it grow.

Researchers from Cleveland Clinic studied two groups who were trained to perform “mental contractions” for either the abductor digiti minimi, a muscle in the hand, or elbow flexor muscles. The subjects were instructed to activate the brain as strongly as possible without exercising muscle, which was verified by daily electromyogram recordings. After 12 weeks, the hand group increased strength in the abductor digiti minimi by 30 percent and the elbow group increased elbow flexion strength by 13 percent.

Previous research has shown that concentrating on doing imaginary work can fool the brain into sending more neurons from the spinal cord to the muscle, but researchers did not know if mental training could occur with both distal and proximal muscles since the two muscle groups are represented differently
in the cortex and receive different descending inputs.

While couch potatoes will not be able to adequately train for a triathlon sitting in front of the tube, this research has enormous potential for medical rehabilitation, such as helping stroke victims regain control of paralyzed muscles. Researchers presented their finding November 11, 2001, at the annual meeting for the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego.

IDEA PERSONAL Trainer February 2002what’s new