Mental Imagery in Pilates Instruction

Written By Polestar Pilates Australia Educator Brad Jamieson

Athletes frequently use mental imagery for a number of reasons.  They can run through potential scenarios in their sport to help them better prepare for possible outcomes.  It may look like the driver of a bobsled going through a run turn by turn, reciting in their mind everything that needs to be done to safely and effectively execute their run.  It may be a sprinter imagining a perfect start just before getting into the blocks, or divers just before their dive as they close their eyes and wave their arms around.

Imagery is a very useful tool for athletes as they often have very few opportunities to correctly execute their skills.  Remember, a 100m final at the Olympics happens once every 4 years, and it needs to be performed with split-second perfection.  

Repetition of this actual situation is impossible without waiting 4 years, so athletes recreate this scenario in their mind and “experience” it with the ability to do so at various paces, stop and reset, and repeat as necessary with no physical side-effects (such as fatigue).

Researchers are now studying how mental imagery can be used in a rehabilitation situation.  Promising research has shown that muscle strength can increase by using mental imagery with or without actual movement (further reading 1, 2, 3), can assist with chronic pain sensation (4, 5), and potentially assist in the maintenance of range of motion of immobilized joints (6).  These findings are significant for movement therapists in understanding how imagery operates at a neurological level.

During mental imagery, the brain performs certain processes that exactly mimic those that occur during performance of the movement. 

 The only difference between mental imagery and actual movement, from a neurological level, is that the brain doesn’t deliver a motor signal; the muscle doesn’t fire, and thus, no movement.  It mediates the “needs” of the mind to move- the mind saying, “I want to lift my arm”- and the actual movement.  The brain collects sensory information about the body’s current position, creates an idea of where the arm needs to be, and plans out the route between the two.  It then sends motor messages from the brain to the muscles, which then create the movement.  During the movement, the body feeds back to the brain its position, and the mental process repeats based on the new information, working out whether it is on track to execute the movement or not, and what to do to correct it if it’s going astray.

Here, we need to differentiate between the mind- the part of us that is not a solid-state part of our body, sometimes referred to as a soul- and the brain, which contains the solid brain matter, memories, neurons, and cells.  The mind is what differentiates us as living creatures from a cadaver.  The cadaver has a brain, but has nothing to drive it.  

It is the mind that we use in mental imagery, and the mind then affects the brain’s functions.  This is where we can use trickery to convince the body that it is doing something, even though it is not.

While mental imagery is a very powerful tool in movement, it doesn’t build muscle.  Muscles do not gain any strength through imagery.  Imagery can, however, make the movement more efficient by cutting out extraneous or unnecessary movements.  Consider someone doing the “dead bug” exercise and over-activating their hip flexors, abdominals etc. while also adding global bracing of antagonist muscles, such as the glutes.  All of that extra work and activation is excessive.  The exercise can and should instead be done with minimal effort.  Mental imagery could reorganize the habitual over-activation into a far more effortless one, which will then be delivered from the brain to the body, resulting in a more efficient and easier movement outcome.  Any strength increase that may have occurred in the studies could be attributed to this better organization. 

So, the question arises: How do we utilize mental imagery in our practice?

The good news is (for Polestar graduates at least) we already have the skills and had to practice using imagery during our course.  Imagery cues!  Cues such as, “lift your leg as though your hip joint was full of thick, sticky honey,” or, “imagine your legs are helium balloon and are weightless… allow your legs to float up to tabletop,” are examples of mental imagery.  Through images, the mind considers the body differently (such as resistance or weight).  The mind then changes the way it organizes movement and creates a different outcome.  These are simple examples of mental imagery, and it can be far more complex if needed.

In the event that we were to work with a partially or fully immobilized patient (day 1 post-spinal surgery), we could utilize the same language, but we would need to stop the patient before they moved.  To create an effective use of mental imagery here, we would need the patient to imagine a secondary body inside of their mind- often referred to as an astral body- which can do the final movement instead of the real body.  This imagery would effectively maintain the neural linkages inside the brain that work during movement.  Leaving a patient immobilized without Imagery could allow these linkages to be lost or re-patterned to their immobilized body (i.e. making their mind believe their body can’t move).

Creating effective imagery is largely about creating vivid, realistic, and believable images to present to the mind.  Failing to do so makes imagery less effective since the imagined processes can’t be mapped to real-life movements.  For example, asking someone to imagine their foot is being removed and attached to their shoulder is so foreign to the mind and brain, that the person couldn’t consolidate how to utilize it, and the cue would be ineffective.  Imagining that the foot dorsiflexes by effortlessly hinging at the ankle joint could easily fool the brain and would be more effective.  Imagining that the foot that is moving is yours, has your toes, is cold/warm etc. would be even more effective as it relates to how the brain and mind expect the foot to be.

Finally, a little exercise based on the “dead bug” exercise, showing how this can be put into practice.

  • Lay down in a comfortable place, in the crook lying position, as you would in order to perform the “dead bug” exercise.  This way, the feedback from the body will be exactly as we want it to be, and will not need to be overcome.
  • Close your eyes and connect to your body and surroundings.  Use all of your senses to gather information.  Is there any noise in the room?  If so, acknowledge it.  Is the room cool or warm?  Can you smell or taste anything?  This will use 4/5 senses (not sight), to create a realistic environment
  • Imagine your body as it currently sits.  Where are your arms, legs, body, head, etc.  Create an image in your mind, as if it were a dream, that will act as the body that moves in this exercise.
  • From here, imagine your body is in the room that it currently is in, adding all of the details from point 2- light, heat, noise, smells, etc.
  • Now you are ready to start imaginary movement.  Take one leg of your imaginary body, having it as light as smoke.  Allow it to float up to tabletop, perfect and easy in its movement, then float back down to the start as easily and effortlessly as it rose up.  Remember that the real body remains unmoved.  Only the imaginary body moves.  Also remember that the imaginary body is completely under your control, and you have ultimate control over it.  Even more control than you have over your real body.  Whatever you want it to do and however you want it to be done is completely possible, even if it is not possible in real life.
  • Perform a few repetitions of this, and then you can add on real body movement.  Focus on the imaginary body, and move your real leg as if it were the imaginary one- light and effortlessly.  Once re-patterned, the actual exercise should be able to be done without the imagery, as the body will be convinced and habitually moving in a different way.  This exercise is great for people who over-recruit musculature to perform easy movements.  It teaches them to reduce activity, without just telling them to “relax.”  The idea that someone can just “relax” is proving to be ineffective, as it’s difficult to organize within the brain.

There is much more to be said about this subject but I am going to leave it here.  If you want to learn more, get into things like neuro-plasticity, treatments for phantom limb syndrome, etc., studies are cited below.

References and Further Readings:

1. Effects of Mental Imagery on Muscular Strength in Healthy and Patient Participants: ASystematic Review. Tod et Al. (2016)

2. Strength Gains by Motor Imagery with Different Ratios of Physical to Mental Practice. Reiseret al. (2011)

3. Strength increases from the motor program: comparison of training with maximal voluntaryand imagined muscle contractions. Yue, G. & Cole, K.J.

4. The Effects of Graded Motor Imagery and it’s Components on Chronic Pain: A SystematicReview and Meta-Analysis. K Jane Bowering, et al. (2012)

5. The power of the mind: the cortex as a critical determinant of muscle strength/weakness.Clark, BC et al. (2014)

6. Mental Practice Maintains Range of Motion Despite Forearm Immobilization : a Pilot Study inHealthy Persons. Frenkel M.O. et al (2014)

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Reader Interactions


  1. Hi Brad,
    great blog on imagery. Thank you for the scientific references. I especially appreciate the emphasis on creating images that make sense to the client. Cheers,


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