We often hear references to having team spirit, psyching yourself up, or even being in the groove. What all of these common phrases are referring to is the ergogenic effect of positive thinking. Even though it is common place to nonchalantly pay homage to the mind’s power as it relates to athletic performance, we often dismiss the importance of positive thinking as “bro science”. There are valid reasons for this based upon how science proves or disproves theories. Using an accepted scientific model it is nearly impossible to prove or disprove the power of positive thinking. The first problem is that it is not something that can be tested in a controlled environment.

If I were to take two groups of people and instruct one group to think positive thoughts and the other to think negatively, how could I be assured of their compliance? Adding to the problem is that the mind doesn’t think in the negative sense. Michael Losier in his book Law of Attraction gives a good example of this. If I were to tell you not to think about the Statue of Liberty, the first thing you will do is to think about it. I just planted that thought in your mind, so how can you tell yourself not to think about it when it is already there? If I am a coach and I tell my team to not lose the game it would seem to be a good motivator. After all I just told them exactly what I expect.

Unfortunately, subconsciously when they hit the field the team may be focusing on the possibility of losing rather than the certainty of winning. Scientifically, there is really no way to be sure that any stimulus you provide to illicit an effect through positive thinking actually creates a positive thought form in a person’s mind. That makes it nearly impossible to use positive thinking in any type of controlled experiment.

The power of positive thinking is not a new concept. In fact the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands have been practicing Huna, which is said to be a psycho-religious practice, for thousands of years. Huna is very similar to The Law of Attraction which has recently gained popularity in self help circles due to popular books like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and Law of Attraction by Michael Losier. There are some very interesting parallels between Huna and Sigmund Freud’s theory of the 3 levels of the mind.

It is in fact the relationship between the subconscious and conscious that has direct application to fitness training.

You can psych out an opponent using the power of suggestion. Talking smack is considered to be poor sportsmanship, but people still do it because it throws off your opponent’s game. If you watch top level athletes preparing for competition they will often be seen trying to psych themselves up. Obviously, from a short term standpoint thought has an ergogenic effect. The question that needs answering is:

Can you produce a long term effect by using thought as an ergogenic aid?


Historically, the scientific community dismissed the power of positive thinking because it could not be proven using an accepted scientific model. However, there is now enough anecdotal proof that the mind can effect physiological changes that the power of positive thinking has gained acceptance by many in the field of health sciences. During drug trials a control group given the placebo will often get similar if not better results than those individuals receiving the drug. In fact this is such a common occurrence that they have coined the term the placebo effect when referring to this phenomenon. Furthermore, if the participants receiving the placebo are told of the potential side effects of the actual drug they will often develop negative physical effects similar to those of the drug. There is a common misconception that psychosomatic illness is an imaginary illness that exists only in a person’s mind. That is an absolute misnomer.

A psychosomatic illness is an actual physical ailment that is brought on by negative thought or emotions, a stress related ulcer for example. So why would it be so farfetched to imagine that hypertrophy or super recovery and healing could come from positive thinking? All of the autonomic functions carried out by the brain control all of the biological functions that lead to recovery. Because we are unaware of these processes we often assume that we have no active control over them.

However there is ample observable and measurable proof of the power that the lucid mind has over the subconscious. Pain clinics will often train people to reduce their own pain by using biofeedback equipment. Chronic pain sufferers are connected to a machine that measures nervous system impulses and other physical markers. They are instructed to visualize things that are pleasurable while observing the data provided by the machine. The machine provides feedback on how much pain they are experiencing and they use their own thoughts to train their mind to reduce the pain. It is interesting to note that the actual electrical impulses that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system are being regulated and not just the perception of the pain. It stands to reason that believing that you will gain muscle or lose weight would create a positive psychosomatic response. Even if such an endeavor does not directly bear fruit the belief in your own ability would serve as a motivator to try harder.

People often say that knowledge is power but that is not actually true. At best, knowledge could be equated to potential energy. I could prop up the end of a broken sofa with a gold bar but it would serve no greater utility than using a wooden block. Gold only has value when you use it to gain wealth and knowledge only has power when you apply it. Simply knowing that you can produce a given effect by using positive thinking is worthless unless you have a way to apply it.

So, is there a practical application to all of this?

Yes, of course! Check Part Two of this article to get Five Keys to Help Keep Clients in a Positive Mindset.

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John Rutnik

John Rutnik is a NFPT Certified Personal Trainer. He holds an AAS in Electrical Technology and has been a certified personal trainer since 2008. John has been involved in physical fitness and weight training since the late 70’s and is an avid outdoors man. He became a personal trainer after rehabilitating himself from a spinal injury he sustained in a car accident and losing 70 pounds. John later obtained ISSA Certifications as both a Fitness Trainer and Specialist in Sports Nutrition and became Lead Fitness Trainer at Anytime Fitness in Schenectady NY. His training philosophy is “no man left behind,” everyone deserves a chance to succeed.