Horowitz (or Heifetz or Paderewski or Liszt or even Louis Armstrong, depending on whom you Google) once remarked: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”

Umm…so what happens if we get injured and can’t practice for weeks or months?

Like, let’s say we have an unfortunate thumb wrestling accident, fracture a bone, and have to spend a month with our wrist immobilized in a cast. Is there anything we can do to minimize the impact this will have on our playing when we finally get the cast removed?

We’ve discussed visualization and mental practice before, and how this can play a role in learning repertoire or working on one’s skills away from the instrument. And there are certainly lots of great stories of athletes who have utilized visualization as part of their training (check out Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison’s interview).

But is there any actual research that suggests visualization can be a worthwhile use of time when we’re forced to take an extended break?

Hey, want to wear a cast for four weeks?

Researchers at Ohio University designed a study that yields some interesting food for thought.

They gathered up 44 participants, and persuaded 29 of them to have a rigid cast put on their forearm for four weeks (from just below the elbow to past the fingers, to immobilize their wrist and hand).

The 15 participants who weren’t put in a cast went about their lives like normal (the control group).

The 29 who had casts on their arms were split into two groups. Half (15) went about their daily lives much like the control group – only with a cast wrapped around their non-dominant arm to prevent the use of their wrist and fingers.

The other half (14) returned to the lab five times per week for a mental imagery session, designed to see if they could minimize the loss of muscle strength that would otherwise normally occur if your wrist and hand were immobilized for a month.

Push, push, push

Each mental imagery session consisted of four sets of 13 imagined contractions of their wrist. And to make sure they weren’t actually activating their arm muscles, each participant was hooked up to an electromyograph (EMG) to monitor muscle activation (and no, there wasn’t any to speak of).

Participants were instructed to keep their arm muscles relaxed, but to maximally activate their brain, and were guided through multiple repetitions of imagining themselves flexing their wrist and pushing against a hand grip, alternating five seconds of pushing, and five seconds of rest. In case the specifics of the protocol they followed is of interest, here it is:

“imagine that you are maximally contracting the muscles in your left (or right) forearm and imagine that you are making your wrist flex and push maximally against a hand grip with your hand. We will ask you to do this for 5 s at a time followed by a 5-s rest period for a total time of around 2 min. When we tell you to start, we want you to imagine that you are pushing in against a handgrip as hard as you can and continue to do so until we tell you to stop. After a 5-s rest we will ask you to repeat this. Ready, and begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push… and stop (5 s of silence). Start imagining that you are pushing in again as hard as you can, keep pushing, keep pushing… and stop (5 s of silence).”

After 2 minutes of this, they were given a 1 minute break, and then it was back to work for the second set of mental reps. And so on, until they completed all four sets.

It’s important to note that the kind of visualization that participants were instructed to utilize was more kinesthetic than visual. As in, they didn’t simply see their wrists flex, but rather, imagined what pushing as hard as they could would feel like. This is a key distinction, as visual imagery appears to activate more of the vision-related areas of the brain, while kinesthetic imagery seems to activate more of the motor-related structures (interesting, no?).

The results

By the end of the study, both of the cast-wearing groups had lost muscle strength. But the participants who exercised their wrists mentally, retained more of their strength than the participants who did nothing. By quite a bit, actually. Doing mental imagery reduced the loss of muscle strength by about 50% (45.1% loss of strength vs. 23.8% loss of strength).

Take action

Muscle strength and muscle coordination/timing are very different things of course. And strength may not be a primary element in the technical demands of many instruments. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty suggestive finding which highlights how significant a role our brain plays in the control of our muscles. I wonder, for instance, if any brass players have found any benefit in kinesthetic visualization as a means of perhaps maintaining some endurance when away from the instrument for an extended period of time?

And for the powerlifting or crossfitting musicians out there, rather than skipping workouts when injured, perhaps doing mental deadlifts, presses, squats, etc. can help minimize the loss of your hard-earned gains!

Photo Credit: Benjamin Buttony via Compfight cc