Kinesthetic Imagery: A Way to Minimize Backsliding When Dealing with Injuries?

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!

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


3 Responses

  1. Interestingly enough, I suffered a severe cut/tear to the middle of my left hand pinky finger right before Thanksgiving of last year. No bone breakage, no tendon tear, but pulled my skin off the bone. I had stiches, about 12 of them. After one week I started picking up my violin. I am a professional player and teach many to play every week. Even though I had my finger splinted I started playing 3 finger fiddle After the cut was healed I started just using the finger for the 4th finger notes. I have experienced a scar tissue band where the injury was and because I have kept trying to play daily and I can now use my finger confidently. The doctor says I need PT to help break up the scar tissue, but I will probably just keep working it out on my own due to the cost of PT. Since I make my living playing and teaching this was critical. I also used the keyboard during the first months for stretching in a different manner.

  2. Diane,

    Scar tissue is a minor problem on the surface – skin deep – but if any forms at the tissue level it can seriously impede movement. If you are completely certain that you didn’t damage any internal tissue you may be OK forgoing PT, although I would find some way of getting it if it were my hand.

    I had hand surgery in November 2013 and spent 6 weeks going for PT a few times a week. The incision was in the palm in line with the middle finger just above the proximal transverse ligament. I am a classical guitarist, and it was my right hand, which is where all the tone and subtlety lives. There were 2 goals in PT: regain complete range of movement (I regained complete flexion but my hyperextension remains somewhat compromised, but with no effect on my playing), and the break down of scare tissue.

    If there is absolutely no way for you to get to PT, at least do a little research on ways to soften the scar tissue. As per the instructions of my physical therapist, who was also a musician, I spent a lot of time massaging the incision (beginning several weeks after the stitches were removed) with coco butter. This was deep painful massage with lots of pressure on the area where I could feel scare tissue developing. Another exercise that my therapist had me do was to take a golf ball and roll it on a table top with the palm of my hand, right at the incision. I had to use quite a bit of downward pressure, and this too was pretty painful at first.

    I spent a lot of time practicing mentally and when my therapist said it was OK I began to tap my finger tips lightly on the strings while my left hand stopped the notes. When I was finally allowed to play I had to build up my strength a little at a time, but I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I regained my playing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.