PETTLEP Imagery 3 – A New Frontier in Mental Conditioning


Part 3 – Mind power:

By Dave Smith, Ph.D.
In collaboration with Stephen Walker, Ph.D. from Podium Sports Journal

The first part of this series was focused on reviewing the mixed results found in imagery research for enhancing athletic performance. Part two examined certain factors in that research and new tools for measuring brain activity that have enabled researchers in understanding how and why certain imagery techniques are effective and others are not. The threshold of effectiveness was determined through applications of “functional equivalence” in the use of imagery techniques.

Since much of the research has been conducted in the laboratory and in controlled settings in the field, strength conditioning – weight training has enabled researchers to utilize incremental measurements and solid research design methodology for identifying discernable differences amongst treatment and control groups employed in the research.

One approach that has shown great promise was developed by Dr Paul Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University and Professor Dave Collins of Edinburgh University. This approach, known as PETTLEP, is based on the functional equivalence research findings and studies conducted in our own lab in Liverpool. The PETTLEP model comprises the following elements: Physical, Environment, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion and Perspective. Each element relates to important practical guidelines that trainees will find useful. Each element, and its practical implications are described below:

PETTLEP Imagery – How does it work?

It is important that the imagery technique used be as physically similar to actual weight training as possible. Therefore, you should imagine the muscle fatigue and discomfort you feel when actually training. You should also adopt the same posture as when actually performing the exercise. For example, if imaging leg extensions you should sit down, whereas if imaging standing calf raises you should stand upright. You can even make movements that approximate the actual exercise if you find that makes the experience more vivid. You should wear your gym clothes and even chalk your hands if that is what you do normally.

It is important to imagine performing your workout where you would actually perform it, to make the imagery realistic. To help, you could use a video or audiotape recorded at the gym where you train, and perform your imagery while listening to the same music they play at the gym. Particular features of the gym should be incorporated into the image. The imagery technique can be performed at the actual workstation, or in the gym itself. Every kinesthetic, auditory, and sensual stimulus assists in reaching functional equivalence.

During the imagery you should focus attention on the same things you would during your actual workout. So, if you really focus in on the discomfort in the muscle when performing your set, and keep your attention on the muscle being worked, you should do this during your imagery. However, if you focus more on the rising and falling of the bar, do that in your imagery practice as well.

Preparation for and execution of your weight training exercises should be imaged in real time rather than slow motion. The whole of each set should be imaged, not just a couple of reps. Imaging taking the set from the first rep all the way through to failure. Even use the same rest periods as you would during your actual workout.

Changes in how movements feel will occur over time. Think back to the first time you performed the bench press. I’ll bet you felt really awkward and struggled to balance the bar evenly. However, within a short time you could perform the movement much more smoothly, and it felt totally different. Such learning effects occur with all movements, and therefore the bodily sensations that accompany movements will change over time. Your imagery should reflect this by involving the sensations that you actually feel when performing the movement, and as these change over time so should your imagery.

Your imagery should also involve the emotions that you feel when performing your workout. Prior to and during a workout, most people feel physiologically and psychologically aroused, ready to give their all. This is also how you should feel prior to and during imagery. Contrary to the advice of some psychologists, you should not feel relaxed during movement imagery.

Imagery can be performed in either the first person (internal imagery) or the third person (external imagery). In internal imagery, you imagine being inside your own body and seeing what you would see when in the imagined situation. In external imagery, you see yourself performing the task, like in a home movie. There is no simple answer as to which is best because people often report preferences for one or the other. Performing internal imagery will produce a more realistic imagery experience, and therefore should be generally preferred, but external imagery (i.e. seeing yourself lift really heavy weights) will be effective in improving confidence. Therefore, it may be best to use both, with internal imagery to rehearse the movement and external imagery to increase confidence.


This article has reviewed the general research assessing the effectiveness of imagery and visualization for athletic performance enhancement. The applications of imagery are extensive whether for relaxation, reducing arousal, or to enhance athletic skills such as strength training and motor performance.

For applications that encompass strength training we discussed examples and research that employs technique that approximates functional equivalence. Specific guidelines for weight training have been provided that incorporate the PETTLEP system. Other sports will require sport psychologists, coaches and athletes to systematically review both movements and kinaesthetic awareness employed in any athletic task for which an imagery program is being developed. This method requires patience and precision in its application if it is to achieve the optimal functional equivalence benchmark.

For strength training it is important to remember that the above model provides a useful framework to help guide your imagery practice. It is important to emphasise that imagery is not a shortcut to building strength. As with actual weight training, optimal improvements will only occur through hard work, dedication and the use of sound training techniques.

What other research has been done to validate this method of imagery? How can the principles of PETTLEP be used in application to other sports? Stay tuned for Part 4.

About the Author:


Dave Smith is Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. He is accredited by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) as a sport scientist and is Associate Editor of The Sport Psychologist. He is also a member of the Health and Exercise Committee of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), and is the co-chair of the AASP Special Interest Group on Exercise and Wellness. He has published many articles in both scientific journals and popular magazines, and has appeared on television and radio all over the world to discuss his work. Recent publications include articles in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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