Can Hypnosis Help You Get Jacked?

Pro athletes, Hollywood stars, and fitness enthusiasts are turning back to history’s oldest brain hack for motivation.

Hypnotic stopwatch
VCL/Spencer Rowell / Getty

Roger Clemens clucking like a chicken. Of all the many pop culture references that exist for hypnosis, that’s the one that keeps popping into my head. It’s from a scene in The Simpsons, the softball episode, in which Mr. Burns has his team of professional ringers hypnotized to improve their performance. But thanks to an inept hypnotist, Roger Clemens ends up clucking like a chicken.

My hypnotist reassures me that won’t happen to me, though. “Hypnosis is nothing more than a deep state of relaxation with an acute focus,” says Alexandra Janelli, a hypnotherapist who owns and operates Theta Spring Hypnosis in New York City. She assures me that, rather than some sort of trance, the hypnotic state is actually more of an intense form of focus.  “It’s when you stop actively listening and you just hear,” she says.

It’s in that state that you become more susceptible to suggestion—that is, more capable of behavior outside your normal comfort zone. Which is actually the whole point of hypnosis therapy. Of course, I'm not anywhere near that state myself. At least not yet. Instead, my mind keeps drifting, first to Roger Clemens, then to the smell of the office, which reminds me of the beauty section at Whole Foods—a bit of lavender, a bit of sage, a general earthiness.

When my mind veers too far, I try to reel it back in and focus on Janelli’s crisp yet soft voice. She’s guiding me through a series of relaxation techniques, the first of which involves visualizing a physical location, one where I can feel calm and happy. I choose a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean in southern France on a perfect summer day.

She then tells me to concentrate on the details of the location. Is it day or night? What’s the temperature? What are the smells? The point is to dislodge me from any thoughts of the future or the past and to instead root me squarely in the present. From there, it’s more relaxation. She has me focus on my arms, my legs, my neck. Each time I do, she tells me to release any tension located there. To liquefy those muscles. Given my preternatural gift for avoiding relaxation, I worry it won’t work. Surely this is a fool’s errand. But then something clicks. She tells me to visualize a warm golden ball enveloping me. Suddenly my mind stops drifting, and I can feel the tension in my neck and shoulders dissolve. “Can you feel what your eyes are doing?”

I can’t.

“That’s how I can tell you’re in a hypnotic state,” she says. “Your eyes start ping-ponging back and forth.”

And that’s exactly what they are doing, as if I’m watching a very fast tennis match behind my eyelids. Turns out I’m hypnotized. And if you’re wondering what brought me here to begin with, the answer’s quite simple: fitness.

By most measures I’m relatively fit. I lift, I ride my bike, I occasionally go to yoga. But lately my motivation has begun to flag. Work happens, life happens, and suddenly the very thought of going to the gym becomes a grim existential wrestling match.

I know several people who relied on hypnosis to quit smoking. And many athletes have turned to it— Tiger Woods, for one, as well as Troy Aikman—to improve their game. But when I heard actress Olivia Munn say that hypnosis was the sole reason she hit the gym, I was sold.

Back in the Barcalounger, Janelli takes me through two swings around the hypnotic bend. The first is a longer induction exercise, one meant to establish a behavioral shift through relaxation and positive reinforcement—essentially, to couple a relaxed and happy state with the act of going to the gym. To do this, she speaks words of positive a affirmation. “

Push through all your anxiety. What you’re afraid of is totally achievable. You will be successful. You look forward to the fitness you will get from working out.”

This is meant to replace those thick waves of existential dread with eagerness and hopeful anticipation. Or, if you’re trying to quit smoking, it’s the reverse—replacing the positive emotion, the addiction, with some existential dread. All told, it’s a remarkably simple process. Isolate the issue, focus on relaxation, attach positive or negative feelings to the issue, and then you’re out.

The second induction is merely an abbreviated version of the first. Janelli instructs me to close my eyes again and focus on any remaining tension in my body. She tells me to melt back into the chair. Then it’s a few more positive words on going to the gym. “You want to be healthy, you look forward to the shape your body will be when you exercise.” All in all it’s about 30 minutes of relaxation, visualization, and positive reinforcement. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Of course, the question afterward is, Has my brain been hacked? Am I now a fitness-seeking machine? Honestly, I have no idea. Other than feeling a bit looser than usual, I don’t feel any different. It’s time to

pack the gym bag.