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
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Hypnosis as a medically sanctioned form of therapeutic practice has been around for more than half a century. It was in 1958 that the American Medical Association officially recognized it as a legitimate treatment method and, though it isn’t widely taught, recommended that it be included in the curriculum of all medical schools. As a phenomenon, however, hypnosis is considerably older.

“It’s the oldest Western conception of psychotherapy,” says David Spiegel, the associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University and one of the leading experts on hypnosis. The form we know today dates back to the late 18th century, when a German-born physician named Franz Anton Mesmer first introduced the idea of “mesmerizing” clients with dim light and ethereal music.

But as psychotherapy evolved throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, hypnosis slowly shed its association with spiritualism and the occult and eventually became a clinical tool in the arsenal of such psychiatric luminaries as Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet. It wasn’t until the emergence, however, of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in 1949, and then the AMA’s sanctioning
of it nine years later, that hypnosis gained wider clinical acceptance.

Today, though the scientific base for hypnosis is stronger than it ever has been, much of its rise in popularity comes from its association with mindfulness, a vague term meant to describe anything that focuses your attention on the present, a fad currently in vogue among celebrities. At least that’s Spiegel’s theory for the resurgence, anyway.

Of course, while much of that mindfulness is centered on meditation—which is designed to, as Janelli describes it, “push out” or clear your mind of mental clutter—hypnosis
is designed to “bring in” or process information in a way that organizes and positively utilizes that clutter.

Advances in neuroscience have also helped legitimize the practice. “We’re using techniques, like functional MRI, that make a huge difference in our ability to put people in different states and see what’s happening in their brain,” says Spiegel. However, as Peter Halligan, Ph.D., and David Oakley, Ph.D., two U.K.-based neuroscientists, write in Hypnosis and Cognitive Neuroscience: Bridging the Gap, “From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, relatively little is known about the underlying processes involved in the hypnotic state itself.” What we do know, says Spiegel, is that it involves a heightened degree of focus brought about when two parts of your brain are working together. In other words, look at a person’s brain on an fMRI during hypnosis and those two regions will be lit up like Times Square.

In this state, your brain becomes more malleable, and you become more open to suggestion. The most obvious example of this can be seen in hypnotism stage shows—even the kind you might find at a high school event, at which the quarterback ends up twirling like a ballerina. Despite his objections to such displays, Spiegel says, the hypnotism is real.

The trick, he explains, is in finding people in the audience who are highly hypnotizable. During any stage show, you’ll see the hypnotist bring up 20 or so audience members. The hypnotist will then whittle the number down to one or two by perform- ing quick induction routines, essentially a sped-up version of Janelli’s relaxation techniques, then look for things like eyes rolling up into heads or muscle catalepsy, an occurrence in which the muscles become rigid. Janelli calls these people somnambulists, which essentially means sleepwalkers. Though only about 15% of the population is thought to be so highly hypnotizable, everyone is, to some degree, hypnotizable, says Richard Barker, who largely uses his own stage act as a marketing tool for his clinical practice. You can’t be made to cluck like a chicken, but you will achieve a heightened state of focus. “If you want to work with me and be receptive, then you can and will be hypnotized,” he says. “The only real block for hypnosis is a lack of concentration.”

Part of what makes everyone hypnotizable to at least some degree is also what inspires dissension among researchers: differing opinions on what, exactly, the hypnotic state is. Typically, hypnosis is de ned as a trance state brought about by an induction procedure. Today, induction is most often a script used to speak someone into a hypnotic state—usually a series of breathing exercises done while focusing on a mental image.

But more and more, researchers are defining hypnosis as a subject’s heightened susceptibility to suggestion irrespective of whether an induction procedure was used. Elvira Lang, M.D., a former associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and the CEO of Comfort Talk, a company that uses guidance in self-hypnotic relaxation to aid in patient recovery, says that the hypnotic state can occur in all manner of situations, even by simply visiting the doctor’s office. Lang points out that medical professionals often unwittingly increase a patient’s pain by simply suggesting that a procedure will hurt. When we’re in that “zone,” our brains can change our perception of an event based purely on suggestion.

Not that we can be persuaded to do just anything, Barker explains: The brain does have a mechanism called the “critical factor,” which protects us from doing something that could cause harm or that goes against our moral beliefs, like robbing a bank.

So how does all of this get you to do something like go to the gym?

For some people, one trip to the hypnotist is enough to change their behavior forever. Spiegel sees a lot of success in dealing with anxiety: “Half the people I see for one session for something like an airplane phobia are either improved or cured.”
So if your aversion to working out is the result of anxiety—fearing the discomfort of it, or even fearing the gym itself, with all its mirrors and judging stares—it’s entirely possible that one session could  x the problem. Or one session followed up by periodic rounds of self-hypnosis.

Keep in mind, though, that for the process to succeed, there has to be a mental investment by the patient. After all, the hypnotist only guides you toward a mental state in which you want to change that behavior. That’s why for many patients, following up with self-hypnosis is key.

Janelli also suggests framing everything in a positive light. “Avoid what I call ‘negative self-talk,’ ” she says. “Beating yourself up over what you’re failing to achieve.” Lang fully agrees that language is essential when it comes to altering perception and behavior. “A lot of it is just changing the wording and the expectation,” she says. For my session, Janelli has me avoid platitudes like “No pain, no gain” since they allow for negativity—i.e., pain. Instead, I’m told to focus purely on the gain—which is surprisingly effective, at least in the moment. During the session I really do feel the anxiety drift away and in its place a sense of world-conquering optimism.

It’s now a month since I went through my hypnosis session. And while I haven’t achieved a Hugh Jackman level of fitness, I have noticed a measurable difference in my approach to working out. Not only am I getting to the weight room more often, but I’m also feeling a greater sense of calm, both before going to the gym as well as during my workout. And while I do more often feel the urge to actually get on my bike and ride there, it’s not an overpowering one. It feels like an established habit, similar to brushing my teeth. It’s just something I do because it’ll feel weird if I don’t. Which is why hypnosis is probably best viewed as a tool to help e effectuate change rather than some miracle cure that will forcefully impose it. As Spiegel describes it, “Hypnosis is all about learning how to better manage your mind and your body.” Of course, staying the course at the gym is all about forming good habits and keeping a positive outlook—and anything that can help establish those habits is worth a shot.

One recommendation if you’re thinking of trying hypnosis: Don’t let up on the homework. Because, while I have no idea how long the feel-good feelings will last, I’ve found that returning to the self- hypnosis exercise about once a week clears my mind and  firmly re-establishes that positive connection.

Something I can guarantee: Either way, you won’t end up clucking like a chicken. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for.