Nervous System Training
Written by Kaija Stern, Bryce Smith, TJ O’Brien & Ricky Moore
In the gym, we spend a lot of focus on our muscles and joints, because…well they are a big part of movement. After hitting a WOD hard, you’re going to feel it in your muscles. After sitting at a computer all day, your hips or shoulder joints might be a little stiff. But it’s your nervous system that is making that happen.
The nervous system can be broken down into two main groups: central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS includes the brain and the spinal cord, and is in charge of receiving information, and then coordinating the body’s response (example). The PNS is composed of all the nerves outside of the CNS. It connects the CNS to different parts of the body, including motor neurons that connect to muscle groups and sympathetic groups that produce a fight-or-flight response (think: how does your body respond when you see 100 burpees for time on the whiteboard?)
Particularly in compound movements, such as kipping, thrusters, burpees, and Olympic lifting, we rely heavily on our central nervous system (CNS) to connect everything and ensure that the various parts of our body move at once. Take a snatch, for example: your brain needs to tell your body how to pull the barbell off of the ground, speed up at the hips, and then pull overhead while squatting down. A considerable amount of mental coordination needs to take place for something that complex to happen.
However, when the brain senses danger to the body, such as a heavier weight than you’ve done in the past, the CNS down-regulates the muscles to try and keep us safe (we love an evolutionary mechanism), and results in missing that heavy attempt, even if you’ve been training up to that weight and are strong enough to lift it.
Central Nervous System Training
Question: what triggers a great CNS response – a 50m sprint or a 5k run?
Answer: the sprint
When you take off for a sprint, or any fast movement, your muscles contract a lot more than a slow contraction over a longer duration. Training speed will help you train your CNS to fire better, and it’s not just limited to running. Tall box jumps or max vertical jumps also do the trick. These can be done as accessory work on vertical height. Rest and recover between sets, and slowly build the heights with plates on the box. In class, you can wake up the CNS by getting a few explosive jumps in right before going for a heavy lift, like cleans.
Go Heavy to Go Heavy
Let’s stick with the snatch example. Trying to max out your snatch every single day sounds like a terrible training plan. On the other hand, lifting heavy loads at low reps puts stress on the CNS, which we want in order to improve. So here’s the work around: after class, do back squats one day, snatch the next time you train, and maybe deadlift after that. All of these lifts will fire the CNS and accumulate in overall improvement. Another method is to focus each day on something relatively “heavy” rather than the “heaviest”.
Train the Brain
If you look at your barbell and think “Oh that’s a lot of weight. I’m probably not going to be able to do this,” chances are, you are right. Like in any sport, visualizing success beforehand and performing the movement with the confidence that it will go well can be a huge factor in your performance. Trust in yourself and in your CNS to do it’s thing!
Strengthening the Nervous System
All of us want to lift more weight – and we might have a trick up our sleeve that can lead to more strength gains.
Some of us know and understand the “SAID” principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). For those of us that are not familiar with this, the principle states that when stress is placed on the human body both biomechanically and neurologically, it will find a way to adapt to it.
Knowing that, we can conclude that the more frequently you perform an exercise, the stronger your body will become and the faster it will recover from that given movement. Many athletes already do a ton of volume so asking an athlete to do more volume to get stronger has the potential to lead to overtraining and placing too much stress on the joints.
What if there was a low volume way to strengthen the nervous system and enhance strength gains while practicing safe and efficient movement patterns?
One method you could use would be build to a heavy single in a particular movement each day. That heavy single does not need to be a one rep max, but simply a “heavy” for that day. You should never reach mechanical failure or getting sloppy with technique in these movements. Many of you just gasped and thought to yourself, “Are they serious?” But, hear us out. Let’s use the squat as a sample movement.
If you squat to a daily max, it sounds a little intimidating and even potentially dangerous, but the benefits can be enormous. At the end of your workout assuming you didn’t squat super heavy or 90+ percent in that session, simply build to a heavy single or double for that day. Like we said above, the loads used do not necessarily have to reflect your actual one rep max. The goal is to build by feel using a low-volume ramp up keeping technical proficiency as the priority. It is important to account for the fatigue factor since you are squatting at the conclusion of your session. The key is to keep these squats at low volume. For the warm up sets, be sure to perform the least number of sets possible in order to preserve anaerobic energy stores for the heavier sets and avoid muscular failure.
By implementing this SAID method into your training, you expose your central nervous system to that “heavy” stress more frequently than if you did not apply this method. In theory, the more frequently you squat or lift heavy, the stronger your body will become, and the faster you will recover from it. By building to a heavy single each day, heavier loads at 90+ percent will not seem so crazy and your confidence will be at all time highs on days when the main goal is to hit a new one rep max.
Using Exercise to Change Your Nervous System State
There’s this old school advice that is now new school advice that says, “When you feel like you’re stuck or can’t get going, SHOCK the system.”
We say old-school, now new-school because many of us received this advice first from our own mothers, but then also later from this French workout guru of sorts named Julien Pineau of StrongFit.
Julien says that we can purposefully use exercise to change our nervous system state and he’s specific with his prescriptions.
How to Change Feelings of Anxiousness or Worry
Generally, if you’re feeling anxious, worried about the future or the recent past, and/or feeling signs of “sympathetic arousal” aka your fight-or-flight emotions are present, you go low and slow. Nasal breathing on a rower, listening to Disney songs, or whatever may restore joy and bring you into a state of flow.
How to Change Feeling Stuck or Depressed
On the other hand, if you’re feeling “stuck,” depressed or down in the dumps, you go hard. You basically go to a dark place and push a sled or ride an assault bike until failure. It’s like you have to go through the pain and come out the other side reborn. If that sounds like hell, you also have the option of a cold plunge/shower or a max effort isometric. Either way, you’re going to have to confront something and overcome it.
Neuroplasticity can be defined as:
“The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.” – Dictionary.com
“Also known as neural plasticity, or brain plasticity, is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. These changes range from individual neurons making new connections, to systematic adjustments like cortical remapping.” – Wikipedia
Throughout life we should be constantly trying to learn or grow in any way we can. We can change how we respond and adapt to different things if we can continue to learn and grow as people no matter the task.
We definitely do it through fitness!
Physical exercise increases the brain’s volume of gray matter (actual neurons) and white matter (connections between neurons). Through increased blood flow to the brain, physical exercise triggers biochemical changes that spur neuroplasticity – the production of new connections between neurons and even of neurons themselves. (sharpbrains.com)
Practicing a new skill, learning about and applying different training methodologies, and even testing out different diets aids in neuroplasticity.
Double-Unders and the Nervous System
Take double-unders for example, which provide many benefits for athletes like improved general physical fitness (cardio), assists with agility, balance, accuracy, coordination AND provides a great neurological stimulus! What does this mean exactly? Developing double-unders (and other skills) helps neural pathways linked to muscles be more efficient in transmitting messages so you work smarter, not harder!
The brain has plenty of plasticity to develop and conquer new things. Moral of the story is we have plenty of brain power, space, and capabilities to always continue to learn and grow. Give these things a try to alter your state the next time you’re in the gym!