Thursday, January 5, 2012

Brain Training For Muscle Gains

So, all you gym rats, all you muscle heads, you heavy hitters, big time lifters, and meat-heads, what do you think happens when you get stronger? What has actually changed in your body that has allowed you to lift more weight than previously?  Well, the obvious answer is that you've gained muscle mass, greater muscle density, or in other words, you've increased the amount of usable muscle fiber in your body.  But what if I told you that you, without ever lifting a single weight, have more muscle fiber in your body than you really know what to do with?

Well, maybe that's not exactly true, there is a limit to the "stock" amount of muscle fiber you have.  But without any sort of training, much of your muscle fiber will be wasted and doomed to inactivity.  You'll be unable to lift to your potential.  In fact, you may remember in my recent article regarding gorillas (yes, gorillas, quite fascinating actually, read it here: ), I mentioned that the human body with no training whatsoever is only able to use about 20% of the muscle fiber it has.  That's not much now, is it?  Four out of every five muscle fibers are unusable without any sort of training.    That means you have a lot more potential than you could believe.  The good news is, when you lift weights, you not only break down muscle fiber (and inevitably build it back up again), you create stronger connections between your brain and muscles, and can more actively engage greater numbers of muscle fibers to work for you and lift that incredibly heavy barbell.  

Let's explore this brain-muscle connection a little further, and maybe optimize the gains you can obtain through "brain training."  The actual name of this brain system is called the Central Nervous System, or CNS.  Ever heard of it?  In actuality your CNS determines how your body reacts to stimulus, how quickly it reacts, with how much power and intensity, and with the greatest efficiency possible.  As you increase training intensity, weight, reps, etc., you build a stronger connection between your CNS and you muscle fibers. 

 In general, heavier loads are more taxing on your CNS, and require a more powerful contribution from your brain. In fact, the greatest way to stimulate your brain to build stronger muscle connections is through high weight, low rep applications.  Big surprise, I'm going to bring up weightlifting again!  Olympic weightlifters are masters at using every muscle fiber they've got with the greatest possible efficiency.  They can optimize the contribution of their CNS, and while the truth of this statement hasn't been confirmed, very often you'll hear members of the infamous Chinese weightlifting team claiming they can use more than 90% of their muscle fiber.  That's 70% more than the average human being!  Here's a good explanation of CNS training that might optimize brain-muscle connection development:

"Bompa's philosophy (Bompa 2005) with regards to weight training to improve explosive power is that repetitions are the key training variable. He recommends a low number of repetitions (1 to 3), with loadings in excess of 90% of 1RM (1 rep max), in order to develop strength that will boost speed and power and optimise the contribution of the CNS, with a recovery of 6 minutes between sets. These loadings create a higher level of excitation and receptor/effector communication, more motor unit recruitment and greater neural stimulation. These loadings and recoveries are also recommended on the basis of their contribution to maximum power and strength expression, and also because they do not produce a large increase in muscle mass, which could be detrimental to an athlete's power to weight ratio."

But why stop at weightlifters?  It's obvious that any high level athlete has a highly developed CNS in regards to their sport.  They know exactly how to use the muscles they need in order to get the job done to the highest possible efficiency.  They are strong, fast, lean, and powerful.  Most likely they've also been training for quite a long time in order to develop such remarkable connections.  There's obviously something to be said about practice.  The more often an activity is performed, especially with intensity and good form, the greater development will occur in your brain.  

Hopefully it's quite obvious by now that your brain plays a big roll in your training.  And just like your muscles, you can overtrain your CNS to the point where it becomes impossible to work out.  It's not quite the same feeling as an extremely sore muscle, or stiff joints.  From personal experience, I believe it's a much worse feeling, and far more frustrating.  An overtrained CNS will leave you completely drained, blurry eyed, and unable to lift even a fraction of what you normally could.  It'll be like energy just won't come your way no matter what you do.  If you don't want to overtrain your CNS, avoid:

-Extremely heavy loads each and every day

-Working to failure on a constant basis

-Extremely high intensity workouts too often throughout the week

Nobody's saying you can't push yourself.  But do it smartly, and if you're not used to heavy loads, work up to them.  Not everybody is able to squat 90% of their max day in and day out, you need to work up to that level.  Just like your muscles, your CNS will gain endurance and strength, and you'll be able to lift heavier and work harder more and more often.

If you do overtax yourself, even accidentally, don't despair, it usually happens to most everyone at one point or another.  You have to know your limits, and sometimes the only way to find them is to surpass them.  Just take a day off from the gym (A REAL DAY OFF, NOT A LIGHT WORKOUT DAY), get plenty of sleep, eat well (eat to refuel, complex carbs and lean proteins), and really let all those nutrients soak up into your body as you give it a much needed break.

Realize that when you get stronger, you're not just packing on meat.  You're getting smarter with the iron, and more able to use every muscle fiber you've got.  Crazy stuff right?

Use that brain, push yourself, and as always, GOOD LUCK!


1 comment:

  1. I can never ever think of this thought even in my dreams. Wow, i am highly impressed and can follow these for the development.