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The Central Governor Theory

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The Central Governor Theory
Written by Nuno Costa

I first learned about the Central Governor theory from coaching the CrossFit Endurance Seminars. For endurance athletes, we discuss this topic in regards to ‘when the wheels come off’ during a race. If you haven’t done an endurance event that took you to this point of exertion, you’ve probably experienced it in a CrossFit workout. It happens when you pushed yourself beyond what your body is capable of doing and you experience total fatigue and can’t push any further. Now the question comes – Which happens first? Does the mind shut down and start sending signals to the body to go into reserve, or does your body shut down first? I am glad you asked! Let’s look at the Central Governor and discuss.

According to Wikipedia – ‘The central governor is a proposed process in the brain that regulates exercise in regard to a neurally calculated safe exertion by the body. In particular, physical activity is controlled so that its intensity cannot threaten the body’s homeostasis by causing anoxic damage to the heart muscle. The central governor limits exercise by reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibers. This reduced recruitment causes the sensation of fatigue. The existence of a central governor was suggested to explain fatigue after prolonged strenuous exercise in long-distance running and other endurance sports, but its ideas could also apply to other causes of exertion-induced fatigue.’

So it seems as if the brain is controlling what happens in the body – it sees a potential breakdown and consciously, or perhaps subconsciously, it starts to tell the body to slow down in order to prevent it from reaching complete failure. Does that mean that the saying ‘mind over matter’ really does work? Perhaps….I believe our minds control a lot of what goes on with our body – a lot of times in workouts we give up in our heads before our body reaches our potential/capacity.

Is this something you’ve experience before? Perhaps you did reach the point of fatigue and you couldn’t push any further; or maybe you finished the workout and you thought you could have gone a little faster or pushed a little harder. Finding the threshold at where you are at maximum output and continuing to put out at a high pace is where some of the magic happens and the gains occur.

I know that I have, even at my age now of almost 35 (sub-masters), continued to push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of in workouts past. In the past year alone, I have seen some huge gains in my CrossFit ability; it has been a conscious effort to pick that barbell back up, take a little bit less rest, staying mentally dialed in and just plain sucking it up and getting after it.

The Central Governor is a theory – it has been proposed that the brain sends those signals to the body before the body experiences what is actually happening – there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done in order to support this theory, but I definitely think its an interesting concept and one that applies to the CrossFit community and our approach to workouts. How do you break past the mental barrier when your body starts to fatigue?

  • Hoang Ngo

    I yell positive messages alot in the gym! Like “Yes!” “Pick it up!” “Up up up!” “Lightweight!” I reckon it could be annoying to other people, so I workout with smaller groups or with people I know… lol. It works with metcons, but not with strength activities.

  • Terrence Limbert

    Positive thinking pays off. The second you think you might not be able to, you’ve already lost the battle.