Muscles, Joints, and…Your Nervous System?
Written by Kaija Stern

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. 

So how do we overcome this and direct our training to be able to snatch that heavier weight? 

Speed 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”. More info in this blog post. 

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!

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Dr. Joseph Arvay
Dr. Joseph Arvay
January 17, 2021 2:09 pm

What are your thoughts on nerual plasistiy and spinal alignment? You can reprogram your brain and nerve system by opening up your spine. Our spine is like the garden hose, to our grass, ie our muscle and joints. Take the kink off the hose and the nerve system will function better and with training the speed and strength will go up as a side effect. I’ve found this is key to getting better and not getting broken. Great article, thank you so much for writing this.