This blog is going to be a bit nerdy. We’re talking about 4 cool nervous system “hacks” that can improve the results of your workouts.
We implement these things in my classes, which is one of the more unseen or unrealized reasons my classes are so effective. I also hear often from the members that this is the first program they look forward to and enjoy, and they may not know why. I think these are some of the reasons why - because we are using their nervous system to create an environment that doesn’t feel like a threat. When your brain thinks something is a threat, it will avoid it. And we know consistency is super important in your workouts, so we have to train our nervous system that our workouts aren’t a threat to our safety.
Your nervous system is extremely important in driving results from your workouts because it will dictate how easily you will recover and lay down new muscle. Because of this, we have to work WITH our nervous system, not against it, if we want long-lasting results.
First: what is the nervous system?
The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord - all the information from your 5 senses is processed, decisions are made, and instructions to follow through on those decisions are sent to your body.
The peripheral nervous system is what connects your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body through a network of nerves.
The somatic nervous system is the part of the peripheral nervous system that is responsible for carrying sensory and motor information back and forth from the brain
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating involuntary functions of your body.
Parasympathetic: Rest, digest, heal - this is where muscle size is increased
Sympathetic: regulates fight or flight
Here are the four ways you can hack your nervous system to improve your workout results.
#1: Breath: this stimulates parasympathetic, slows thoughts, leaves you in a more focused place. This is important with your workouts because you can more accurately focus on producing clean output in your muscles, and perceived effort, which I’ll talk about in a moment, becomes more productive. I’ll do an entire podcast about breathwork soon.
#2: Warm-up and cool-down: bookend your workout to train your brain that it isn’t a threat.
I recommend your warm-ups being repetitive movement drills that fluidly move the joint (usually in circular motions) throughout the entire range of motion that the joint was designed to move. These mobility drills are important because they provide feedback to your nervous system to activate muscles and generate strength via a phenomenon called the arthrokinetic reflex.
Your bones are surrounded by muscles, tendons, and other connective tissues that have receptors called proprioceptive organs. These receptors are in constant communication with your spinal cord and brain about your body's "safety". When there is a lack of communication to these proprioceptive organs, your body will respond by tightening muscles, sending pain signals, decreasing strength, and decreasing movement efficiency. This is your body's way of keeping you safe when it has poor information from the muscles and tissues. We WANT good communication to those muscles and tendons so we can more effectively contract them during exercise. So by moving fluidly, slowly, and calmly through your joints, you are sending your nervous system input that can activate your muscles, create space within your joints, and prime them for resistance.
Although I recommend moving through all of your joints before exercise, the foot is particularly important to move before and after exercise - especially if you’re in weight-bearing exercises or jumping around. The foot is made up of 26 bones, 30 joints, and over 100 muscles and tendons. Because the foot is so complex, there is an abundance of proprioceptive organs that require a clear communication path to your spinal cord and brain. By stimulating your foot by doing simple ankle circles (even 4-6 repetitions), you can improve the connection to those structures and provide a strong foundation for yourself throughout your workout. Not only is it important for the foot itself to be stable and connected to reduce the risk of injury at the foot, but it can affect your performance up the chain. Studies have shown that foot injuries are correlated to weakness in the hip muscles.
#3: Perceived effort.
This is something that I cue in my classes all the time. I say things like “contract at 100% effort, flex your muscles as hard as you can, imagine that you’re lifting 1000 lb weight”. Efficient exercise will recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. The brain recruits these fibers, only as it perceives that it needs them. If you are flexing as hard as possible, your brain will recruit more muscle fibers and you will get stronger faster.
Your brain interprets the amount of force necessary, and an electrical current (via motor nerves) activates muscle fibers to produce counter-force and lift the weight or complete the movement.
This kind of ties everything together, because when you have a clearer head from the breathwork, your brain is less distracted and can activate more muscle fibers. But that doesn’t matter much if your joints are crammed from jumping into your workout without doing any mobility and they don’t have clean neural connections to your muscles.
It’s like a string of Christmas lights - the lights shine brighter when each of them is fully screwed in and the wiring is strong. If the wiring isn’t strong to each bulb, some of them will be dim or not light up at all. Your muscles are the same way - you need strong wiring which requires a clear and calm headspace, good connection via neural tissue, and THEN you can flex as hard as possible and light up all the bulbs on the string of lights.
On this note, let’s talk about if you know you’re putting in enough effort. I often get asked “I didn’t sweat a lot or burn a lot of calories so how do I know if I did something that’s going to drive results from my workouts? You should have temporary weakness after a workout! This is called “inroad” - momentary fatiguing of a muscle. You can do this by using heavy enough weight and by flexing as hard as possible by using this perceived effort phenomenon.
How heavy is too heavy? I recommend selecting moderate resistance - you should be able to do an exercise for about 60-90 seconds with really slow reps. This is usually the sweet spot because you recruit both fast and slow-twitch fibers. Remember that we want to recruit as many fibers as possible so we can get the highest yield from our training. If it’s too light and you could do the lift all day: you will only get through what’s called the slow-twitch fibers. These fibers are smaller and although they are important, they won’t drive physical results as quickly since they don’t take up that much mass or size. You can always use perceived effort and fatigue yourself faster, but it may be easier to just select a heavier weight.
Too heavy: you will only be able to do a few reps and only recruit the fastest twitch fibers and miss the slower and intermediate fibers.
#4: Bilateral deficit.
Working one arm or leg at a time can be slightly more effective at gaining strength than working both at the same time because of a phenomenon called the bilateral deficit. Your neuromuscular system can’t produce maximal force when two limbs are working at the same time. This is why we do lots of one-sided exercises like step-ups, single-arm bicep curls, etc. In general, your brain produces better muscular output when it has fewer tasks to coordinate. We've all experienced this with multi-tasking. You're much sloppier when you're trying to do two or more tasks at once. Not only can you gain strength slightly more effectively by working one limb at a time, but you're at less risk of injury since your brain can better focus and stabilize the working joints.
Try these hacks out during your next workout and let me know how it goes!