“We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were, for the moment, unpopular.”

Edward R. Murrow

Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the Murphy Strength and Conditioning Center, East Carolina University
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the Murphy Strength and Conditioning Center, East Carolina University

Many, many trainees seem either unable to grasp, or unwilling to believe, that short-duration, high-intensity, simply-constructed workouts occurring at infrequent intervals can be so blisteringly effective at producing enhanced athleticism, muscularity and fat reduction.   The main problem, or intellectual leap that must be undertaken, here — I believe — is to first understand what constitutes a sufficient biological stimulus required to elicit a desired response.  Too much and/or too frequent a biological “cue” can, of course, be as detrimental to overall progress as too little and/or too infrequent a biological cue.  I’ve discussed before the concepts of  “drop-off” and “auto-regulation” as these concepts pertain to continued progress.  The second point is revolves around possessing the know-how to construct a workout that achieves a high-impact biological cue in an abbreviated period of time.  Maintaining a targeted, high degree of central nervous system (CNS) stimulation is key to achieving maximum “bang” for the workout time “buck”; priming the pump, so to speak, so as to wring the maximum amount of power possible from a given circumstance (i.e., modality, desired time under load, etc).

In this previous post, we deconstructed the rep, learning what it means, what it looks like, to perform an exercise repetition that is truly productive.  But let’s now break that down even further.  Is there something we can do prior to executing that perfect series of repetitions, that will lend even more productivity to the endeavor?  You bet there is — effective CNS stimulation.  Think of proper CNS stimulation as a ramp-up, heightened muscular awareness, fast-twitch activation, or a targeted, high-intensity CNS proprioception.  Ever see elite sprinters pop-off a few explosive knee-to-chest jumps just prior to settling into the blocks?  CNS stimulation, my friend.

So what does this look like in a practical sense?  Well, let’s deconstruct one of my recent, morning workouts and see just how I utilize this phenomenon in my own training.  This is my Twitter post following that morning’s weight session:

This AM’s w/o: RDL (Conc.) + SLDL (Eccentric) x 5, Floor press x 5, Snatch Grip High Pull (from hang) x 3; 4 rounds. Blog details soon.

First I’d like to point out that I post all of my workouts to Twitter, and that you don’t have to have a Twitter account to to see these posts, as they all appear to the right of my blog (the last 10 or so posts, at least).  The nature of Twitter, though, doesn’t allow for detailed elaboration; this is both good and bad, depending upon your point of view.  I rather appreciate it as a medium of brevity that is a perfect compliment to the longer “blog format”, but I digress.  Back to the subject at hand.

Let’s deconstruct that day’s workout, focusing on a single exercise within that morning’s circuit — the basic floor press.  First, though, let’s look at the overall timeline of this workout: 5:45 AM — coffeed-up and in the gym (following a 1 hour commute, by the way).  5:55 warm up completed; heart rate is up, beginning to sweat.  6:00 AM Bars loaded and staged; begin circuit with “feel/priming” sets.  6:10 — full-on blood, guts and fury.  6:30 — pulled the plug on the last movement, staggered to the showers, and prepped to face to workday.  45 minutes, top to bottom — yes, it can be done.  Easy?  No friggin way; and if it was, everyone would do it, right?

As far as a fabulous brief, high-intensity workout goes, I’ve got all the bases covered; but here’s the obstacle: I want to tax and fatigue every fast-twitch fiber I’ve got (for each particular movement) — and I’ve got a very short time window in which to accomplish that task.  That’s a tall order.  I’ve got an ace up my sleeve, though, that’ll help me do just that.  Now what little trick did I employ just prior to sliding under the bar for each set of floor presses? Ballistic push ups.  Just 3 or so; not enough to tire me out, just enough to fully wake up and prime my CNS for the movement to come, and give those fast twitch fibers the signal that, hey guys, it’s time to wake up and get in the game.  Then I slid under the bar and proceeded to punch out my 5 (or so) reps, attempting maximum bar acceleration with each rep.  I increased weight on each set until I reached the point where, on the 5th rep of the 4th cycle, I hit a “grind it out rep”, and at that point, I pulled the plug on that exercise.  And, having done this for quite some time (30+ years, can you believe it?), I can pretty well approximate loading, reps schemes, and sets — even when exercises are paired within a circuit (like the floor press was in this example) with a good deal of accuracy.  Sometimes I’ll exceed expectations and other times I’ll fall short.  And the scary thing is that I usually know how just how I’ll perform in the workout about midway through the warm up, and it all depends upon how my CNS is responding to that warm-up.  Stuff of urban legend, I know — but hey, it’s true.   Just a tad sluggish?  Not today, bud; still, though, you’ve got to “endeavor to persevere”.  Feel like someone just tagged you with a set of crash paddles?  Here comes one for the record books, guaranteed.

And note that the preliminary ballistic movement need not be the exact same movement as the main course — an approximation is fine.  For example, in the workout above, my pre-RDL/SLDL ballistic movement  was an explosive knees-to-chest jump with a “stuck” landing in the full squat position.  I popped-off just 2 or 3 immediately prior to beginning the set.   The same ballistic movement precedes all of my pulling movements; deadlifts, low pulls, clean variations, you name it.

Give pre-set ballistic movements a shot, and let me know what you think.  If anyone out there is following a BBS style workout, I believe a pre-set ballistic movement will really get you primed for added resistance and TUT for each prescribed exercise.  Also, if used properly, I believe vibration plates can elicit similar CNS/fast twitch fiber-stimulating effects.  I think it would be fascinating to study the resulting effects of this: if Dr. McGuff could somehow incorporate vibration technology within the equipment he uses for his machine-based BBS workouts, then compare an “all things equal” pair of study groups — both BBS-trained, one “vibrated”, the other not.  I really believe there is “something to” vibration stimulation vis-a-vis enhanced CNS/fast twitch fiber activation, however, the hucksters have latched onto the “something for nothing” sales angle (loose weight with no effort) and turned the technology into a parody of itself.  Look beneath the hucksterism, though, and I think there’s a worthwhile technology there.

In health,

Keith

19 COMMENTS

  1. Based on your advice to prime the CNS in some previous posts, I applied this to my heavy KB pressing, starting a couple weeks ago.

    Before attempting to press 36kg for a few short sets, I took an extremely light KB (8 or 12kg), held it shotput style, and launched it over my head as high as I could, keeping stiff knees to avoid any contribution from the legs/hips. Just a few singles of this, and I noticed the difference immediately when I got to the heavy presses.

    I’m sold. I apply CNS activation to all my major lifts, and I always realize benefits.

  2. Hey Keith,

    I’m still relatively new to this whole weight lifting thing and I’m trying to get your workout straight in my mind. Do you use the same bar for all three movements in this circuit (I’m trying to see if I could implement this routine in a busier gym)? If so, are you conducting one set after another with little to no rest (just enough to change the weights and get in a few pre-set ballistic movements), adding a larger rest period before repeating the circuit again? If you’re feeling good enough do you sometimes just cut the rest between circuits to nothing and go back to back to back?

    Would the only difference between rdl and sldl be that you go from slightly bent knees to straight knees for the eccentric portion?

    Best,

    Justin

    • I’ve got the luxury of being able to hog a power rack all to myself, so I usually load-up however my bars I need and stage them appropriately. You can, however, devise some single-bar routines if you simply think about what movements you want to hit, then pick exercises with loadings that will accommodate minimal weight changes. For example, I know that I can pull off front squats and some form of jerk using the same loading, and I’ll make up the difference by tweaking the rep scheme of each exercise so as to match the bar load. My between-set rest times vary depending upon what modality I’m working. My usual rule of thumb though is to move as quickly as possible from one movement to the next — not so quick, though, as to compromise form or power output.
      And yes, that’s the difference between the rdl and sldl; and it’s a “feel” thing as well. The rdl will work the upper ham/glute area, with the sldl working more of the entire ham/minimal glute. This is where textbook kinesiology and time in the gym merge.

  3. Great essay, Keith.

    My ‘n=1’ experience: For upper body, I like a few bursts of sprints on the row machine. For lower body and full-kinetic chain, I like jumps on one leg up stairs with medicine ball above my head–this brings proprioception into play right away. My mantra for CNS priming is, “Balance, symmetry, rhythm, and grace”–doesn’t sound very ballistic, but I want to channel my burstiness effectively (ie. avoid dissipating energy in non-productive/powerful ways).

    CNS-priming techniques is a good self-experiment in itself.

    Best,

    Brent

  4. @Keith

    Good stuff as always.

    Another point is that one should endeavor to not only prime the CNS but one’s mental state (which will in turn prime the CNS).

    When I was an active judo player, one of my problems was that I wasn’t always aggressive enough, especially with inferior opponents.

    My coach had me lightly slap my own face, chest, and legs. The light sting would stimulate mental alertness.

    • Interesting you should mention the mental side of CNS priming, Patrik. I’ve got a post on the way inspired by an (extremely in-depth) email I received from TTP reader Pieter on that very subject.

  5. Hey Keith,

    (Sorry about that first post, I accidentally hit the return key and, for some reason, it was posted.)

    Thanks for providing a more in-depth look at CNS priming. I was always a little confused when you mentioned this in previous posts (mostly because I am fairly new to your blog).

    I’m in my late teens and went through most of my high school years trying to piece together some sort of workout plan for the football/baseball/basketball seasons. Not having much guidance from my coaches, I was sort of clueless when it came to working out. So, what resulted was me spending two to three hours a day in the weight room doing as many lifts as I could. (Naturally, I had no clue how to really form a work out, so I simply did everything to try to compensate for this shortcoming.) Well, I gained some muscle but basically hit a plateau I couldn’t get over. Not only that, but even though I was stronger, I can’t say I developed any more speed or quickness.

    And while I’m still definitely not an expert in the field of strength & conditioning, the information you are providing is definitely a step in the right direction. So, thanks again for the info. I’ll keep trying to absorb it.

    -E.M.R

    • Your biggest hurdle will be your ability to shift the tidbits of truth from the plethora of BS surrounding the subject of strength and conditioning. Just remember to keep things simple, yet intense. The secret is that there is no secret. Improvement comes from intelligent, ass-busting work. There are no shortcuts. I’m a big fan of Dan John, and I think everyone beginning their fitness quest ought to read everything the man has written.

      • Definitely . . . except for maybe the stuff about the “velocity diet,” (heh) even though I’m sure it works just fine. I am willing to endure some of Dan’s shameless plugs for T-Muscle’s latest “extreme hugeification” supplements in exchange for some of the gems he has put up thee.

        I suppose it would be easy to call him a sell-out for that, but I can’t really blame him, and I think the world of sports conditioning is certainly still better with him in it.

        I’m going to try to get a copy of his new book. Anyone read it yet?

      • Having fallen for some of that B.S. already, I agree, that definitely is the biggest obstacle right now.

        Thanks for the suggestion, too. I will definitely be checking out Dan John’s work as soon as possible.

        -E.M.R

  6. Very cool article. I’m going to test this out tomorrow.

    So if I’m doing three sets of bench press, would I do some sort of CNS priming (ballistic push-ups in this case) before each set?

    Or does it just make sense to do it before the first work set?

    • Do a few ballistics prior to each set. Just a few, though. Then hop right on the bench. The bigger question is, though, why are you bench pressing? 😉

        • With the exclusion of powerlifting (for obvious reasons), I think one could better spend his time on other lifts, and derive much more benefit than from time spent on the bench press. All manner of standing presses and jerks offer much more bang for the buck in athletic carryover. Weighted dips offer a much better carryover as well. Now, I will do a floor press from time to time, but the emphasis here is on the triceps, and always with an emphasis on max power production (think of the “shoving motion” in sport). As one S&C coach put it to me back in my playing days (and yeah, I benched back then & bragged about the results like the rest of the blockheads), “I could give a shit how much you bench. If you’ve gotta display that ability on the field, then we’ve got bigger issues to deal with.” Now, that’s a paraphrase of his sentiment, but you get the point. And I have to agree. A second issue is, unless you’re particularly suited for the bp (i.e., built like a tyrannosaurus rex), the bottom portion of the movement places the shoulders in an unnatural/vulnerable angle. The risk/reward ratio just isn’t there. If bodybuilding is your thing, I think you’re much better off with Gironda dips, flyes at all angles, cable work and ring work. Just my opinion, though. Of course you’ll find plenty of guys who swear by the bp — but then that takes us right back to my ol’ S&C slave-driver’s sentiment. The bp, in my opinion, is in the same category as the leg press. I suppose under certain circumstances and with certain tweaks, you can make something of the movement — but why bother? — especially when so many better options exist.

  7. Really, no love for the bench press?

    I follow a Mark Rippetoe style workout (full body, squat, press and pull in each workout.) Today’s “press” is the bench press.

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