Training the Central Nervous System for Improved Sporting Performance

Posted on 03. Mar, 2014 by in Fitness, Theory to Practice

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” -Anais Nin

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The epitome of explosiveness; the central nervous system in action.

One strength and conditioning falsehood that never seems to die is the notion that the Central Nervous System cannot be effectively trained.  In other words, much like speed, you’ve got what you were born with, and nothing much can be done about that.  The close cousin to this thought is the idea that weight training will make one muscle-bound and slow.  Actually the latter idea does have a bit of merit, in that *improper* training (or periodization) can actually blunt optimum CNS functioning, thereby making an athlete slower and less powerful.  That, though, is another story for another time.

The “non-trainable CNS” argument is one that HIT/SuperSlow purists will haul out in support of training athletes in purely in HIT/SuperSlow fashion.  This argument generally follows the line that, since the CNS cannot be effectively trained AND that the same strength, size and power can be realized with HIT/SuperSlow protocols as with other “riskier” protocols, it’s obviously a better return on investment and sensible from the point-of-view of risk-avoidance, to train athletes thusly.  If only that were true.  Anyone who has spent any appreciable time in a progressive S&C program though, will realize the fallacy of that idea.  An athlete trained in a forced-slow manner will, in fact, become slow (Cal Dietz touches on this towards the end of the second clip below).  Collegiate S&C coaches unfortunately have to deal with this on a year-in, year-out basis, which is why they are so determined to keep kids on campus over the summer.  The last thing you want is for your star cornerback to go home for the summer, lift bro-style for two months with his buds, and come back to campus moving as if he were mired in quicksand.  This isn’t an exaggeration — I’ve seen it happen more times than I care to remember.  And of course we’re speaking in relative terms, here.  The kid is still blindingly fast to the untrained eye, and when placed against the backdrop of “normal” human beings.  Problem is, he’s not competing against normal human beings; he has to be fast among the fastest .001%.  In this sphere, a step slow means you just lost your starting position.

And let me just add here, that the exercise selection for the purposes of “training fast” does not have to be overdraught with highly technical Olympic lifting.  Oly lifts and derivatives can certainly be a part of the mix, of course, but basic compound exercises — loaded and performed with the proper “speed” techniques — can be just as effective.  Think jump squats and reactive push-ups, dips, and pull-ups.  Oscillatory dumbbell presses and split squats.   Low on technical ability, high on safety and investment return.  

So, like speed, an athlete’s reactivity, rate of force development, and ultimate power production (and absorption) can be safely and effectively trained. There’s no turning a Clydesdale into a quarterhorse — genetics do factor into the equation quite heavily (thus the emphasis on recruiting speed) — but that Clydesdale can sure as hell train to be quicker, faster and more powerful than before.

Now, CNS optimization applies to high-end athletes; those who have the time and need to schedule this type of training into a highly monitored and periodized overall scheme.  Does the general trainee, the beginning trainee, or the health and/or body composition-only trainee need to worry about any of this?  Probably not.  Work capacity and strength need to be the bedrock of any S&C program.  However, I do escew “forced-slow” training, and purposely work some “ballistic” type work into my Efficient Exercise clientele’s overall programming.  Why?  Because even in a relatively “safe” environment, normal people still accidentally step off curbs and into divots.  Falls happen and heavy things teeter and must be caught or braced.  Gravity is, like it or not, ever present.  And, it’s a real bitch.  Being able to react positively to it, without getting hurt, is a big plus.

So let’s give this idea some context: A big engine alone — strength and hypertrophy for hypertrophy’s sake — won’t cut it in sports. That engine *has* to be finely tuned as well; instantaneous power production and speed rule in the realm of sport.  And the same idea applies to endurance sport, though the time parameters obviously change considerably.

In my mind, Cal Dietz, of the University of Minnesota (and author of Triphasic Training), is the best in the business at administering this kind of training philosophy in a sporting population.  If you want to learn everything there is (currently) to know about the training of explosive/speed athletes, he’s the man.

So what’s my contribution in all of this?  Well, as I see it, taking my working experiences in a high level S&C environment, and distilling the major portions of that knowledge and experience into useful take-aways for the trainee like me: that person who wants to maximize performance while juggling a hectic, “other life”.  My “contribution” is in teasing out those aspects of periodization, autoregulation, and specialized speed work that can be implemented within a real-world workout scheme.  In other words, melding high-end athletic training ideas to a real-world trainee’s goals and Five T’s.

That said, here are a couple of pertinent Cal Dietz videos on the subject.  The first, “High Velocity Peaking Methods and Techniques in Sports Specificity Part 1”

and part 2…

Now this is for sure upper-level stuff, and meant to be applied to upper-level athletes.  But the basic ideas of “accumulation, intensification and transmutation” hold true.  The basics of Autoregulation are ever present.  And above all, you’ve got to have a firm grasp on your particular goals and Five T’s.  

For example, there is a huge contingent of folks who merely want to train for health/fitness or for body composition purposes (bodybuilding/bikini competition).  Would a trainee who is solely concerned with health and general fitness results need to spend valuable time working ballistics and speed work?  How about a bodybuilder?  No, as there are much better, return-on-invest means available to accomplish those tasks.

But if you *are* an athlete, you’re simply leaving a hell of a lot of performance on the table by not specifically targeting the Central Nervous System in your overall training scheme.

A few related posts:

http://ancestralmomentum.com/2009/12/marv-marinovich-off-his-friggin-rocker-or-genius/

http://ancestralmomentum.com/2009/10/more-on-central-nervous-system-priming/

 http://ancestralmomentum.com/2012/02/surfing-the-force-velocity-curve/

http://ancestralmomentum.com/2010/10/an-evolutionary-fitness-refresher-and-the-importance-of-the-central-nervous-system/

http://ancestralmomentum.com/2014/02/arxfit-technology-and-the-french-contrast-method/

In health, fitness and ancestral wellness -

Keith

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3 Responses to “Training the Central Nervous System for Improved Sporting Performance”

  1. Craig

    13. Mar, 2014

    OK. You’ve convinced me that the CNS is, to a certain extent, trainable, that some improvements in power production and explosiveness can be gotten via training, and that a case can be made for including a little bit of this into even the average Joe’s training routine.

    So what happens as you get older: I know that the ability to move explosively, produce power, etc., declines more rapidly than overall (pure/slow?) strength. At the same time connective tissues start to lose resilience, so injury risk rises for ballistic movements.

    So should you train more for power/speed to offset the effects of aging, but do it differently to minimize the injury risk? Or just accept the inevitable, and focus mainly on not getting hurt?

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    • theorytopractice

      16. Mar, 2014

      Sorry it took me so long to get to this, Craig. Paleo f(x) planning is in full hyper-drive!

      Of course, the best scenario is to have done just what I have done throughout my life — stay in good shape, and not let ballistic training slip from your repertoire. That’s the “well, no shit” cop-out answer. But what to do if you are older and/or new to ballistic training. Again, the cop-out caveat of “start slow and ease in”. This has to be done, though, (the easing in) so as to prevent injury and/or joint/tendon inflammation.

      This is where a good trainer / coach becomes invaluable to assess where you are now. For instance, a good ability progression into lower body plyometrics would be a basic power clean, to box jumps, to depth jumps, and finally reactive jumps. nd this is all, of course, after a solid foundation of lower body strength has been built via squats, deadlifts, etc.

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  2. Alex

    20. Mar, 2014

    What you’ve written about training the central nervous system to improve one’s competitive output does make a lot of sense particularly if one is an athlete with dreams of becoming the top. I, for one simply do some workouts, running and sprinting for personal health and fitness. But it’s good to keep in mind what you say.

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