Strength Training and Neurology

I’d like to talk a little bit about the role of neurology in strength and strength training.  It’s something I didn’t understand very well when I first started lifting weights.

One component of strength, of course, is simply having more muscle mass.  But a very important aspect of strength is training the nervous system to “fire” more muscle fibers at once.

All of us have the hidden potential to perform amazing feats of strength.

I was watching, for example, a show on National Geographic called Superhuman.  There was an account of a middle-aged woman who saw her grown son trapped in the wheel well of his car after the jack fell out.  This non-athletic woman picked up the car (a dead lift type move) and held it up for several minutes until help arrived.  The incredible feat of strength saved her son’s life.

Let’s use lighting strike victims as another example.  It is common for these people to suffer broken or dislocated bones due to the incredibly severe muscle contractions caused by the strike.

Why don’t we lift cars or dislocate our joints all the time?  Well, the nervous system is designed to prevent all the muscle fibers from contracting at one time.  It’s kind of a “safety feature” of the human body.  It keeps our bones intact and it ensures we’ll have the needed muscular energy to do more than one thing.

In the case of the middle-aged mom, a powerful rush of adrenaline allowed most of her muscle fibers to exert maximum effort.  In the case of lightning, the electricity completely overrides the body’s nervous system.

Strength athletes train their nervous systems to utilize a large number of muscle fibers on command (without the before-mentioned extraordinary circumstances).  This is why powerlifters often use the 2-3 rep range—they are training their bodies to exert maximum effort on a single lift.

I’ll talk more about the practical application of this in future articles.

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