Weightlifting is bad for your brain

Brain instead of muscles: CNS training

The central nervous system is involved at all essential levels in terms of athletic performance. According to John Shepherd, understanding the role of the central nervous system (CNS) and how to use it in the best possible way is absolutely critical to achieving maximum training adaptation.

What is the CNS?

The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord and is a control system of the body. The brain is a highly complex organ with many functions. With regard to athletic performance, the areas of the cerebellum and the diencephalon are very important.

Understanding the role of these areas of the brain also realizes the important role the CNS plays in athletic performance.

The role of the brain in exercise

CNS: The cerebellum

The cerebellum is the second largest part of the brain. It is involved in the coordination of the muscles that ensure precise movement sequences and control of balance and posture.

CNS and the diencephalon

The diencephalon consists of 2 important parts, the thalamus and the hypothalamus. The thalamus acts like a relay station. It receives sensory nerve impulses and forwards them to the responsible departments in the brain for further processing.

So it ensures that the brain knows what is happening outside of the body. The hypothalamus is of vital importance because it creates constant conditions within the body. He regulates z. B. the body temperature, the feeling of hunger and thirst and controls the release of hormones via the adjacent pituitary gland.

The interaction of receptor and effector organs

Receptor organs are the ears, the eyes and, in the context of this article, especially the muscles. These organs receive the information, which is then passed on via the CNS. The CNS evaluates this information and sends it back to the effector organs. These in turn trigger the body's reaction to a stimulus.

In connection with athletic performance, there is a lot of discussion about the unconscious and conscious reactions of the CNS. Some actions are largely automatic, e.g. B. the stretch reflex of the leg muscles when jumping. Others seem to be interpreted specifically in the brain, e.g. B. the drowsiness signals at the end of a marathon. With this variant, however, the will becomes the main influencing factor when deciding on the reason for the success achieved.

Fatigue during a game / competition or after some exercise programs that do not provide for renewal of the CNS energy can adversely affect athletic performance. Regardless of whether this is interpreted consciously or unconsciously (more on that later).

Do sports - activate the CNS

Scientific research shows that prolonged physical activity has an impact on how the CNS controls muscle formation and building. For example, Finnish researchers studied the influence of exercise on leg muscle coordination during concentric jumps and vertical drop jumps. (1)

Test persons were selected from 5 different groups of athletes: long jumpers, swimmers, soccer players and good and less good high jumpers. One focus of this study was "motor versatility" - the ability of an athlete to transfer skills that he possesses in one sport to another. The research team looked at various movement models to determine how muscles are formed in athletes and what role the CNS plays in this.

What influence does the CNS have on the formation and development of muscles?

As expected, the jumpers performed the vertical jumps the most forcefully. Their legs were more stiff than those of the swimmers, who turned out to be the worst jumpers (their leg muscles were more geared towards pedaling). The researchers found in particular that the CNS had an influence on the formation and development of muscles and their structure in the participating athletes.

The agonistic and the antagonistic muscles in the thighs and lower legs of the swimmers showed an increased contraction, while the jumpers showed a reciprocal transmission of stimuli. The swimmers were unable to produce as strong a stretch reflex in their leg muscles as the jumpers. The reason for this is a different fire pattern, which resulted in poor jumping performance.

The central nervous system and muscle coordination

The soccer players, however, showed a medium degree of stimulus transmission. However, the tendency towards a new surge of activity at the end of the contact phase when jumping weakened their jumping ability. In contrast, the jumpers' legs showed dynamic, rapid and sequential firing and developed jumping power. The jumping movement of the footballers was less natural, because here the muscles were fired more in a staccato.

The researchers justified these differences with the specific characteristics of the respective sports and in particular the years of training and its consequences for the CNS. They concluded that "Prolonged training in a particular sport causes the central nervous system to program muscle coordination according to the demands of that sport" and beyond "the learned ability-reflex-pattern of the CNS seems to intervene hierarchically in the performance program of other tasks“.

This is positive if you train properly in your sport and maximize the potential of the CNS in order to increase the desired training effect. However, it is less positive as you switch sport and adopt new movement patterns that could be affected by doing the previous sport. It is also not good if you exercise in such a way that it interferes with the involvement of the CNS in your sport.

In this way, the CNS optimally supports athletic performance

The CNS affects athletic performance under both aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions:

Aerobic energy metabolism and the CNS

If the glycogen stores in the muscles were not depleted and the muscles overheating, the human body would probably be able to train indefinitely in the aerobic area. However, the CNS plays a crucial role in reducing endurance. When tired, it switches off the athlete's aerobic motor - or at least brakes it, because the fatigue signals are sent by the receptor organs and interpreted accordingly.

For interpretation, sports scientists have presented a number of models that try to explain why athletes perceive states of exhaustion differently. A good starting point is the literature of the famous running doctor Tim Noakes on his theory of the "central regulator".

Anaerobic energy metabolism and the CNS

For example, if an athlete sprints to exhaustion during a workout (and forgets all chemical reactions that take place in the muscles and the heart, for example), the receptor muscles would continuously transmit very strong exhaustion signals via the CNS. This would result in the athlete dropping out abruptly. However, exhaustion also weakens the CNS for far less obvious reasons, such as breaks between sets in high-intensity weight training (over 80% of 1 RM) or between sprints with 100% effort. This will be discussed here.

Monitoring the CNS - optimizing athletic performance

The focus on strength training, the development of speed and rapid strength makes it clear how important it is to plan and monitor training extremely carefully with regard to the CNS and how this affects athletic performance. Table 1 shows examples of training options that put a lot of stress on the CNS.

Tudor Bompa, a leader in strength training, has sought effective strategies for planning and designing timed strength training programs that will effectively improve athletic performance while maintaining CNS integrity. He writes: "There are more and more indications that the performance of the CNS is significantly more restricted than assumed." (2)

Table 1: A selection of high-intensity training options that can lead to overuse of the CNS (if the athlete is not included in the athlete's training program under the supervision of a coach)

1) Weightlifting over 80% of 1RM

2) combined weight lifting exercises, e.g. B. Tearing and bumping

3) Speed ​​training with 100% effort and with complete regeneration between the repetitions

4) Plyometry exercises with maximum effort

5) Exercises for maximum agility and slowing down the speed

6) Anaerobic endurance exercises with maximum effort (e.g. short time intervals with maximum effort)

7) Competitions

(http://www.thejump101.com/art/weight/highlo wtraining.html)

CNS Training: The Importance of the Mental Dimension

During CNS training, the optimal conditions for improving maximum muscle contraction must be created. Because in addition to fatigue, another factor also plays a role: the mental dimension.

For example, if you want to lift very heavy weights as quickly as possible, it will require significant mental and physical effort, as well as maximum neural stimulation. The athlete has to be mentally "in top shape". There are also motivational techniques with music that can help athletes focus better, feel less tired, and thus improve performance.

In the 1980s, Bompa worked with Charlie Francis, coach of the headline-grabbing Canadian athlete Ben Johnson. Bompa denies having anything to do with drugs. However, he did tell Francis how to make the most of CNS training.

The role of the CNS in the preparation of competitive athletes

The "Charlie Francis Training System" is an interesting read because it confirmed the important role of the CNS in the preparation of competitive athletes 20 years ago. (3) The workouts of Johnson and other Francis' protégés often changed - depending on their effect on the CNS. Prescribed rest periods were extremely important, as was the trainer's “intuitive feeling” for when the athlete had “had enough” during a workout.

For example, after an absolute peak performance in training and / or competition, Francis prescribed “recovery training” of 7-10 days. Often these were totally unexpected measures for the athletes, because, thanks to their performance, they were often so ecstatic that they wanted to compete in more competitions or try to do 100% physical exertion. However, Francis was of the opinion that athletes who follow this impulse are more prone to injury or are to blame for a decline in CNS performance because of the excessive stress. This in turn would be negative for athletic performance.

During athletics training, Francis made sure that his sprinters did not run faster than 95% of the maximum speed. He even cut training sessions to save CNS energy. If an athlete ran a personal best in training, the training was over for him and he did not need to do any more training runs. This enabled him to save CNS energy and thus reduce the potential for injury.

“Complex / Contrast” training

When considering the extent to which the CNS can bring about an increase in athletic performance through increased muscle contraction, the "potentiation" of the firing of the muscles should also be included. This is also known as “power combination” or “complex / contrast” training.

It has been shown that sprints before weight training or before plyometric exercises - or vice versa - increase performance in the subsequent activity. With potentization, a number of stimulating conditions occur in muscle firing, which stimulate the neural excitation, the motor unit and the muscle fiber development and reduce the inhibition.

For example, a 30 m sprint can pave the way for a subsequent increased performance in an activity that requires rapid strength and in which similar muscle groups are involved, e.g. B. squats with maximum repetitions or vertical jump. However, reinforcing activity must not lead to excessive CNS fatigue. This would impair the transfer effect.

CNS Fatigue: Bompa's Philosophy

With regard to weight training to improve explosive strength, Bompa believes that repetitions are an important training variable in the fight against CNS fatigue. He recommends doing few repetitions, but with very high loads of over 90% of 1RM in order to develop strength that boosts speed and speed and ensures increased involvement of the CNS. The recovery times between sets of 1–3 repetitions can be as long as 6 minutes!

The decisive factor here is that these stresses cause an increased state of excitement and a better receptor, increased recruitment of motor units and greater nervous stimulation. Such loads and recovery times also contributed to the development of maximum strength and did not cause any increases in muscle mass. This would be unfavorable for the athlete's strength-to-weight ratio.

CNS training and "speed"

According to Bompa, there are two processes in the CNS that affect athletic performance - "excitement" and "inhibition". These have roughly the function of effectors and receptors (see above). The speed with which signals are sent from the receptors to the effectors and back again determines a state of arousal or inhibition.

In order to move the body as quickly as possible, for example when sprinting, the signal transmission through the CNS must also take place at the highest possible speed. For an optimal formation of fast muscle fibers (FT), the receptors and effectors of an athlete must therefore be optimally excited and disinhibited.

CNS fatigue slows down the rate of arousal, especially with the FT fibers, which then tire much faster than the slow muscle fibers (ST). Consequently - according to Bompa - exercises should only be carried out for as long as possible with “speed”. To ensure this speed, watch out for the following symptoms of CNS fatigue:

1) longer ground contact times when sprinting or doing plyometric exercises (jumping)

2) slower speed when lifting weights and less lifting performance when lifting weights

3) reduced performance in sport-specific activities

How to plan your workout

When planning the training program, it is essential to pay attention to when high-intensity training units (workouts that tire the CNS) take place and at what intervals. Bompa recommends a regeneration phase of 48 hours between high-intensity workouts. An athlete can complete several equally intensive training units on the same training day.

This is partly due to the potentiation effect, but also serves to gain time so that the next day can be used to regenerate the CNS. For example, a sprinter could do sprint training and equally intense plyometrics on the same day. On the following training day, however, the training should be designed in such a way that the CNS is not challenged - i.e. H. there could be tempo runs (medium pace at which the anaerobic system is not unduly stressed) or team meetings and less intense games.


The role of the CNS in enhancing athletic performance requires special attention. Here the key for z. B. more speed and speed power. Trainers and athletes should become aware of the importance of the CNS and introduce appropriate strategies during training and competition that ensure maximum participation of the CNS in athletic performance.

John Shepherd is a specialist author for health, sport and fitness and a former international long jumper

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1. Journal of Electromyography and Clinical Neurophysiology 2003. Vol. 43 (3), pp. 141-56

2. Bompa, T. et al: Periodization training for sports. Human Kinetics 2005, 2nd edition

3. The Charlie Francis Training System - at www.charliefrancis.com


Stretch reflex - an eccentric (lengthening) muscle contraction that increases the power of the subsequent concentric (shortening) contraction of the same muscle group (s)

Concentric jump - a jump from a held knee flexion position, e.g. B. 45 °, which prevents a stretch reflex from occurring when jumping

Drop jump - A jump from a platform, which leads to a stretch reflex when it hits the ground and promotes jumping power and speed

Agonistic muscle - the main muscle involved in creating a particular movement, e.g. B. The biceps in the lift phase of a biceps curl

Antagonistic muscle - the opponent of the muscle involved in a muscle contraction. In the lifting phase of a biceps curl, this would be e.g. B. the triceps

Glycogen - a form of storage of carbohydrates in the muscles, it is used as an energy supplier

FT fibers (fast muscle fibers) - They contract 2 to 3 times faster than the slow muscle fibers

ST muscle fibers (slow muscle fibers) - They can maintain a slower rate of contraction for longer periods of time

Motor unit - an impulse-conducting nerve cell and the muscle fibers it innervates