How Activating the Central Nervous System Before a Workout Improves Performance
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How Activating the Central Nervous System Before a Workout Improves Performance

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A proper warm-up before you begin a weight lifting session can set the stage for enhanced performance, reduce risks of injury, and help you mentally and physically transition from prior activities to your workout.

One essential factor of any well-designed warm-up is also often ignored¡ªpriming your central nervous system (CNS) for action. Your central nervous system sends messages to your muscles to prepare them for desired actions. The better you can communicate the intentions you have for your training with your body, the better you will feel and perform during your workout.

While this may seem like a high-level strategy meant for high-performing athletes, it most certainly is not. Activating your CNS is a simple process that can be done from anywhere, regardless of whether you are a beginner performing bodyweight exercises or an advanced lifter hoping to take your progress to the next level.

Actions of The Central Nervous System

Your CNS consists of your brain and spinal cord. This central communication system uses another part of your nervous system called the peripheral nervous system (PNS) to send and receive messages throughout your body.

Raquel Harris, Trainer and Gold Medal Winner

When working out, it regulates our breathing, movement, and muscle contraction.

¡ª Raquel Harris, Trainer and Gold Medal Winner

The PNS is connected to your entire body and the brain and spinal cord (CNS). Nerves run through your body, receiving signals from your CNS to your muscles, fibers, and organs and sending valuable information back to your brain.

There are two types of systems within the PNS¡ªsomatic and autonomic. Somatic nervous system actions are those you control through voluntary efforts such as deciding to pick something up. The autonomic system is involuntary and consists of actions such as breathing or your heart beating.

To properly prepare your body for the intense work of a strength training session, or another physical activity, sending the proper messages through your autonomic nervous system is essential. This might seem confusing because this aspect of your nervous system is involuntary, but you can still communicate your intentions so your body is prepared for work and ready to perform.

“The central nervous system is responsible for processing information and influencing bodily activity,” says Raquel Harris, FightCamp trainer and Team USA Gold Medal World Championship winner. “When working out, it regulates our breathing, movement, and muscle contraction.”

Benefits of CNS Activation

According to Harris, activating your CNS before resistance training will:

  • Maximize your performance by signaling the recruitment of more muscle fibers.
  • Aid you in breaking plateaus.
  • Control balance and coordination to help you work against a weight or force.

Parasympathetic and Sympathetic States

Your autonomic nervous system has two subcategories¡ªparasympathetic and sympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system helps your body get ready to face stress including physical stress.

You have likely heard of “fight, flight, or freeze.” This description of your nervous system response is the sympathetic aspect. Likewise, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for relaxation and de-stressing, also described as “rest and digest.”

It is wise to perform some calming movements and actions after your workout to return your body to a parasympathetic state.

This can include stretching, lying with your legs elevated, relaxing yoga poses like corpse pose, and box breathing. You can also take a warm shower or bath, foam roll, or get a massage. Returning to a calm state will aid in recovery and reduce stress hormone production.

Why Athletes Need Rest and Recovery After Exercise

Why Activating Your CNS Is Important

Activating your CNS can increase your performance and prevent injuries. Think of the process as a way of waking up and alerting your entire body to what you are about to do.

Before you begin a training session, communicating to your body that you are going into a physically stressful situation will help your entire body and brain prepare for the work ahead. This concept is known as post-activation potentiation (PAP). PAP helps increase force and power production, which in turn enhances your weight lifting performance.

Waking up and activating your nervous system can help increase the number of motor units you recruit. Motor units produce the force behind any voluntary or involuntary movement in the body and provide the force necessary to lift weights.

Whenever you train, your brain is trying to adapt and learn what you are doing and the purpose for it. The term "muscle memory" describes this interaction.

If you have ever started up a new strength training routine for the first time or after an extended break, you may have felt awkward for the first few sessions, or even weeks, depending on your prior experience.

However, once you have completed a few sessions, you likely have felt more adept at performing the movements and can significantly increase your weights, repetitions, or both. This phenomenon has more to do with your neural drive and "muscle memory" than it has to do with your true potential physical abilities.

Training your CNS to wake up and pay attention can increase the likelihood that you will develop a solid mind-muscle connection and the muscle memory that will carry forward into your future training.

How to Activate Your CNS for Resistance Training

After all of the scientific background behind the central nervous system's role in training, it may seem daunting to put it into practice. However, activating your CNS before resistance training is fairly straightforward and is neither time-consuming nor difficult.

Perform a General Warm-Up

The first step is to perform a general warm-up. General warm-ups should use large muscle groups and be of low intensity.

You do not want to exhaust yourself before you have begun the actual work. A general warm-up provides the following benefits to prepare your CNS (and entire body) for work:

  • Increases blood flow
  • Enhances nerve impulse speed
  • Increases nutrient delivery to working muscles
  • Removes metabolic by-products faster
  • Facilitates the release of oxygen from hemoglobin and myoglobin
  • Warms muscles, so they contract more effectively, leading to increased force production
  • Lowers joints' resistance to flow via increased synovial fluid uptake (joint lubrication)
  • Increases joint range of motion
  • Improves joint resiliency
  • Reduces risk of injury

Performing a general warm-up is simple. Any aerobic activity will work, so choose anything you prefer. This can be the use of a rowing machine, elliptical trainer, stair climber, treadmill, or performing bodyweight movements such as light jumping jacks or jogging in place.

Adding some dynamic movements with bodyweight will further help you ramp up in preparation for more explosive movements. Use the rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE) of 1 to 10 to determine your general warm-up effort.

Stick to an exertion rating of between 5 to 6, which is akin to a moderate-paced walk or slow jog. You should be able to speak clearly without taking a pause during this amount of effort.

"Before firing up your CNS with explosive movements, lead your workout with a dynamic warm-up," says Harris. "After completing your warm-up, build up into your explosive movements to give your muscles time to get acclimated to your final movement."

Sample Dynamic Warm-Up

Here is an example of a dynamic warm-up:

  • 30 seconds of skips
  • 30 seconds of hops
  • 30 seconds of squat jumps
  • 30 seconds of right power kicks
  • 30 seconds of left power kicks
  • 30 seconds of plank tucks

Here Is a Dynamic Warm-Up to Add Before Your Workout

Incorporate Explosive Movements

Explosive movements can excite and prepare your CNS for lifting weights, especially if they are heavy, use multiple muscle groups, and therefore require a lot of neural activity and force production. These types of movements require power and speed.

Plyometric exercises are an excellent example of this. You can streamline your warm-up by performing explosive actions that correspond with the body parts and muscle groups you will be training in that session.

For instance, before a training session involving barbell squats, you can perform jump squats, broad jumps, or box jumps. Before deadlifting, you could perform kettlebell swings, cleans, or snatches. Prior to bench pressing, try plyometric push-ups or medicine ball chest slams or presses. These movements will also serve double duty by raising your heart rate, increasing blood flow, and improving mobility before you lift.

Tips for Explosive Warm-Ups

Here are some tips to make the most of your explosive warm-up:

  • Choose a movement that corresponds with the main body part being trained.
  • Perform the exercise before your set and/or in between sets.
  • Keep the warm-up movement brief so that you do not fatigue the muscle.
  • Use maximal effort during the movement.
  • Try performing two sets of 3 to 5 reps per body part being worked that session.

Another way to prime your CNS for action is to approach your maximum effort on a lift. However, this method is riskier for beginners and should only be performed if you have a spotter and are an experienced lifter.

To do it, perform an exercise close to your maximum intensity such as 85% 1RM. This is typically done by athletes prior to performing high-velocity activities such as sprints, or jumping.

How to Safely Perform Plyometric Rebounding Exercises

A Word From Verywell

Warming up your body helps prepare you for the work ahead. Activating your central nervous system will boost your performance by increasing motor neuron recruitment and engaging your sympathetic nervous system so you can better handle the physical stressors ahead.

Although this process may seem complex, priming your nervous system is as simple as warming up with some light aerobic activity before performing some explosive movements that wake up the muscles being worked. Try this strategy before your next workout to see increased performance and reduced injury risks.

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