Strongman Brian Shaw is currently the reigning World’s Strongest Man champion, and for good reason — he can deadlift over 1,022 pounds. Although most would assume Shaw achieved this feat by having the biggest muscles in the competition due to countless hours spent lifting, they’d only be partially correct. Building muscle through resistance training is just one aspect of increasing strength. There’s another equally important driver of strength that athletes can train to see even more improvement in muscle force output: the brain.
Classical Theory of Strength
Most athletes are familiar with the basics of traditional strength training science. When athletes lift weights, they’re essentially creating minuscule tears in muscle tissue. The body responds to this damage by adapting to and repairing these tears — “adapting” in this case means more muscle mass, and “repairing” means stronger tissue. This biological mechanism is known as hypertrophy.
Although most athletes are somewhat familiar with the concept of hypertrophy, the mechanism is an extremely simplified macro-model of strength. At a microscopic level, muscles are made of fibers bunched into groups, innervated by a single motor neuron. A group of muscle fibers plus a motor neuron is called a motor unit, and when activated by the neuron, all of the muscle fibers in the unit contract.
Because the number of activated motor units determines the force of a muscle contraction, a muscle will produce a greater force if more groups of motor units are activated simultaneously. In a 2003 scientific review on training-induced changes in neural function, Danish scientist Per Aagard found that more frequent activation of motor units also results in greater force production.
Activation of the motor unit depends on the brain pushing motor neurons to fire. Thus, unless the brain drives motor neurons above threshold, muscles simply lie dormant, and it would be impossible for athletes to become stronger.
Strength Training = Brain + Muscles
Since muscles are activated by neurons, the brain is equally as important as the muscles when it comes to strength. In fact, scientists have long known that there exists a strong relationship between physical and neurological strength. Back in 2006, Canadian scientist Dr. David Gabriel published a review in Sports Medicine showing that neural output from the central nervous system (CNS) to active muscle fibers increases when an athlete adheres to an effective and focused strength training regimen. In scientific terms, muscle training strengthens neuromuscular circuitry, which allows muscles to produce even more force. Thus, resistance training is as much brain training as it is muscle building.
Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between the brain and muscle power, and discuss how athletes can integrate neurological training into existing strength routines.
Neural Drive: How the Brain Activates Muscles
As explained in The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: An Introduction, the brain communicates with the body to create strength via “neural drive” — an electrical signal sent from the brain to the muscular system. This signal originates in the motor cortex and passes through the spinal cord to the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), a special connection at the site of the muscle where nerves and muscle fibers converge.
At the NMJ, the electrical signal is converted into a chemical signal that causes the muscle fibers to contract. As discussed above, when multiple bundles of muscle fibers contract, force is generated. Optimal signal transmission is essential: without a strong, synchronous electrical signal from the brain, the muscle will fail to generate maximum force. In essence, muscles alone can’t lift weights — bodies need perfectly coordinated, powerful electrical output from the brain.
Repetition: How the Brain Makes Muscles Stronger
There’s actually a very good reason to listen to coaches that insist practice makes perfect: the brain loves repetition. Brian Shaw didn’t become the strongest man in the world overnight. Rather, he lifts everything from weights to small SUVs at least four times a week to prepare for a competition. This commitment to repetitive training strengthens neural drive, which increases motor unit activation and results in greater strength production.
However, reps alone are not worth anything if the wrong form is used. If Shaw did deadlifts with no regard for proper form, his brain would activate the the wrong muscle fibers and strengthen incorrect pathways. By using the right movement to build strength — every single rep — the brain learns to fire the correct muscles in the right order.
Three Secrets Regarding the Brain’s Role in Strength Training
Research in the field of neuroscience has continuously validated the crucial role of neural drive and repetition in strength training. The literature repeatedly points to three fundamental conclusions that all athletes need to be aware of:
- Athletes naturally train their brains during a workout. However, athletes who fail to focus specifically on neurological training while working out are limiting their athletic potential.
- By focusing on neurological training during a workout, athletes can unlock their true athletic potential at an accelerated rate.
- When combined with strength training, neurological training comes with the additional benefit of “cross-education” — i.e. training the brain to more effectively strengthen one muscle group indirectly strengthens contralateral muscle groups.
In regards to the first point, it is important to understand that all athletes naturally strengthen neuromuscular circuitry through the act of working out. However, if athletes only train their body and don’t target the brain specifically, the brain does not activate muscles to their full capacity. This means that even the most elite, skilled athletes have room to improve, regardless of their strength training program.
According to a study published in Sports Medicine by Australian scientist Dr. Anthony Shield, the brain rarely activates all motor units in a muscle group at once, even if an athlete is pushing his or her muscles to their maximum. However, with repetitive strength training, the brain does learn to activate motor units in a more synchronous manner, and the deficit decreases overtime. Nevertheless, it is unlikely for an athlete to achieve maximum strength with physical athletic training alone. If athletes wish to come close to their true athletic potential, they must find methods to more thoroughly activate motor units.
Fortunately, research indicates that athletes can train the brain to more effectively drive motor units through neurological training. At the beginning of a strength training regimen, it is common to experience rapid improvements in performance after just a week or two. It might seem that this improvement is due to muscle growth, but in reality, changes in muscle size do not typically appear until 3–5 weeks into training. A study published by Professor Toshio Moritani in the American Journal of Physical Medicine revealed that early strength gains actually result from the brain learning to optimally connect with the muscle — i.e. increased neural drive. Thus, if athletes add focused neurological training to their existing strength routines, they can see accelerated strength gains very rapidly.
Research reveals another exciting potential byproduct of neurological training: accelerating the phenomenon of “cross-education”. Cross-education dictates that training one muscle group inadvertently strengthens muscle groups that aren’t being directly targeted, due to the brain’s organization and patterns of activation. This is supported by a 2007 study in Sports Medicine, which found that strength training exercises performed on one side of the body increase strength on the “contralateral”, or opposite, side (e.g. if an athlete trains the right biceps, they will see improvement in the left biceps as well).
Furthermore, a group of scientists from the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia published a scientific review observing that the contralateral strength training effect is 8% of initial strength — or about half the increase in strength of the trained side. Therefore, by training the brain alongside the body, athletes have the unique opportunity to accelerate improvements not only in the trained muscle and corresponding motor pathways, but also in the pathways activating the untrained limb.
Modern Technology That Trains the Brain to Optimize Strength
Research indicates that athletes would benefit immensely from training the brain, but up until now, the discussion has only been theoretical. At Halo Neuroscience, we’ve developed a concrete solution to address the challenge of training the neuromuscular circuitry of athletes. Our product, Halo Sport, uses cutting-edge brain stimulation techniques to allow athletes to tap into their muscles’ full capacity.
When combined with an existing strength training regimen, the Halo Sport headset induces a temporary state of hyper-learning or hyperplasticity in the motor cortex. This enables the brain to send stronger and more synchronized signals to the muscles, leading to stronger and more explosive muscle contractions. In this way, athletes can train their brains to drive their muscles to their true potential, rendering workouts more productive and efficient.
By accelerating the creation and coordination of neuromuscular connections, athletes achieve accelerated gains in strength. For example, Halo recently conducted a double-blind, sham controlled case study of elite athletes training at Michael Johnson Performance Center (MJP). After five weeks of training, the group wearing Halo Sport during their workouts saw an increase in lower body strength of 12 percent, as measured by the Air Squat, Counter Jump, and Squat Jump.
Compare that to the control group, which only saw an increase of 0–4 percent.
Another partnership with the U.S. Olympic Ski and Snowboard Team produced excellent results for Olympic Ski Jumpers looking to increase propulsive force:
Excelling in any sport requires superior strength, whether you’re LeBron powering beyond a defender to make a monster dunk, or Aaron Rodgers completing a 50 yard pass. This is why a focused neurological training regimen is so important.
But of course, athletes have more tools available to them than just raw power. A huge focal area for the pros involves decreasing the time it takes to develop maximal force — what is commonly known as “explosiveness.” More on this in our next installment — The Athlete’s Guide to the Brain: Explosiveness.
Curious about taking the next step towards using your brain to unlock more strength? Try Halo Sport risk free with our 30 day money back guarantee. Order yours here.
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