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Train Your Central Nervous System for Optimal Strength Gains

March 05, 2011

Train Your Central Nervous System for Optimal Strength Gains

Perhaps one of the most critical elements in a human’s nervous system development is the central nervous system. It is also complemented by a secondary element which is called the peripheral nervous system.

The central nervous system is responsible for the reception of information generated by the nervous system as well as the coordination of information across the body’s nerves (Brodal, 2010). Now, this brings forth the question of how the central nervous system interacts with strength training.

Central Nervous System Fatigue

When strength training takes place, a certain level of fatigue will be generated. The natural response to this fatigue is generally rest.

Additionally, fatigue occurs at two different levels. At the first level, fatigue is generally accepted to occur at the muscles. Next, fatigue also takes place within the central nervous system.

The fatigue takes place due to the excessive electrical pulse that is transmitted between the central nervous system and muscles (JM, 1997). This movement of electrical pulses between the central nervous system and muscles is what allows for muscular contractions to take place.

The excessive use of these nerve pathways is what causes fatigue, which then translates into weakened signal transmission (JM, 1997). So now this brings into question, what this means for the regular weightlifter.

There are several tell-tale symptoms associated with central nervous system fatigue due to weight lifting. The most easily recognizable ones include a lack of motivation, less than positive mood levels, hindered cognitive ability and a very skewed perception of how hard an individual is putting forth physical efforts in their workouts.

The last symptom basically means that individuals are working much harder than they think, resulting in a delusional perception of how hard one is allegedly exerting themselves (Brodal, 2010).

So if you are feeling these symptoms, perhaps it is your body’s way of urging you to get some more rest, take care of your nutrition and find an improved balance in both your training frequency and intensity. For example, if you find yourself training between the 3-5 repetition range for a total of 15 or more exercises at a rate of 6 times a week, it may be worth recalibrating your workout regimen.

In many cases, this may mean increasing intensity but reducing frequency to 3 or 4 times a week. If you do not find yourself suffering from symptoms of central nervous system fatigue, then just keep going with your current workout regimen.

Keep in mind that being persistent beyond fatigue will most likely not give you the results you seek though.

Central Nervous System Training

So it is evident that a fatigued central nervous system needs rest, but it is also important to not under-train. This is where the challenge lies, simply finding a balance between training too much and too little.

When you challenge yourself properly, you are also challenging your central nervous system in a healthy manner. This means that you are training your central nervous system in responding quicker and stronger. This is what sets apart truly strong lifters and average gym-goers (Brodal, 2010).

There is a critical element involved in reaching this point, and that is avoiding the tendency to train until failure on a regular basis. This will most likely achieve central nervous system fatigue and do little for its development. This may involve training between the 4 and 7 rep ranges for several sets. The weight should be reasonably heavy, but not so heavy that portions of your effort are being transferred to ligaments and joints.

If you are not sure of what the right weight is for your exercises, try starting low and spend a few weeks progressing to your tipping point in terms of weight (Capadia, n.d.).

Now there are some schools of thought that advise an even lower rep range to achieve true central nervous system and strength development. For instance, Tudor Bompa encourages lifters to stay within the 1 to 3 rep range with weight loads being greater than 90 percent of an individual’s max (Bompa, 2002). This same concept also pushes for 6-minute rests and claims that it optimizes the utilization of the central nervous system (Bompa, 2002).

However, this particular philosophy is aimed at athletes who wish to get stronger without putting on size, thus this is something to consider before taking up the option.

Regardless of what your goals are, it is also a good idea to experiment with one of the aforementioned repetition schemes. Since everyone is different, their bodies will respond differently to the myriad of lifting frameworks that are out there.

For instance, there are some popular lifting systems that call for only heavy lifting and low frequency, as seen with Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program. Yet at the same time, very successful natural bodybuilders that are notorious for lifting between 5 and 6 days a week, while implementing both low and high rep days.

Both programs have proven to be useful to a variety of people. Thus once again, it proves that different programs work for different people. So experimentation is necessary to determine what your optimal central nervous system stimulation is. Once this is discovered, growth in size and/or strength can certainly follow.


Bompa, T., 2002. Serious Strength Training. s.l.:Human Kinetics Publishers.Brodal, P., 2010. The Central Nervous System, Fourth Edition. s.l.:Oxford University Press.Capadia, K., n.d. K11 Personal Trainer Manual. s.l.:K11 Fitness Academy.

JM, D., 1997. Possible mechanisms of central nervous system fatigue during exercise.. Department of Exercise Science, School of Public Health, 1(29), pp. 45-57.


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