How To Boost Central Nervous System Activity

Typically, we associate incredible feats of strength with big, hulking man-mountains such as Strong Man competitors. Though, equally impressive, if not more so, are the lighter athletes who possess unbelievable strength relative to their weight.

Adaptions of the Central Nervous System (CNS) are greatly responsible for these athletes super human abilities. This rudimentary structure, developed when humans weren’t quite top of the food chain, has played an important part in survival of humanity.

What Is The CNS?

The brain and the spinal cord make up the CNS. It can be thought of as the software of the body. It has two main roles:

  1. The “fight or flight” response – When under threat, this function prepares the human body to either fight the sabre-toothed tiger or get the hell out of there! The body becomes excited, initiating a number of physiological responses like…
    • Faster transmission of nerve impulses.
    • Increased blood flow to skeletal muscles, like the quadriceps.
  2. The “rest and digest” response – During quieter times, free from danger, this response in essence is opposite to the above. Nerve impulses travel at a slower speed and blow flood is redirected to vital organs, thus allowing for recovery.

How Do We Activate the CNS?

Now I have your attention! So, the big question is, how do we flick the switch and turn on the ‘fight or flight’ response right in time for some heavy lifting?

The coach of disgraced track and field athlete, Ben Johnson, is believed to be one of the first to implement activation drills. He famously had Johnson complete a rep or two of heavy partial-range squats prior to a sprint in an effort to kick him into a higher gear.

The idea is to improve motor unit activation in two ways – to increase the number of units firing as well as the speed at which they are sending off impulses.

Here are some strategies you can employ:

  • Train with low reps (1-3) with loading at 90% or above your 1RM with long rest periods (6 minutes).
  • Preparatory exercises – Prior to your main lift perform 3 sets of 3 reps with a weight you can move quickly and explosively.
    • Squats – box jumps, jump squats and kettlebell swings work well for this lift.
    • Deadlifts – try out some cleans, snatches or kettlebell swings.
    • Bench – medicine ball chest passes or plyometric push-ups will do the trick.
  • Partial range movements of the same lift can also be used. For example, prior to your work set for squats, carry out a quarter squat with more weight on the bar you can handle for the full-range movement.
  • Shouting has also been shown to have a stimulatory effect. Expect to get a few odd looks from fellow gym goers!

1988 Olympics Ben Johnson

Hold Your Horses!

Before you go off and throw these into your routine, you must consider a few factors in order to optimise these drills and to avoid injury…

  • Be wary of fatigue. The activation exercises I have suggested are very taxing, so keep the volume low or it will have a detrimental effect on your work set.
  • Ensure you are competent with the particular movement. For example, I suggested cleans above. If you have never performed Olympic lifts, or a complex exercise, then trying to perform them explosively on first attempt is likely to result in injury. Use movements your confident with and slowly add new exercises to your repertoire.
  • The ‘activation’ has a short shelf life. This is to say, the facilitation which it achieves has an appreciable effect for only 5-10 minutes. So, if incorporating the above drills into your warm-up, ensure your working set soon follows to gain an appreciable effect.

CNS Fatigue

Another consideration to ensure you’re utilising your CNS to it’s best ability, is managing fatigue through appropriate recovery. Think of our ability to use the ‘fight or flight’ function of our CNS as a fuel tank. If we constantly use the above techniques, we will very quickly be running on empty. This will have negative effects on your ability to lift heavy things and move quickly, along with other side-effects like poor quality sleep.

The CNS is designed to be used in short bursts for the ‘fight or flight’ response, followed by periods of ‘rest and digest’. Here are some strategies to keep your CNS in tip-top shape:

  • If a training session requires you to operate around or above 85-90% of your 1RM, ensure you have a 48 hour break of similar intensity training. In the meantime, perform lower intensity training, focus on technique and recovery methods like foam rolling.
  • Don’t go bonkers every time you hit the gym. On the odd occasion, it is OK to sniff some smelling salts, bang your head against the bar and get your buddy to whack you across the back. Don’t make this a routine, as you’ll quickly burn out and likely pick up some low-grade concussion!
  • Ensure you get regular high quality sleep. Quality is as important as quantity. Get into good habits where you’re waking up rested rather than restless.


As you can see, utilising the CNS effectively is a real balancing act. Ensure it’s raring to go when you need it, like competition day, but give it the rest it requires. I’d be interested in your thoughts and opinions on the subject. Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

By Andrew Cammarano



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