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Webinar with Dr. Cobb

Episode 138: Getting Smarter about Strength: Neural Drive

Video Highlights

- The neurological output of strength.
- Getting smarter about neural drive.
- The four components of neural drive.

Today we’re talking about neural drive and how that plays a huge role in becoming stronger.

In our previous video, we talked about three brain body loops that are involved in making us stronger, which means getting out of pain, performing better, whatever we’re interested in being better at. What I want to do today is I want to spend a little time talking about loop number one. Remember I said brain-body loops and if you’ve watched other Z-Health videos, you know that we talk about Neuro 101.

Neuro 101 says that the nervous system does three things. It takes in information from the environment, it interprets what that information means in the brain, decides on what you’re going to do about it, and then it creates an output.

Now, in strength training, what most people focus on is the output, how much weight can I lift, so that’s awesome. There’s a lot of great stuff that comes out of traditional strength training, but what we’re trying to do is look at this from a neurologic perspective and understand the different neuro anatomy, neuro physiology that goes into this in a very simple way because once you understand it, it can actually give you some alternatives to what you’ve been doing and that’s very important particularly if you’re stuck somewhere. “I’ve got a shoulder that doesn’t ever quite heal, or I’ve plateaued in my performance.”

Let’s talk about neural drive.

To do this, what I’m going to do is I’m going to draw a brain and that’s kind of what a brain looks like and I’m going to put a spinal cord on here. We’re also going to put a hand. We’re going to imagine maybe we’re doing a little bit of grip work and you can see that I’m not going to win any awards for my artwork, but just go with it.

All right. Here’s what we’re talking about.

Whenever we look at how the brain and body interact, the very first thing that we’re interested in in creating strength is the ability to generate tension. The way that strength is built, going to our muscles, we have nerves, within each of the muscles there’s what I call motor units and that’s nerves that are coming in and innervating the actual cells or the muscle fibers so when the brain gives a command, it makes those muscle fibers contract at a certain rate or certain level and that’s all about creating tension because whenever I’m under a load, I’m picking up a suitcase or I’m doing a bench press in the gym, I have to generate an appropriate amount of tension in order to move the weight.

Now, the way that this is going to occur is very interesting and is very important.

The decision, okay, to maybe pick up that suitcase is actually going to originate in the part of the brain called the frontal lobe and I’m just going to put a little green spot right there to represent the area of the frontal lobe that’s going to make this movement happen. The brain is going to give a command to the muscles in the hand and the way that it’s going to do that is it’s going to send a signal, that signal’s going to pass down to the spinal cord and then it’s going to go out and innervate the motor units of the hand.

Whenever we first start strength training, here’s the thing you will need to understand.

Our brain-body connection is somewhat limited, meaning our brain is going to try and send these signals, but because the rest of the brain and the spinal cord and the actual motor units in the hand are not well educated, there is going to be a certain limit placed on how much tension we can generate. If you look at the research on strength training, what they’ll typically say is, “Hey, if you’ve never done any real strength training before, when you first start doing some type of workout, for 12 to maybe 16 weeks, we don’t see a huge amount of change in muscle size.”

That’s because the first 3 to 4 months of strength training really revolve around increasing our ability to generate tension and that is called neural drive.

Now, why that’s really important number one is you have to understand the basic loop, but now we need to take it a step further and recognize one important caveat to this that probably is the primary barrier for many people in making the progress that they expect.

Whenever we start creating neural drive and we’ll switch back to red here. Whenever we start creating this neural drive effect, one of the big challenges is that your brain is so smart that it creates neural drive in very specific ways. In physiology, one of the things we talk about is a principle called the SAID Principle and the SAID Principle basically states that you get better at what you practice.

In some cases, you get better at exactly what you practice.

Now, what we do is we take that principle, the SAID Principle, and we break it down into four primary components particularly with regards to strength training.

Here are the four components: Number one, force. In other words, whenever I am working on that neural drive to my hand, how much force can I create? Do I want to create 20 pounds of force or 100 pounds of force or 300 pounds of force?

Next, we have endurance. Not only does my brain-body loop have to generate a lot of tension and force, it also has to learn how long I want to generate it so if I’m a runner, I like to run marathons, I might not have to generate as much force as maybe sprinting but I’m going to have to do it over a longer period of time which means that my brain-body loop has to have endurance.

Next, we have speed or velocity. If I’m a baseball player, I’m a pitcher, I have to create a lot of velocity. If I play a different sport, maybe I’m a power lifter, I like lifting heavy things, I’m not going to be moving as fast. Once again, your brain’s going to try to maximize or optimize you at a particular speed.

Finally, the one that we’re really interested in getting into further in these videos is what’s called the vector, the vector of movement. One of the hardest parts, the most frustrating parts about the science of strength is that we tend to get better in the specific pattern in which we move. When you look at most traditional approaches to strength training, one of the things that we see is that we create a lot of exercise gear but that exercise gear makes us move in specific patterns.

Now, that’s great because we will get better and stronger in those specific patterns, but the question that we are always asking, again related all the way back to the threat bucket of the first video, is am I getting stronger in the angles and positions and against resistance that matters for what I want to be good at?

As a quick review, brain-body loop number one is about neural drive. Whenever I’m trying to get stronger, my brain has talked to the muscle fibers of the area of the body that I’m trying to work. Whenever my brain-body loops are building over time through training, there are four primary factors that are going to come in to that, how much force do I want to create, how long do I want to create it, how fast do I need to create it, and at what angles do I want to create it?

Now, if you can start to wrap your head around that, this is going to play a key piece of understanding how to modify what you’re currently doing for strength training or maybe help you understand why you have experienced maybe pain or performance deficits in the past with the type of trainings you’ve already been doing.

In our next video, we’re going to talk about the second brain-body loop which is about movement coordination because it’s a different pathway but it’s also super important in optimizing your brain and optimizing your body so stay tuned.


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