Ever have a day where a weight you know you can hit just feels glued to the ground?
How about that glorious day where you step up to a new PR and crush it like it’s a broomstick?
Here’s the thing…your muscles don’t gain or lose significant contractile potential within a few days. They might be inflamed if you’re sore, which can act as an inhibitor for a day or so, but apart from that your “strength” (ability to productively demonstrate force) isn’t limited by your muscles themselves.
It’s limited by your brain.
Or to look at it another way…
Your brain lifts the weight.
Your body is just the vehicle.
This goes for conditioning work, too – your brain is what’s doing the work. If you’ve ever felt “fried” like you want to take a nap after a tough wod, that’d be why. Without even thinking about it, your brain is telling your body what energy systems to use, how to stay balanced while executing each movement, and how much force to produce to complete the task at hand.
So how do we use this to our advantage?
Well, here are a few ways to “hack” your nervous system and maximize performance when you need it most.
1. Stay relaxed whenever possible.
Breathe deep through your belly, not your chest.
Don’t get worked up over things – stay cool.
This keeps your parasympathetic nervous system active. Think “rest and digest” over “fight or flight.”
During training, stay calm. Don’t get “psyched up” until it really counts – like when you’re going for a big PR, preferably on a competition platform. When you do this it dramatically increases the amount of time it’ll take to fully recover from a lift (think 3 weeks instead of 3 days).
And when it’s go time, get angry…but control it. Focus on your technique and destroy the weight.
2. Squeeze the bar tight on heavy loads.
Focus on firing up each muscle between the floor and the bar. We want to maximize nerve transmission to the weight. But again, stay calm in training.
This is absolutely vital to performing at your best. In addition to powering your recovery processes, sleep has an enormous effect on the ability of your brain to control your muscles. Get a lot of good sleep and weights feel magically lighter. Lose a lot of sleep and your muscles become prone to cramping (as I’ve learned the hard way).
4. Avoid alcohol whenever possible.
Alcohol has the same effect on muscle control and immune response as sleep deprivation – not good. It makes you fatter, weaker, and sicker, in any quantity (remember how it’s poison?). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gravitated toward cutting out drinking almost entirely. I don’t even miss it most of the time. (Admittedly, having a partner I’m completely comfortable being ridiculous around helps this tremendously – no social lubricant required. I highly recommend it.)
5. Be smart about carbs and caffeine.
These are both things you want to minimize consumption of (caffeine especially) unless you’re going to use them – otherwise you end up “crashing.” Carbs are your brain’s preferred fuel source, and caffeine blocks your brain’s “I’m tired” signals. Neither are beneficial for functioning when you’re physically inactive. However, take them before a workout in moderate quantities to delay fatigue and increase lifting ability.
So use these 5 tips to your advantage – make them habits. I promise you’ll notice an improvement in your ability to lift heavy things and crush your next WOD!