When most people think about making gains in the gym they immediately think of a program that involves moving massive amounts of weight.
This dogma has been around for ages and it's led us to believe that the only way to truly gain size and strength is to lift as much weight as possible over time.
But that couldn't be further from the truth.
But before we dive into the best approach to gaining muscle and strength, let's first talk some science.
Specifically, I want to talk some neuroscience with you. Yes, neuroscience. It's probably not a field of science you usually think about when you think about strength training. Most of the advice you've probably gotten so far about how to workout was likely someone who was educated in exercise science but not neuroscience.
But why would neuroscience be important here?
The simple answer is because the human body is not just a biomechanical machine. You need to instead start thinking about the human body as a neurological machine – one where the brain is the "CEO" of all other bodily systems.
So if we really want to see ongoing progress with mass and strength, we have to look at how our workout influences our brain, not just the body.
Your brain's priority, before strength or fat loss, is safety and prediction. Your brain's job is to keep your body safe. In order to do that effectively it needs good information to be able to make fast decisions.
Your brain's primary information sources are:
- Your vision system
- Your inner ear balance system (aka the vestibular system)
- Your proprioceptive system (aka your body's nerve endings)
In future articles we will dive in deeper into the role of vision and inner ear balance in strength, but for today let's focus on the proprioceptive system.
When we lift heavy week after week, year after year, we send signals of stress to the brain. These stress signals accumulate in an area of the brain known as the amygdala, and the total stress we can handle is called our allostatic load.
The really important thing to understand here is that all stressors accumulate here – postural, digestive, psychological, emotional – not just physical!
This means that if your weight training program doesn't adapt or undulate according to your lifestyle or current circumstances (i.e. a very stressful lifestyle of life period), then your high intensity heavy weight training program could be setting you back.
When too much stress accumulates in the brain, and your allostatic load is surpassed, your brain's "safety switch" is triggered which is a safety mechanism that puts the breaks on strength and performance (similar to the governor chip in a car).
Your brain does this to make sure you don't damage joints, tissues, or vital organs. And it isn't just the stress of heavy weights that can trigger this but also poor form.
When your form is anything less than perfect, which commonly is the case when you are under the fatigue of heavy sets / high intensity, your joints have "stress receptors" known as nociceptors which send signals to the brain to trigger your safety switch and inhibit strength.
The point of all this isn't to say that you should never lift heavy, but instead to think about your weight training program as a dynamic process – one that changes and adapts based on your stress tolerance.
The emergence of tools such has blood flow restriction training has provided new opportunities to gain strength and size without having to just lift heavy.
With blood flow restriction training, by virtue of lifting lighter weights, you are able to focus on a better mind muscle connection and maintain better form while minimizing the stress signals you are sending to the brain.
Theoretically, by minimizing these stress signals, we further delay our brain safety switch from triggering which means our work output increases, which helps to cascade the muscle building process.
With this new neuro paradigm, you can now begin to look at your workouts differently. This doesn't at all mean you need to abandon heavy weight lifting.
Instead, it just helps you think about when you might want to push heavy weight and when you might want to give your nervous system a break with something like BFR training.
Keep an eye out for upcoming articles where we will dive further into "biohacks" for strength and performance that really utilize this brain-based approach.
To your gains,