If you want to maximize performance in any workout, you want to activate your CNS (central nervous system) beforehand. This is because even if you’re warmed up physically, exerting high levels of force or speed requires as much from your nervous system as it does your muscles. Read below to learn why as well as a couple ways to activate your CNS.
In order to contract your muscles, your brain sends signals to them via your nervous system. Properly executing a movement creates a sort of “groove” in your CNS, much like the muscle memory developed when learning to ride a bike. Your CNS becomes efficient at sending signals to your muscles, letting them contract harder and more forcefully in a specific movement pattern. Learn more about the grease the groove method here.
However, just like the muscles need to be warmed up in order to take advantage of their full capability, so does your nervous system. When you activate your CNS, it’s sort of like “priming” it to send those signals to your muscles as efficiently as possible, thereby letting you utilize more of your muscles’ capabilities.
Preparing your nervous system for intense work can take one of two forms. The first way to activate your CNS is to sort of “turn on” the system as a whole. By forcing the body to be explosive and contract your muscles as quickly/hard, it sends signals rapidly through your entire nervous system. This readies it for more intense work to come.
You can take advantage of this by simply doing some explosive, though not maximal, work as a part of your warmups. A few sets of box jumps, plyo push ups, medicine ball throws, or kettlebell swings can get the CNS going.
Another way to take advantage of this phenomena is to perform something at a very high/intense speed or explosiveness immediately prior to (near) maximal effort. Just as they walk onto the platform, you’ll sometimes see elite level Olympic lifters do a couple tuck jumps before they grab the bar. This is because they’re trying to fully activate the nervous system just before their lift.
The other way to activate your CNS would be to do the opposite of the above. In order to produce maximum power development, Eastern Bloc researchers found that their athletes could improve performance with what they called “complex” training. This is where you’d perform a very heavy set immediately prior to something fast and explosive.
The usual examples of the era were heavy sets of squats followed directly by various plyometric jumps, hops, or bounds. However, you could see good results with anything that followed that same format. Examples could include heavy bench presses coupled with medicine ball chest passes or partial range deadlifts coupled with power cleans. A set of each could be done back-to-back or you could do all your sets of the heavy lift before moving onto the explosive movement.
Either way, learning how to properly activate your CNS just makes sense. Be it a part of your warmup, an explosive movement prior to a heavy lift or vice versa, revving up your nervous system allows you to produce more force and produce it more quickly. This, in turn, means more strength and power. By being able to fully utilize your muscles’ capabilities, you can maximize your performance.