As bodybuilders and chemical daredevils, we augment this and we augment that. We take steroids. We take prohormones. And we worry about GH levels. We dote on our endocrine system like the parents of a newborn baby. Trouble is, almost all of us forget that there's another child living in the house. He ain't as pretty, he ain't as glamorous, and if it weren't for his occasional temper tantrum, he'd be ignored.
This dark child is the neurocrine system, and "he's" just as important to your overall muscular growth and development as the endocrine system. Hell, I'll go even further out on my presumptive ledge: I think that if you paid careful attention to both the endocrine and the neurocrine systems equally, you'd make faster muscular gains as a young person, and even maintain that level of strength and performance well into your fifties.
Furthermore, I think there are things you can do to maintain or beef up your nervous system from a training aspect, a nutritional aspect, and a third aspect that I won't even address until I've presented more of my case.
The Nervous System
Whenever we talk about the nervous system, we make analogies about how it's like an electrical system. The truth is, it's not like an electrical system at all. There are no "wires" and electrons don't really jump across synapses like fleas from one dawg to another. If a fat person jumps up and down on the electrical cord to grandma's dialysis machine, you can bet that machine will keep on pumping away. The same can't be said of nerves. If you were to "jump" on grandma's motor nerve axons if you kept them from oxygen for more than four or five seconds she'd not only experience complete nerve failure, she'd also have you taken out of her will.
No, nerves are more like glands themselves, much as the endocrine system is made up of glands. Nerves give signals to each other and their target organs whether they are muscle cells or endocrine glands by exchanging fluid. Pretty sexy, isn't it? This fluid, a type of chemical agent, contains sodium ions that surge back and forth through membranes. And, despite all the analogies to the contrary, neural activity has more to do with the laws of hydraulics than the laws of electricity.
So what do these nerves do? Yeah, yeah, they make your arm pull away when you reach into the fire to grab the hot dog that fell off your stick, and if Mr. Spock applies pressure on the right spot, you'll fall over like a sack of potatoes. Sure, the nervous system plays a part in all that, but it's also very, very, closely linked to the endocrine system. This interplay between the nervous system and the endocrine system is referred to as the neurocrine system. Nerve cells produce chemicals that are delivered to portal blood vessels and transported to the pituitary where they regulate the release of other hormones. Furthermore, most, if not all, endocrine glands, including the adrenals, thyroid, and holy gonads have nerves that control secretory activity and blood flow. Nerves even "feed" organs.
If your nervous system isn't functioning correctly, for any one of a variety of reasons that I'll get into later, the endocrine system won't function properly. It'll just sputter along, kicking out hormones sporadically like a bad water pump.
The nervous system is also responsible for the care and feeding of your muscles. A motor nerve axon attaches to a muscle cell by a motor end plate, and this creates a neuromuscular synapse. Every muscle cell has one end plate. Each motor axon, though, has a number of branches and each branch connects to a muscle cell. In other words, a motor nerve sends commands to many muscle cells, but each muscle cell receives messages from only one nerve cell.
A single one of these motor neurons with its group of attached muscle cells is called a motor unit. Like the guy who heads the army draft board, the nervous system recruits more motor units to handle higher force contractions by varying the stimulation frequency. (Now you know what Chuck Poliquin is talking about when he talks about motor unit recruitment.)
These muscle cells are extremely dependent on their "mama" nerve. The motor nerve is obviously responsible for initiating muscle cell contractions and lengthenings, but it also nourishes the cell. The two exchange information constantly, even when you're not using your muscle. If this connection is severed, the cell breaks down altogether dissipates, in fact and eventually gets replaced by fat or connective tissue. Nothing can bring it back.
If you apply pressure to these neural "glands," as little as five pounds for five minutes, you can reduce its rate of transmission by as much as forty percent. And, if this connection is further comprised, you can be in a whole lot of trouble, boy. Not only can you experience clouded thoughts, increased or decreased sensitivity, and imprecise muscular movements; you can experience a wide range of organ dysfunctions, including glandular malfunction. And, since no "disease" would be detectable, you can't be treated. If the problem isn't corrected, it can lead to seriously compromised health, and if the problem effects muscle tissue, you eventually end up with less muscle tissue or seriously impaired muscle tissue.
The neural "glands" I spoke about secrete various neurotransmitter chemicals that are known as epinephrine and norepinephrine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and dopamine. That's largely how they communicate. If you can control the levels of these neurotransmitters, you can elevate mood, alertness, concentration, and even motor unit recruitment. In other words, these neurotransmitters are to the nervous system what testosterone, GH, insulin, and others are to the endocrine system.
Furthermore, the healthy functioning of these nerves and the optimum production of these neurotrasnmitter chemicals also influences the hormonal system. They go hand in hand. If the nervous system isn't functioning at youthful levels, neither will the endocrine system, no matter how many prohormones you take.
It doesn't just end there, either. If the nervous system isn't working properly, neither will your muscles. If your levels of neurotransmitter chemicals are low, you might not function as well as you're genetically capable. Sometimes, though, the nervous system works a little too well, and that too can be detrimental in building muscle.
Muscle and Nerve
I'd like you to try a little trick the next time you go into the gym. Set up a pulley machine so you can do one-arm tricep pushdowns. Stand in front of the machine with your feet about ten inches apart and rep out with either arm (use a weight that allows you to do between 5 and 7 reps). Rest a minute or two. Now, using the same weight, and the same arm, do another set, only this time, I want you to stand with the opposite foot in front of the other one. In other words, if you did the pushdowns with your right arm, do another set with your right arm. Keep your feet about ten inches apart, but move your left foot in front of the other one, as if you were in the middle of taking a step (keep both feet flat on the floor, though).
If you're like 99.9% of the rest of humanity, you'll now be able to do two, three, or even four more reps.
What happened? Well, unless you walk like Frankenstein's monster, with your hands at your sides, you've emulated your gate patterns while doing the exercise. Most people walk with the opposite hand in front of the opposite foot, so you've emulated, or even activated, a natural neural pathway.
In effect, you've duplicated a learned motor pattern; one in which your body your nerves and muscles respond very effectively. Consequently, you're able to do the pushdown more efficiently.
A few years back, some researchers conducted a unique experiment. They recruited the usual pasty-face human lab rats and had them do isometric elbow flexion movements. The thing is, they only had them train one arm. After two weeks, the trained arm increased in strength by about 25%. However, the untrained arm also increased in strength by 15%. Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do ("Twilight Zone" music).
The researchers theorized that during the first two weeks of training, about 80% of the strength change was due to neural factors, while only 20% of the strength change was due to changes in the muscle itself. After 8 weeks of doing the same boring exercise, though, about 95% of the strength changes were due to changes in the muscle and only 5% were due to neural changes.
Okay, so what's my point, other than providing interesting conversation for your next muscle-head cocktail party? My point is that the nervous system is one tricky bastard and if you want to make progress in your training, you have to both work with it, and fool its sorry butt whenever you get a chance.
A Pathetic Attempt to Pull It All Together
I've talked about how the nervous system needs to have "unimpaired" pathways to keep organs, endocrine glands, and even muscle functioning properly. I've alluded to how having optimum levels of neurotransmitter chemicals the neural equivalent of hormones is important for normal functioning. And, finally, I've talked about how the nervous system plays a big part in how your body reacts to exercise.
Okay, here's my big theory: I believe that if you take care and/or manipulate your nervous system by employing three different tactics, you can optimize muscle growth and keep athletic performance from deteriorating significantly until well into your fifties. I believe that runners, baseball players, tennis players, weight lifters, and everybody else should be able to maintain their physical status quo for a lot longer than is currently thought possible.
Let's address the exercise component first. Most of you who are familiar with Coach Poliquin's writings know how he believes that the nervous system is the forgotten part of bodybuilding. He constantly reminds us how the nervous system adjusts to a particular workout, done in the same way, in as little 6 workouts. By changing tempos, grips, angles, rest periods, and exercise order, we can keep the nervous system from adapting and becoming more efficient. When you do a movement over and over again, you get a gradual decaying of the nerve cell's response. In a way, it's like when you stop feeling the shirt you're wearing, even if it's still rubbing against your skin. This process, among nerve gurus, is called habituation. As a stimulus is repeated, you get less transmitting substance (our neural "hormones") being released.
Motor patterns get learned to the point where they need almost no conscious effort to start or direct them. It's only when you change the stimulus (by changing the tempo, angle, etc.) that you initiate the conscious part of the act of the movement. That's when you invoke the opposite of habituation, otherwise known as sensitization, or the amplification of an individual's response to a specific stimulus.
Although these terms aren't typically applied to weight lifting, I believe the principles are the same. As you start a new routine, you amplify your response and consequently, you get more neural "hormones" being produced; which in turn leads to additional motor unit recruitment and more of a hypertrophy response.
To synopsize this last point, if do the same routine all the time; you'll experience a type of habituation. If, however, you change the workout often, you'll exist in a type of constant sensitization and you'll experience increased neurotransmission and all the good things that come with it.
Aside from these minute manipulations of the nervous system, there are other specific training methodologies you can use to stimulate the nervous system overall.
A lot of neurologist-athletes believe that as we age, motor nerve cells, which control fast movement, deteriorate. Without high-quality speed work, they deteriorate even faster. With that in mind, it would be a good idea, especially for lifters who are past 30, to incorporate high-speed work for each body part at least once a week. For instance, do 3 sets of ultra-fast concentric, controlled eccentric arm curls for biceps during a biceps workout.
Furthermore, few lifters, outside of powerlifters, generally train the nervous system as a whole by doing sets of 2 to 3 reps. And, many who do train in this very low-rep range rest for about 60 seconds or so. That's a mistake. If you rest for 60 seconds or so, you've waited long enough to replenish substrates (creatine, ATP, yada yada, yada), but you haven't waited long enough for your nervous system to recover. The nervous system generally takes five to six times as long to recover as your substrates take to replenish themselves, so the optimum rest period for CNS training is about 5 minutes between sets. Again, it would be a good idea for bodybuilders to train in this low rep, long rest range periodically to ensure overall CNS health.
Supplementation is also a way to ensure optimum levels of neural "hormones." Naturally occurring substances like gingko biloba, L-tyrosine, DMAE, and phosphatidylcholine all lead to increased levels of neurotransmitter and almost immediate increases in awareness, concentration, endurance, and even strength. After all, if you supply more raw material for our brain "steroids," you'll produce more brain steroids. (Now you know why we developed Power Drive). On some levels, it seems bizarre to bring hormone levels up without considering neurotransmitter levels kind of like adding high-octane fuel to your car while failing to replace rusty, decrepit spark plugs.
And, the last factor that affects nerve functioning is injury. I believe really, really strongly that a good part of the decrease in athletic function is a result of the repetitive stress caused by plain old living. As we use our bodies every day, as we bump and knock against the elements, as we strain against weights and bars, we cause microinjuries that accumulate as the years go by. This repetitive stress leads to adhesions in muscle tissue that impinge movement, imperceptibly at first, and then quite noticeably by the time we reach our mid-thirties. Furthermore, these adhesions and impingements "pinch" off nerves so that the muscle cells they "feed" slowly atrophy until they're barely functional or they disappear like dust in the wind, never to be replaced.
Now, you wouldn't have caught me saying this five years ago, but I've come to believe that therapeutic massage has a distinct place in overall neuro/endocrine health. If the nerves are unimpinged by microadhesions, they can continue to supply the muscle cells with optimum amounts of neurotransmitters.
Far superior to a massage in breaking up these micro-adhesions and restoring functional and neurological health to muscles, tendons, and nerves, though, is a technique developed by "Gang of Five" member Dr. Mike Leahy. It's called Active Release Therapy, or ART and it's so revolutionary, it currently has several patents pending (see "The Magic of ART" below).
Okay, let me try to synopsize these tips:
1) Change workout routines by changing exercises, exercise angles, tempo, rest periods, handgrip, or order of exercises every 6 workouts or so.
2) Do 3 sets of explosive, ultra-fast concentric / slow eccentric movements for each body part at least once a week.
3) Periodically do overall CNS training by doing heavy sets of 2 to 3 reps, resting about 5 minutes in-between sets.
4) Supplement daily with neurotransmitter precursors or facilitators like L-tyrosine, gingko, DMAE, phosphatidylcholine, or phosphatidylserine.
5) Seek out periodic massage and if possible, periodic ART treatment.
It's as simple as this: if we augment the endocrine system by taking hormone precursors, we've got to augment the nervous system, too. It's all yin and yang, man. Trouble is, we spend all our time on the hormonal yin, without paying any attention to the neural yang.
The Magic of ART
Orthopedics around the world are so impressed by ART that they're rewriting their textbooks. The University of California, San Diego, is even considering giving Dr. Leahy an associate professorship a rare honor for a chiropractor.
Leahy is currently teaching ART to people around the country, and if you have any chronic injury that has caused the rest of the medical world to give up on you (or threaten to put you under a knife, the usual last resort), give Leahy's office a call at 719-473-7000 to make an appointment or to locate an ART practitioner near you.
I've literally seen guys who were washed up, told to take up stamp collecting, literally "rise from the dead" after just one or two treatments with Leahy. Charles Poliquin is such a firm believer in the method that he's become one of Leahy's most ardent disciples.
By the way, I have NO financial interest in Leahy's business I just believe in this guy's methods.
1) Luoma's Big Damn Book of Knowledge.
2) Go Ahead and Check My Facts and Save Me Some Legwork Handbook.