Coordination for Strength and Power

By on November 6, 2020

Neural efficiency is an aspect of strength and performance that often goes overlooked. However, it’s absolutely critical if you want to be able to use your strength in a practical setting. And it does absolute wonders for agility too.

Coordination and Strenth

Let’s see why neural efficiency may be the missing link in your training. And how it combines with factors like fascia and dynamical systems theory to result in virtuos, coordinated expressions of strength and power.

The Problem With Isolation

The mistake many make with functional training, is to train muscle groups in isolation. The belief is that if you strengthen all the muscles that are used in a particular movement, then the individual will be able to perform that movement with more strength.

In reality, this is not always the case. The example we have given often on this channel is the martial artist, who can punch with significantly more force and power than a bodybuilder or powerlifter; despite those athletes being ostensibly “stronger.”

Just because the bodybuilder has stronger pecs, delts, and triceps, that doesn’t mean they can throw a powerful punch.

Just because the bodybuilder has stronger pecs, delts, and triceps, that doesn’t mean they can throw a powerful punch. Partly, this is because they may have trained in a less explosive manner. Partly it is because they have missed the rotational muscles such as the obliques and serratus muscles.

But on top of all that: it’s because they haven’t trained the muscles together, and in that order. The martial artist has.

How the Brain Responds to Skill Training

Doing this has caused changed in the martial artist’s brain. They have repeatedly used the same network of brain cells that send signals to the right muscles, in the right order. As such, those brain cells have become ingrained through processes such as myelination: the coating of axons to insulate the neurons.

Skill training

The pattern of activation in the brain directly corresponds with the pattern of activation in the body. And for the athlete, the signal is stronger AND much more efficient. There is less “overspill” to neighbouring areas, meaning that only the useful muscles are activated (helping to relax antagonistic forces and reduce energy expenditure), and more muscle fibres are recruited in the relevant muscles.

This is neural efficiency in motor skill

This is neural efficiency in motor skill, and it correlates with strength, agility, speed, and general performance (study). The powerlifter can shift more weight than the non-athlete not only because they have bigger pecs and shoulders, but also because they have stronger neural networks that allow them to use those muscles together, and to something closer to their maximum capacity.

BUT they won’t necessarily be able to utilize all that power in other movement patterns.

What Does Neural Efficiency Have to Do With Your Training?

This then raises a question: for the functional athlete, is the bench press the most useful movement they could perform?

Let’s consider a wrestler for a moment or a rugby player. These are athletes that are required to push opponents. Bench press develops muscles useful for horizontal pushing… so it’s great right?

When you push a person or an object in real life, you aren’t lying flat on your back!

Well, here’s the issue: when you push a person or an object in real life, you aren’t lying flat on your back! Instead, you push while standing up. This requires strength in your core – particularly the rectus abdominis which works to provide anti-extension so that your back doesn’t just bend over. If you’re pushing with one arm, you’ll need to engage the obliques to prevent twisting too. You’ll also need to drive power through the legs.

Band training

Multisensory Integration: The Perceptual Motor Landscape

And you’ll use proprioceptors – the sensing cells of your muscles – to understand how much force you can deliver before falling over. Your body is performing complex math that you aren’t even aware of to keep you upright and deliver power in the right places. All this factors into that mental model.

Perceptual motor landscape

This is important and often overlooked when it comes to virtuous, powerful movement: perception is tied to that movement. In this case, the multifidus muscles that run up and down the spine are particularly dense with muscle spindles that sense changes in muscle length. This forms the individual’s “perceptual-motor landscape.” That is to say that the movement pattern must alter to accommodate the information coming into the brain. Lying flat on a bench removes those important data points, providing an incomplete model to work with.

The movement pattern must alter to accommodate the information coming into the brain.

A martial artist sees how important perceptual input is to the motor pattern when they block a punch without thinking. The same is true for a tennis player who returns a ball, or a baseball player who positions themselves correctly before the ball has even been thrown based on the position and telegraphing of the pitcher. This is necessary because the ball reaches the batter before the visual signal even reaches the brain! It’s not possible to hit that ball based purely on reactions then. The only way to learn how to correctly react as a batter then is to practice hitting thousands upon thousands of balls; thus forming neural maps with in-built sensory input.

Are You “Movement Blind?”

The same thing happens as we learn to catch our balance when we fall, only here the input is not just visual, but also proprioceptive. It’s unhelpful to think of any of these signals as separate.

Repetition Without Repetition Functional Training

And in order to push with power from an upright position then, you also need to practice reacting to to the equal and opposite forces by stabilizing yourself in response to signals from your muscle spindles and golgi-tendon organs.

So, what happens if you develop extremely powerful pecs and shoulders without the core to support it? And what if you aren’t able to transfer that power optimally to a real pushing movement, because you’ve never practised doing it? You’ve lost resolution in your motor perception. You’re “movement blind.”

Skill + Strength = Virtuous Movement

The good news is that if you are performing a lot of skill training and you’re using strength training to back this up, you will have the benefit of both components. I’m not saying that one type of training is better than the other: that there is no place for weightlifting movements or isolation movements in building a more performant individual. After all, we can’t build as much strength in the pecs or shoulders specifically when standing up, because of the bottle-neck presented by the core and unstable position. I’m just saying that you need both.

The issue is when you only perform bench press and expect this to mean you can start pushing things around like the Juggernaut. You will lack not only the core stability, but also the coordination, the neural efficiency,to transfer all of that available strength into the target.

Those interested in real-world performance should utilize movements like the cable press, band press, cable punch-out, sled push

That’s why those interested in real-world performance should utilize movements like the cable press, band press, cable punch-out, sled push… even car push!

A Practical Example of Neural Efficiency

Want to see how neural efficiency directly effects movement?

Ask yourself this: why can’t you move your toes individually?

The answer has nothing to do with tendons connecting your toes. Rather, it is because you lack the coordination to move them independently. And, of course, the culprit is those big old shoes most of us wear. That and the completely flat, concrete ground we mostly walk on.

Sandbag Training

To understand how networks form in the brain, we can turn to a mantra my fellow psychology graduates likely know all too well:

  • Neurons that fire together, wire together

That means that if you repeatedly perform two actions, or experience two stimuli, those things will become “linked” in the brain. That link then strengthens every time you repeat it.

This is how bad habits form. It’s also why it’s hard to sing the alphabet out of sequence: A is linked to B, B is linked to C, C is linked to D… simply through repetition.

The Self-Organising Brain

One amazing example of this is the homunculus. The motor cortex is the part of the human brain that controls movement. Neurons here literally correspond with motor units in your body, so that stimulating a specific area will cause a particular muscle to twitch. The more we use the muscle, the larger the neural map for that area becomes.

What’s fascinating is that if you look at the organization of the motor cortex, it appears to mimic the organization of the human body. The fingers are next to the hands, which are next to the arms. The arms are next to the shoulders, and so forth.

Nueral Efficiency

How did this layout come about? The answer is elegantly simple, according to the book The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. Basically, when you move your fingers, you are also likely to also move your hand. And you are more likely to then move your arm than you are to move your feet.

By using physically close brain regions together regularly, they have become somewhat “linked” so that they sit next to each other in the brain. This remarkable organization has effectively evolved from a powerful-but-simple system.

Why You Can’t Move Your Toes Individually

But what would happen if you tied two of your fingers together such that moving one would always move the other? In that case, the neurons corresponding to motor units controlling those fingers would become connected. Over time, that connection would become stronger and stronger, until the signal to move one finger would necessarily force the other to move. The neural maps would merge and you would no longer be able to move your fingers independently.

That would be a cruel prank to play on someone right? To restrict their movement so much that they lost the ability to independently move a part of their body?

Well guess what? That’s exactly what you have done to your toes by wearing thick soles and narrow toe boxes. Kind of sick, isn’t it?

(There’s a little more to it than that – we also simply use our toes less and they do have lesser ROM than our fingers. But this definitely contributes, and greater toe dexterity CAN be relearned!)

Vivobarefoot shoes

There are solutions to this problem, but that’s a discussion for another time!

Regaining Your Movement Mastery

What’s more relevant to the current discussion is that you may have done something similar to the control over your pelvis and your scapula. You can regain fine control over these muscle groups. One commenter on this channel, M.R.C., recently told me how regaining control over their hips through movement training had helped them tremendously when slack lining. They said it felt as though they had removed a great weight from their pelvis!

It felt as though they had removed a great weight from their pelvis!

The other thing to consider is how a martial artist, athlete, or dancer has taught themselves to use muscle groups together in a similar way: how they can coordinate explosive movement in their hips, core, and shoulders all at once to move with power and poise.

The Fascia

There’s another potential way in which the body adapts to the demands placed on it overtime. And it’s rather fascinating.

Fascinating you could say…

Fascia is the thin film like structure that helps keep our organs and other structures in place. It wraps around everything and through its dispersed tension, called tensegrity, it helps to maintain our structure and absorb impacts.

Coordination for Strength and Power

We now know that the fascia is also extremely dense with nerves: both proprioceptive and interoceptive. This full-body catsuit helps us to form a mental model of ourselves and to move gracefully through space. Moreover, it also contains muscle cells that may actually contribute to force production.

And what’s really interesting, is the way it seems to join disparate muscles working toward a singular goal. This is called myofascial force transmission, and it may help us to better coordinate muscles that work together for greater force production (resource). Like one muscle.

Fascial Remodelling

The next part comes as no surprise once you recognize the incredible adaptability of the human body: the fascia is capable of remodelling itself in response to training and environmental factors, which may in turn alter the way different muscle groups work together. Constantly use muscle A with muscle B and they may become physically linked as well as neurologically!

The Fascia as drawn by DaVinci

According to Tom Myers (Anatomy Trains), fibroblast cells act like the architects of the fascial system – travelling through it and producing the collagen and other chemicals needed to reinforce it as required.

Perform the same movement over and over, and your body will redesign itself to perform that movement. However, if you perform the movement too precisely you may find you struggle to vary that movement significantly.

There’s a solution to that. Don’t worry: I’m getting there!

Dynamical Systems Theory of Motor Learning

As you can see then, we have these two powerful systems potentially adapting both to one another and the environment around them. That’s not to mention all the other systems that adapt and respond in a similar manner, from fiber type composition, to tendon hysteresis, to fiber thickness… all self-organising around the goal, the organism, and the environment.

And this is again where psychology graduates may be raising their hands. What I’m describing here is the dynamic systems theory of motor learning, as described by Esther Thelen. The key phrase here is “self-organizing.” This is the term often used to illustrate the way that multiple systems within the body are able to adapt to the demands placed on them. In dynamic systems theory, these demands are called “constraints” and are usually listed as:

  • Organism
  • Environment
  • Task (or goal)

In other words, the precise mechanics of a movement are the result of the individual’s goals and environment as much as their own movement patterns and biological features. A good coach should understand this and seek to create interventions that rely on all three factors.

Often, this is achieved through the use of external cues, rules, and tasks that reframe the drills that an athlete participates in. Squatting becomes squatting while throwing and catching a medicine ball. These are referred to as “teaching games for understanding.”

What to do With This Information

Keep in mind that a lot of what we’ve discussed here is theoretical. Dynamic systems theory is just one theory in a see of models of motor learning (I’ll discuss more in future). Likewise, fascia is a very hot topic right now, but is an area that requires a lot more research before it should inform training decisions to a large degree. Traditionally, fascial remodeling is not discussed in the context of these motor learning models, but I’ve attempted to connect the dots. So, take this all as conjecture.

Clubbell Training

That said, there is certainly enough evidence and enough logical argument to say that we need varied and challenging movement in order to develop true coordination, neural efficiency, and functional performance.

These ideas should be married with tried and true training methods. Yes, use squats and isolation movements to build stronger legs but also practice using those legs as part of the larger system: running, jumping, and pushing.

Use rote repetition to master movements like kicks, throws, and lifts. But once you reach a certain level of expertise, introduce the unexpected: perform the movement on a hill, use a different form of resistance, stand on one leg, or get someone to throw something at you. Train with cables, sandbags, medicine balls, kettlebells, and clubbells.

Sandbag Twisting Lunge

Repetition Without Repetition

These also have the benefit of creating movements that are slightly different every time you perform them. This is what is sometimes described as “repetition without repetition,” a coin termed by Soviet neurophysiologist Nikolai Bernstein. In other words, a basketball player should not just practice shooting hoops from a comfortable, static position. They should also practice shooting those hoops from the wrong leg, while being jostled, or when tired.

As described by generalized motor program & schema theory, this can help to form more resilient mental models: movement patterns that are more broadly generalizable to a variety of different situations.

This is an argument slightly against Bruce Lee’s 1,000 kicks.

Interestingly, this is an argument slightly against Bruce Lee’s 1,000 kicks. Though to be clear, there is definitely benefit to rote repetition, particularly during the learning phase. Again, it’s about combining methods.

Takeaways

Try not to view your mind and body as separate entities. Recognize the role of perception and goals in defining movement. Turn training into play, be mindful of your senses, and keep the body guessing.

All this will also help to keep your body more plastic and changeable. The more you learn, the better you become at learning.

And all genetic differences aside, if you give two people the same training program, it is the most plastic athlete that will develop the most impressive performance.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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