How to Strengthen Your CNS for Athletic Performance, Increased Strength & Ninja Reflexes

By on January 5, 2015

Your central nervous system is the control system of your brain and body. It is comprised of your brain and spinal cord and is what sends all the signals throughout your body that allow you to move quickly and precisely.reactions

Strengthening the CNS will improve your physical strength, your speed, your reaction time, your balance and more – but it’s something that very few athletes or gym rats consider in their training.

What is the CNS?

Specifically there are some areas of the brain that particularly involved in CNS function. These include the cerebellum and diencephalon regions and it’s no surprise that the cerebellum is the second largest part of the brain – this is important stuff!

reflexes cnsThe main role of the cerebellum is to coordinate muscle contractions to allow for precise and accurate movement and to control posture and balance. You might not realize it but even when you are sitting at your desk you are slightly contracting countless tiny muscles by just the right amount in order to stay upright. That would be pretty tricky to do consciously, so you can thank your cerebellum for that one! It’s also why you can return a ball in tennis without thinking about it, instead of consciously contracting each individual muscle.

The diencephalon meanwhile can be broken down into two smaller areas known as the thalamus and the hypothalamus. The thalamus is a relay station of sorts that receives nerve impulses and sends them to the appropriate parts of the brain. In other words, this is where information comes in about your balance, your orientation in space, your momentum etc. When returning that serve, the diencephalon is the part that tells you where the ball is and when to react. This is also responsible for dealing with your ‘proprioception’ or your awareness of your body in space.

The hypothalamus on the other hand has the important job of regulating things like temperature, thirst, hunger, heart rate etc. via the release of hormones from the pituitary gland (which is situated close by). In some cases, information from your thoughts or senses will trigger the release of ‘fight or flight’ hormones which involves another system called the ‘autonomic nervous system’. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part that normally helps us to maintain a state of ‘homeostasis’.

The CNS basically receives and interprets information from your ‘receptor organs’ such as your eyes and ears and then triggers the correct response from your ‘effector organs’ which allow you to react. All this information is sent via electrical signals that travel up and down the brain stem and spinal cord. If the CNS is healthy then the correct reaction will be almost immediate and you’ll be able to catch that tin of beans as it falls out the cupboard.

The speed and accuracy of your CNS is what gives you the ability to react quickly and catch balls mid-flight, it is what allows you to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers to lift heavier weights in the gym, it is what makes you faster at computer games and it is what enables you to perform with perfect technique in sports.

Embodied Cognition

What’s very interesting about all this is that only some of this is conscious. When you get pushed off balance for instance, your body will automatically respond through a range of processes mainly controlled by your CNS. Your reflexive strength for instance will cause your muscles to ‘ping back’ to their normal state thus bringing you back up, your ear will register that your off balance and that information will be processed by the thalamus and relayed to the cerebellum so that you can move all your other limbs to regain your posture. But if you wanted to, you could let yourself fall, or you could stick your arm in the air so your watch didn’t hit the ground, or you could opt to pull a funny stance to turn it into a slapstick routine.

Reflexive strength is the term used to describe the ability of the muscles and the body to almost react on their own without your conscious thought as they react in changes in muscle length detected by the muscle spindles. Put simply, whenever a muscle shortens it will contract again and vice versa on impulse.

At the same time, our impulses can also be mapped to areas in our brain, such as the motor cortex and cerebellum. Here, certain actions have been repeated over and over so many times that the neuronal connections have become heavily myelinated (thickened) such that they fire automatically with the correct input.

When you slip on ice and you feel your body instantly adjust wildly to try and help you regain your balance, this is your central nervous system and your reflexive strength in. Decades of learning have taught your body to interpret all the incoming information and to respond with the correct muscle contractions to keep you upright. Both your automatic readjustment of your muscles and your ‘training’ from learning to walk allow the body to correct itself with nearly no input from you consciously. Meanwhile your autonomic nervous system will start up as your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to secrete adrenaline – triggering the fight or flight response that makes us feel a little sick.

Training the Central Nervous System

But the central nervous system can also be trained to react in other ways to other stimuli. Say you want to react to a punch by blocking, you simply have to repeat the same movement over and over and over again until it becomes ‘ingrained’ and unconscious. This is how martial arts attain the state of ‘no mind’ where they are able to fight without consciously thinking about what they are doing.

This goes above the ability to simply learn a series of movements and trigger them on command – it actually changes the strength and precision with which your muscles contract. In one study, the jumping ability of swimmers, athletic jumpers and average people was compared. It was found, perhaps surprisingly, that the swimmers had the least impressive jumping ability. The reason for this was that their leg muscles – although well developed – were contracting with a different types of coordination due to their training (1). This demonstrates how we can learn to perform in sports and athletics with perfect technique that results in the very best outcome but it also illustrates how we can pick up bad habits that can actually impair our ability. At the same time, it also shows us how one set of skills, how one type of training, could potentially impair our ability to earn another ability. It appears to make an argument for specialization in training.

To quote the study:

“Prolonged training in a specific sport will cause the central nervous system to program muscle coordination according to the demands of that sport”

This is one reason it’s so important to get rehabilitation for injuries. Otherwise we might ‘compensate’ for a bad knee or elbow while playing sports, fighting or lifting weights and this in turn can result in permanent bad habits as we unintentionally ‘retrain’ our central nervous system.

The ability of the central nervous system to ‘learn’ these new responses meanwhile is of course the result of ‘brain plasticity’, which is our brain’s propensity for changing shape and creating new neural connections and even new neurons. Brain plasticity is greater during childhood but there are various things we can do to increase plasticity, such as getting more sleep (as this is when new neural pathways get cemented) or using the right nutrition. Supplements like CiLTEP claim to enhance brain plasticity by enhancing long-term potentiation, while valproic acid has shown some very promising results in studies (2).

Note that the CNS operates better after being ‘warmed up’ which excites the relevant nerves for more rapid communication. At the same time though, the CNS can also become ‘fatigued’ over time, which results in slower transmission. Optimal excitation will result in optimal performance (3).

How to Strengthen the Central Nervous System

So to train your central nervous system to respond quickly and using the correct technique, you need to repeat that technique over and over again to strengthen neural connections, you need to get plenty of sleep and you might consider the use of supplements. You might also consider ‘being a kid’…

But what about generally increasing the CNS’ ability to balance, to recruit muscle and to react quickly to stimuli that you haven’t trained for? By simply strengthening and quickening the central nervous system you can accomplish this.

By repeatedly lifting heavy weights, it has been shown that you can strengthen that ‘mind muscle’ connection – another abstract term that is essentially just talking about the central nervous system. The heavier the weight, the greater the ‘receptor/effector’ effect and the more your brain will learn to finely control your muscle (3). The study recommends lifting 90% of your 1RPM for sets of 3 repetitions, but this also is one of the reasons that ‘overcoming isometric training’ (as opposed to yielding isometric training) is so effective in increasing maximum muscle fiber recruitment (it worked for Bruce Lee).

This type of training then will improve your body’s ability to quickly contract your muscles with strength and power. But in order to get reactions like a ninja you will also need to be able to quickly process the information coming in so that you can respond correctly to the stimuli. Looking after your senses is important for this reason and that means maintaining a healthy lifestyle and getting a nutrient rich diet. And believe it or not, action computer games have also been shown to increase our visual acuity and resolution (4). This is because you are constantly scanning the horizon for enemies and obstacles and reacting accordingly. That’s right: computer games can improve your athletic performance! Best. Homework. Ever.

What this also suggests is that simply paying more attention to your senses more regularly can strengthen your ability to react to that information. I find this very interesting and it means that perhaps just using a type of ‘mindfulness’ meditation focusing on your senses, you might be able to improve your resolution and your reaction time. This is something I’ll be looking at more in future.

In the moment, it’s also important to be engaged in what you’re doing. This will result in the release of neurotransmitters that increase attention, focus and reflexes and muscle contractions such as norepinephrine, dopamine, glutamate, anandamide and acetylcholine. These greatly increase our awareness of our senses and are at their strongest when in fight or flight or the coveted ‘flow states’. This is why we react faster and with greater strengthen when we are in life-threatening situations but with enough training you should be able to make yourself treat certain situations as highly important. This might be possible with applied cognitive behavioral therapy (I wrote about that here).

The most important sense when it comes to balance and reactions though is undoubtedly proprioception or kinesthetic awareness – our awareness of our body in space and our orientation. This is what allows us to balance along thin beams and to contort our body to jump through windows (which I do all the time, of course).

To train your proprioception there are various techniques you can. Any training that involves balance for instance can be very effective – so curling on those balance boards can do more than just strengthen your core. I personally enjoy hand balancing.

At the same time, it’s also very useful to train using ‘contralateral movements’. These are movements that use all four limbs in different ways. A good example is the ‘Spider-man’ crawl which involves crawling along the floor on all fours. This has long been a popular method for training proprioception, particularly because trains the neurological link between your limbs in what is known as ‘X training’ (because that’s the shape of the link between all four limbs. It also makes sense for the same reasons that ambidexterity training could also be useful. Rock climbing is a lesser-used form of contralateral ‘X’ training that also involves balance.

climb

Finally, another supplement: omega 3 fatty acid, could also help to quicken your reflexes by speeding up the transmission of signals throughout your CNS. The reason for this is omega 3 will increase your cell membrane permeability – ultimately enabling signals to pass between neurons more quickly. Allegedly this is an area that DARPA has been researching for military application. This is also why it’s very important to make sure you supply your brain with plenty of energy which means supporting mitochondrial health (see my stack).

Summary

To summarize then, your CNS is one of the most important factors for improving your balance, reflexes and strength. To improve its function:

  • Train in your chosen sport/martial art regularly
  • Get lots of healthy sleep
  • Be aware of your senses
  • Train with heavy weights
  • Use overcoming isometric training
  • Warm up your CNS before activity (use plyometrics)
  • Engage with what you are doing
  • Supplement with omega 3 fatty acid (keep your eye on valproate research)
  • Use contralateral training – rock climbing and crawls
  • Train your balance
  • Play computer games

Most important of all is just to consider how little many of us are really using and testing our CNS compared with our ancestors. When we were swinging through trees, or running through jungle away from lions, we would have been listening to every sense and using our balance and strength to get away. Today we spend most time sat down and disinterested. It’s time to start getting some variety, some challenge and some focus back into your training! That’s how you get ninja reflexes…

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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