Why the Brain Is the Key to Better Performance in Sports and Life
We have a mission inside of the gym to improve our bodies, improve our performance and improve our lives.
Often clients and athletes of mine will think that their physical body decides their success and will dictate results; yet it is their brain and its ability to have the body perform that matters most.
The brain is the secret to improving athleticism, dunking a basketball, improving balance, driving a golf ball, and getting that bench press high enough to let your muscles really grow.
If you are serious about improving, and if you are reading this I know you are, continue reading to find the secret to better performance.
You Say Jump, Your Brain Says How High
A while back I wrote about improving your vertical to dunk a basketball, and that article got a lot of traffic.
That’s because dunking a basketball seems to be an ability that nearly every guy I know hopes to attain. Jason, of Stack video fame, is about 5’5” and has improved his vertical from 24” to about 30” in the last few months.
Now that his numbers have stopped rising as quickly, we have begun to dig into what really truly improves performance, and his understanding of the brain and Central Nervous System, is growing.
You see, our body already has a certain amount of fibers and ability to jump and be explosive. These fibers can grow and change and adapt to improve performance; but it is the brain that tells how many fibers to fire and how powerfully they should.
If you can train the brain, and the nervous system, to gather and express force faster and more powerfully with the strength you already have, we can improve results.
In fact, the first few weeks of a training program you build little if any muscle, it is in the brains ability to stimulate the necessary muscles, and create proper timing and coordination that we get strength improvements.
But that isn’t all the brain does….
Stuck In the Mud. Why You Didn’t Make the Play
We’ve all been there, we can see something happening, and we want to either say or do something, but something is stuck, we can’t seem to do what we’re screaming out in our heads.
That is your brain in slow motion.
What happened? Why did we fail to make the play, or call out a screen, or catch the glass before it hit the floor?
Our brain was overloaded with the situation and failed to send the signals to react in time.
Your system was temporarily short circuited, you couldn’t process information fast enough and the brain couldn’t signal to react in time.
This happens everywhere, and usually it happens when you aren’t ready for a situation.
Look at professional sports. Often times you will hear that an athlete needs to learn to deal with the speed of the game. Notice those words though, the speed of the game, not speed of the opposition.
Most athletes in pro sports, or near to pro sports, are equal athletically, but it is in their ability to quickly process information and react that is low.
This failure to deal with information quickly limits performance, because that extra half second to think is a 5 yard advantage to the other player.
This shows itself not only in sports but in day to day life. In a study done with elderly trainees, their reactions while driving were tested before and after a regiment of power training. The power training showed to improve breaking ability in the test subjects.
This happens because of the neural effects of power training, they help to link other movements and reactions together. In general it makes the brain better!
When it comes to improving performance and brain function, sometimes it also helps to ask the right questions.
Cue the Music
One of the greatest weapons that I have in my arsenal as a coach is my ability to express an idea. Without it, articles like this would sound garbled and unintelligent (worse than they already do I promise).
In coaching, expressing an idea is known as a cue.
Cues give me verbal signals to help illicit an external reaction.
If you work with me and I am teaching you a hip hinge pattern I may say
“Keep your upper body stable and drive your hips back and touch your butt to the wall”
I didn’t merely give you a direction. I gave touch points I wanted you to focus on. I have you locking your torso in place while you reach your hips back. Having you touch the wall gives you a tangible end goal with a tactile stimulus.
Short story. I gave you a cue that will make you better faster.
Our brains are wired to learn in a variety of ways, some people need visual cues, I show you what I want, some need tactile cues, I need to put you in the right position, others need auditory cues where I explain the movement, and most often I give you a blend of them all.
All of these are merely feedback mechanisms that give your brain a go, no-go result. This improves your learning rate, and gets your brain doing the movements appropriately the fastest.
The brains ability to learn will be tied to how much of what stimulus you personally need. If you are a visual learner, watch videos, like this one on TRX Rows. If you do better by doing, get a coach and get put into position and learn things the right way early.
If you want to get better the fastest, I hope you now are realizing the secret is in your brain.
Now, how do we tap into these training responses to really make some tangible gains? Let me show you.
Upgrade Your Processor
In order to tap into your brain and start to improve performance in the gym, on the field and even in your daily life, follow these tactics to awaken your brains power.
Crawling patterns reset our movements back down to the fundamental components for which they came. As children, we crawled, we moved around on the ground and this built locomotion. By including crawling patterns in your warm-ups, you can begin to feed the brain better movement that enhances sprinting and agility patterns
Cross Midline Exercises
Our brain is divided into 2 hemispheres, and these two sides of the brain control opposing sides of the body. Often times, we do things that require little communication between hemispheres, and this stunts the body’s ability to improve athleticism.
When we cross the midline of the body, as in a chop pattern, we force both sides of the brain to toss control back and forth.
This cross control feeds the brain movements that it likes; as Charlie Weingroff says, this is candy for the brain.
I don’t often advocate candy (unless it is Reese’s) but this candy will actually help you reach your goals faster.
Improved Proprioceptive Environment
This is coach speak for challenging your bodies movements through space.
We can improve the proprioceptive environment by challenging stability, off-setting loads, and conducting multiple movements in once exercise, like a lunge with a twist, or even reactive movement drills.
In challenging the brain in these ways, we teach the brain the deal with uncertainty of movement, and train the body to use the right muscles in various cases.
Knocked off balance in a game? Have you trained with an off-set load?
Running a go route and tracking the ball over your shoulder? Have you done lunges with twists?
Giving the brain more to deal with while you train, allows the brain to deal with more when it really matters. Snag a fly ball, grab a baby before the hit their head, stop yourself from breaking your ass falling down the stairs (it hurt), all are improved by a better brain.
Now we are in my wheel house.
I make athletes more powerful. This is what I do.
Often times my athletes will get mad though, because during the process they think that sometimes I am babying them, or that I am hiding the hard work from them. In reality, the brain needs to be fresh to learn to work better.
Power exercise requires low volume per set (1-5 reps) and nearly complete rest before continuing. This challenges your brain to send signals quickly, and by practicing these movements while recovered, and at max effort, we push the potential power output of our brains up.
The better the brain fires, the more easily athletes can do this
But they all started here
High Tension Strength Efforts
For as long as I can remember, tension in relationship to training has been at the forefront of progress. How long or how hard you tense up, the better your gains will be.
Bodybuilders applied this to mean that they must do rep ranges in the teens to elicit growth. Powerlifters will say that you need to learn how to grind in order to deal with competition level weights.
Another theory and application of this process is in the use of kettlebells. Kettlebells require extreme tension, followed or preceded with relaxation. This ebb and flow between contraction and relaxation has created tremendous growth of muscle, and at the same time heightened power development.
Which is best for the brain?
All of them!
Blending movements of various tensions and speeds will feed the brain varying abilities and force it to adapt in a variety of ways. Lifting heavy weights improves CNS firing, high speeds increase this as well, and recruiting more muscle will invariably improve how much muscle you grow.
The Brain Game
Research will keep coming out and improve our ability to understand performance, but ultimately the more we learn, the greater the impact the brain has one what we do.
If you aren’t taking your brain into account with how you train, you may have found the secret you’ve been looking for.
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