strength training strongman central nervous system

Avoiding Central Nervous System Fatigue

I’ve never really been a firm believer in physically overtraining.

Not because it doesn’t exist, but because I rarely see someone in an actual overtrained state.

(Beginners can be the exception as they tend to be the ones staying in the gym 5-7 days a week pumping out high-volume routines and marathon lifting sessions.)

As we get more and more advanced after years of training, we are guiltier of not working hard enough rather than too hard.  If you have been in the iron game for a while, reaching a state of true overtraining is much harder than you think.

However, what I do believe in and is much more common in strength athletes is what I call “mentally overtraining”, or scientifically termed central nervous system (CNS) fatigue.  CNS fatigue is brought on by a lot of things, but not limited to:

  • Not recovering properly in between workouts
  • Training to failure too often
  • Lifting too heavy for too long
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Normal everyday stress

CNS fatigue will impair your body’s ability to perform.  More specifically, neurotransmitters, which are responsible for sending signals from your brain to your muscles, will not function properly and cause dips in performance.  You may also suffer from a poor mood (and indirectly a lack of motivation), reduced cognitive ability, and false perceptions of perceived exhaustion (i.e. thinking you are working harder than you really are).

That all sounds pretty bad right?  Now that you know what it is, you need to know how to prevent it.  Most of it comes down to common sense and training smarter, not harder.  But there are specific things you should consider.

strength training strongman central nervous system

#1: Do Not Train to Failure

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it here again.  Slow grinding reps are gain killers.  They delay your recovery times, not to mention it is just poor form.  Always leave one rep in the tank.

#2: Give Your Body Parts 48 Hours in Between Workouts

If you’ve been around Primal long enough, you know I only advocate training full-body or with an upper/lower split.

So by this rule, if you train full body one day, your next day should be a day off.  If you train with an upper/lower split, you would give yourself 48 hours between upper sessions and 48 hours in between lower sessions.  This would basically equate to two days on, one day off.

#3: Don’t Overdo Sprints or Plyos

Sprints and jumps are stressful on your CNS and should be treated as a heavy lifting session.  If you read my article on how to plan your high-intensity cardio, you’ll remember me saying to pair your sprints and jumps on the same day as your lifting sessions.  Hitting up a heavy day of squats, then sprinting your ass off the next day, for example, is a recipe for CNS fatigue.

This is also relative to intensity.  Training at 100% effort for your sprints, or jumping as high as you can every single plyo session is just not sustainable.  Vary your efforts just as you would in the weight room.

#4: Don’t Train Above 90% Frequently

Speaking of intensity, training at or above 90% of your one rep max day in and day out can fry your CNS.

While it is necessary to train near max effort to make strength gains, it is simply not necessary to do all of the time.  When you do train above this threshold, keep your reps low (1 – 2 per set).

You can still make a lot of strength gains by training sub-maximally.

#5: Get 8 Hours of Sleep a Night

We are all probably guilty of this.  In today’s day and age, between television, video games, and computers, we stay up way later than we should.  Sleep is for recovery and if you aren’t sleeping enough, you aren’t recovering enough either.

Now I’m not trying to be alarmist and throw all of this at you as some scare tactic.

In the grand scheme of things, you should all be working your asses off.  We don’t live in a perfect world, especially when it comes to our training, so you are going to have to break the rules from time to time. But like I mentioned above, train smarter not harder.  We all want to make continuous progress and that simply can’t happen if you have a fried CNS.


— Tank

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