Have you ever tried a new form of exercise even though it wasn’t too difficult, felt completely and utterly exhausted? I’m not talking about just a physical exhaustion. I’m talking about that exhaustion that feels completely disproportionate to the effort you've put in, and makes you feel like can barely string a sentence together.
This happened to me the first time I tried a barre class. Yes, the barre class was physically challenging, but nothing extreme and certainly nothing that should have made me feel as exhausted as it did. It consisted solely of body weight exercises and there was no intense intervals - but there was a lot of long holds, coordination, movements, precision work, and recruitment of new muscles that my body wasn’t used to. The reason I felt like this was because of a little phenomenon called neuroplasticity.
Physical exercise results in biochemical changes that trigger the production of new connections between neurons and the production of new neurons - this is neuroplasticity and it is one of the best and most important benefits of exercise. It helps prevent cognitive decline, improves concentration, memory, reaction time, and even our ability to process information and learn. Studies have even implied that it can help improve mood, energy and confidence. Neuromuscular conditioning is an important and often overlooked part of training. Although you’ll still be training your brain every time you exercise, forming new connections and perpetually challenging the brain means trying different forms of exercises, drills and combinations so that you can tax the nervous system to engage this response.
It will also help with physical performance if you’re training for a specific event or goal. Let’s use running as an example. If you want to run faster, there’s more to it than just building stronger muscles - you actually need to train your nervous system to recruit those muscles at quicker and more powerful pace. Without conditioning your nerves too fire at a quicker rate, you’ll never be able to employ your newfound strength as efficiently as you’d like to. Running faster means that in addition to strength work, you’d also need to train your reactivity, precision and footwork. So what are the best ways to train your brain?
Concentrating on form, footwork, tempo and body placement. Ladders, are a great example of this. Always aim for quality over quantity - this will ensure you don’t pattern bad habits.
Performing movements at a slow pace is a fantastic way to recruit new neurons, not only because it increases the muscles time under tension, but also because you generally have to concentrate a lot harder on form. Moving slowly takes out the opportunity to use momentum and will engage more muscles.
Bosu balls, swiss ball work, single leg movements (i.e. squats, deadlifts) and anything that involves a concentration on balance will be great for recruitment, especially when done slowly.
Movements that involve the coordination of multiple muscle groups and balance will be great for taxing the nervous system. A great example is a dumbbell squat to single leg step up to shoulder press. This will use lower body, core, and upper body and is completely exhaustive after about 5 repetitions. You can also try this out on the bike - the next time you do your weights track at Psycle, try keeping the resistance high. Because you will fatigue more quickly and produce a lack of oxygen, you’ll need to work even harder to coordinate your arms and legs whilst being fatigued, creating a great tax on the nervous system.