Weights and the Brain

indexabcvHow long will it take to see the benefits of weight training?

That rather depends on which benefits you’re looking for. Creating major change in the strength of your muscles will take time, and of course we all know that humans are often pretty bad at putting up with short term effort in order to get long term gains. It’s more tempting to eat pizza than go to the gym sometimes.

But if you’re struggling with the long term commitment, maybe the thought of a few quick gains will help get you in the weights room, and then the visible improvement will keep you there. Fortunately, there are some very rapid gains to be had.

Firstly, there’s the effect of nervous fatigue (nervous as in the nervous system, rather than any form of panic). From my limited online research (I can’t find a really good primary source) this is not completely understood, but it’s widely believed that the nerves themselves get tired when trying to pass on messages to the muscles. There’s a limit to how long they can continue to pass on the high frequency impulses required, and thus there’s a limit to how hard you can work which has nothing to do with your muscles. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long at all for your nerves to improve their efficiency, and you’ll see some pretty big gains over the first few weeks of lifting.

Secondly, you can train your brain to work harder. Exhaustion, to the point where you simply can’t perform an action any more, is not usually a physical problem but a mental one. Your muscles stop working at full capacity well before they are physically incapable of carrying on.

Your muscles give feedback to your brain, in response to which your brain worries about whether it’s a good idea to carry on and begins to reduce the signal to the muscles.

This makes some sense. If you used up literally every ounce of strength hunting your lunch, and had nothing left when a lion turned up and put you on the menu, then you probably wouldn’t be maximally adapted to your environment. We’ve all experienced the extra kick that adrenaline can give us when we thought we had nothing left, and experiments with electrical stimulation of muscles show that they can still contract with almost maximal force even when the person can barely move them (voluntarily) due to  exhaustion.

indexaLifting in the gym is simply putting yourself at the limit with very high regularity. Your brain learns that you can push yourself pretty damn hard, and actually you don’t get eaten. Your limits will creep upwards. Your brain and your nervous system are incredibly plastic, and big changes can be made by training – so you can literally teach yourself to push harder for longer. This won’t take long at all.

Some fairly fundamental unconscious reflexes can be trained – witness sword-swallowers learning to control their gag reflex, for example – so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we can learn to override our natural caution.

You’ll find, on the pitch, that the really high-intensity stuff that you used to struggle with – e.g. when you have to run past a receiver to stop the break but then slam the brakes on to set the force without over-committing – will seem infinitely easier. Instead of lazily taking a couple more steps, worrying about whether your quads can take the strain, your brain will trust your ‘tired’ legs such that you’ll still just stop dead and force.

And of course there’s the conscious element as well – not only will your subconscious brain allow you to push yourself a little harder, but you’ll also consciously feel more confident because of this. You’ll believe you can compete with your opponent athletically; you’ll mark tighter, and you’ll cut harder. Those aspects of the game that we consciously control will improve because we start to believe in our own bodies.

Even before you make any difference to your muscular strength, lifting will give you the confidence – both conscious and subconscious – to push yourself harder on the pitch.

And sooner than you think, you will get stronger too. You’ll be faster, and more agile, and you’ll reduce the risk of injury.

What’s not to like? Go lift.

(But get some advice from an expert first!)

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3 Responses to Weights and the Brain

  1. Thomas says:

    You missed another affect on the nervous system: The proportion of the muscle you recruit will increase, and this causes very fast gains in strength early on.


  2. Pingback: The Grapevine – 02/08 | Show Game

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