By: Matt Cooper MS, USAW National Coach at Pursuit Nutrition & Training Center
“He/she doesn’t look that strong”. This is a common sentiment I hear from those
outside the weightlifting/competitive strength world. This has not only been said about athletes
I coach, but about myself as well. The general public typically associates physical strength with
massive men with traps up to their ears and biceps the size of footballs. While strength athletes
with such massive physical dimensions can display impressive feats of strength, cultivating a
large amount of muscle mass is not only unnecessary for increasing strength but can be flat out
undesirable in a sport with weight classes.
There is certainly a time and place for training for hypertrophy (increase muscle mass),
however, when you’re trying to build as much strength as possible within a certain weight class,
hypertrophy is not the goal, neurological strength adaptations are; training your body to use
your nervous system as efficiently and effectively as possible in order to produce greater
amounts of force. In this article, I plan on covering the neurological pathways that govern
physical strength, and some of the training methods/principles that are best for inducing
neurological strength adaptations.
Neural Components in the Creating Muscular Force
The central nervous system (CNS) is of vital importance in the exertion and development
of muscular strength. It is the hub that activates muscular contraction via electric impulse. How
the body uses the CNS in regards to strength performance must be understood and considered
when designing an effective strength program. It is a complex system of nerve tissues with the
brain and spinal cord being the two primary structures. A closer look shows a coordinated
system of neurons and muscles that are made up of what are called motor units.
Each motor unit consists of a motor neuron in the spinal cord, from which extends a long axon that goes to a
muscle, and branches off to innervate individual muscle fibers (Kraemer & Zatsiorsky, 2006).
a motor unit
Muscle Fiber Types
Above I talked about motor-units being comprised of a motor-neuron, an axon, and all
of the muscle fibers innervated by the branches from that axon. It is important to know,
however, that not all motor-units are created equal. Some are large and some are small. This is
dependent on how large the motor neuron is and what type of muscle fibers that are innervated
within that motor-unit. The classification is simple: Fast twitch and Slow twitch.
Within these two categories, there are three sub-classifications: Type 1, Type 2A, and Type 2B.
Depending on the type of activity, your body will recruit the appropriate type of muscle
fiber. The speed and duration of the activity are what will influence the muscle fiber type
recruited. A simple example would be to look at different running events in track & field.
The 1600 meter run (1 mile) would recruit exclusively Type 1 muscle fibers as there is not a lot of
force or relative speed required to run 1600 meters. Also, as you can see in the chart above,
these muscle fiber types are very resistant to fatigue, therefore these fibers can work optimally
for longer periods of time. Let’s look at the 400-meter run (one lap around the track). This task
can take anywhere between 45 seconds to 75 seconds (Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity,
that we’re talking about moderately to highly trained athletes). This falls into the “medium”
range. Meaning, maximal force production is not achieved but it is still higher than most
oxidative activities that last several minutes. This is where we see a high recruitment rate of
Type2A fibers. Lastly, let’s look at the 100-meter sprint. This is a physical task that requires a
high amount of force and speed over the course of mere seconds. Here is where Type 2B
muscle fibers are put to work. These fibers have a fast contractile speed and can produce a
great amount of force. Their resistance to fatigue, however, is very low, so these fibers can only
perform optimally for a matter of seconds.
The amount of force exerted by an individual muscle is determined not only by the
amount of muscle mass involved, but also by the extent to which individual fibers within that
muscle are activated. This is called intramuscular coordination (Kraemer & Zatsiorsky, 2006).
There are many different muscle fibers (fast and slow), innervated by many different neurons
within a particular muscle. Let’s take a look at the different principles and pathways that are
used an involuntary muscular contraction.
The Size Principle: This principle states that during muscular contraction the CNS will work in a
sequential order. Small motor units (innervating Type 1 fibers) with a low threshold for force
production, are recruited first. Then, the demands for larger forces are met by recruiting larger
motor units with higher degrees of force production. Therefore, the largest motor units with
the highest capacity for speed and force production are recruited last.
Rate Coding: This refers to the frequency of the motor unit’s repeated activation (Everett,
2016). A higher frequency results in a stronger and more explosive contraction until the motor
unit reaches its full contraction limit. This channel of recruitment is particularly important in
developing explosive force production at intensities above 80% of your 1RM (Ma, 2018).
Impulse Intensity: This simply states that as the load being lifted increases so does the
magnitude of the impulse from the CNS. As the magnitude of the impulse increases, larger,
more force yielding motor units are recruited. By consistently training under heavy loads, the
body learns to efficiently create larger impulses that produce a stronger and faster muscular
Synchronization: Typically, motor units within a given muscle are activated asynchronously, or
in a staggered fashion. However, there is evidence that elite power and strength athletes
activate motor units in a more synchronized fashion (Kraemer & Zatsiorsky, 2006). In
conjunction with high-intensity impulses and optimal rate coding, a high level of synchronicity
of the motor units is imperative for maximal muscular force. This is a skill that can be trained.
Intermuscular Coordination: When we’re talking about the total amount of force produced
during a movement, as opposed to within an individual muscle, it is greatly influenced by the
precise coordination of many muscle groups (Everett, 2016). This concerted effort between
different muscle groups to produce maximal force during a particular movement is often referred
to as a “skilled” act. Meaning, intermuscular coordination can be optimized and
improved through training and practice. It is arguably the most important skill one can acquire
through training for athletics. Vladamir M. Zatsiorsky succinctly summarizes this point by
stating “The entire movement pattern, rather than the strength of single joints, must be the
primary training objective. Thus, an athlete should use isolated strength exercises, in which the
movement is performed in a single joint, only as a supplement to the main training program (p.63).”
Muscular Strength Deficit: Your Hidden Strength Potential
As was just described, performing physical tasks that require high rates of force
production have a variety of effects on our motor units. However, research has shown there are
many motor units that athletes cannot recruit or fully activate, regardless of their best efforts
to produce maximal force. This is called the Muscular Strength Deficit (MSD). Experiments
with electrostimulation have shown this hidden potential exists. Researchers have used
electrostimulation on a variety of athletes, from un-trained to elite. They compare and contrast
the force production exhibited during voluntary contraction with the electrostimulation
(producing a greater amount of force) and without it. The results show an MSD between 5 to
35%, with elite athletes (highly trained) showing the lowest deficit. Below is an equation that
represents how MSD is quantified (Kraemer & Zatsiorsky, 2006).
100 (Force during electrostimulation – Maximal Voluntary Force)
Maximal Voluntary Force
So why is this important to know? The existence of MSD shows that every athlete has
hidden strength reserves. No athlete, regardless of how elite, will ever completely eliminate the
existence of MSD. One of the primary goals of heavy strength training is to teach athletes the
skill of recruiting more motor units at an optimal firing rate and, over time, decrease their MSD.
Contrary to popular belief, initial strength gains in un-trained athletes are not due to
hypertrophy, but to the newly activated motor units that have been otherwise dormant, or
All of the information above is useless unless you understand how to train for the
desired neurological effects. For the purposes of this article, we are interested in developing
pure functional strength performance; achieving the highest possible power output. As I said in
the introduction, there is a time and place for hypertrophy work (i.e. falling into a new, higher
weight class), and it is a vital part of strength development over time as larger muscles have a
much higher potential for force production. However, if you’re a competitive strength athlete,
your primary concern is producing the greatest amount of force in your competition lifts within
your weight class, and your training should reflect that (specificity).
Maximal Effort Method: This method has been found time and time again to be the superior
method in developing absolute strength. With this method, you train with the heaviest possible
weights, between 1-3 repetitions. This method has huge advantages in developing favorable
neurological adaptations. Any MSD that exists is reduced, a maximal number of motor units are
activated through increased intensity of neuron impulses, optimal impulse frequency, and intra
and intermuscular coordination are improved (Everett, 2016). Lifting at or near maximal effort
on a regular basis in some way, shape, or form is the most effective method for creating
neurological strength adaptations.
When it comes to this method however, there are some limitations to consider. First is
the higher risk of injury. In any sport, this risk exists. That is why this method should only be
used with athletes who are trained and have a high rate of consistency in the technique of their
lifts. In addition, there can be a higher rate of physical and mental fatigue and increased
anxiety. Lastly, if your goal is hypertrophy, this method will yield little to no results in that
regard (Kraemer & Zatsiorsky, 2006).
There are many creative ways to use this method and mitigate any potential negative
side effects (i.e. the strategic use of training maxes as opposed to competition maxes can limit
the amount of psychological arousal and therefore, prevent burnout). While using this method,
you should be working with a coach who understands how to safely and effectively utilize this
method of training. Work with a coach who has a firm understanding of periodization for
strength development and how to effectively incorporate the training principals of specificity,
variance, overload, and fatigue management.
Repetition Method: Quickly summarized, this method is characterized by exerting force
repeatedly with a sub-maximal load until the athlete reaches near or complete exhaustion each
set. This method has been shown to enhance metabolism, induce hypertrophy, improve
technical coordination, and increase speed strength (Ma, 2018). This method is great for the
early accumulation phases of a training cycle as it is higher in volume by nature. The biggest
limitation it has, however, is that it is not effective at improving absolute strength.
Dynamic Effort Method: The focus of this method is speed. Moving the load as quickly and
explosively as possible. Maximal speed with light weight are the necessary parameters.
Therefore, the dynamic effort method is not used for increasing absolute strength, but to
improve the rate of force development and explosive strength (Kraemer & Zatsiorsky, 2006).
Speed is an important part of producing force (F = Mass x acceleration), and just like any other
physical trait, it must be practiced.
All of this explains how athletes who may be smaller, in terms muscle mass, can display
what may seem like impossible feats of strength, and athletes who have large amounts of
muscle mass can be weaker than you would expect. Training for neurological efficiency is the
key difference here. An athlete, who strictly trains for hypertrophy (10 or more reps every set),
most likely has a very large MSD. They may still be seeing strength gains, but their full
neurological potential is not being met. Their largest, fastest, and most forceful motor units are
never being activated because their training demands never require it.
All of the training methods described above are useful and should be used in some way
shape or form when training athletes; however, it is important to understand the what, when,
and why. Randomly using, mixing, or negating any of these methods without a clear idea of
what the optimal training stimulus is for your athlete and the goals you both have set (i.e.
peaking for an important meet), is an exercise in futility. Random programming will yield
When training an athlete to become more neurologically efficient, they need to learn
how to recruit the most motor units possible (slow and fast) by creating impulses at the highest
intensity and frequency possible, in a synchronized fashion. This is all achieved by training at
varying levels of resistance using the three methods described above. It is clear, however,
repeatedly exposing an athlete to maximal or near maximal loads (assuming they’re properly
trained) is the most effective at helping an athlete achieve his or her full strength potential. As
previously stated, when you understand the what, when, and why in regards to these concepts
and methods (through research and experience), you’ll have a great foundation and
programming repertoire to build from.
Matt Cooper MS, USAW National Coach at Pursuit Nutrition & Training Center
Everett, G. (2016). Olympic Weightlifting: A complete guide for athletes and coaches (3rd ed.).
Jianping, M., & Buitrago, M., Ph.D. (2018). Chinese Weightlifting: Technical Mastery and
Training. First Printing.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training.
Champaign, ILL.: Human Kinetics.