Trick Train your CNS, get stronger

There’s some truth in the idea that training stability can make you stronger. Provided that we are talking about the right kind of stability and the right kind of strength. (Around 2.400 words, estimated reading time 12-15 min.)

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In 1996, Janek Cholewicki and Stuart McGill extended Bergmark’s approach to the in vivo spine, feeding the model with data about several loading tasks not covered by Bergmark’s study and estimating in vivo muscle stiffnesses for those tasks.[2]

But I am actually more interested in the hypotheses they put forward than in the empirical data they provided. Particularly interesting is a hypothesis about the risk of injury associated with low load: Cholewicki and McGill hypothesized that the risk of injury is high with lower and higher loads and lower with moderate loads.

The hypothesis is of course formulated for spinal joints. But it is based on (1) Bergmark’s General model of joint stability2, and: (2) well-entrenched hypotheses about muscles and central nervous system (CNS) wiring that apply across the human body. And thus we can generalize the hypothesis to other joints like shoulder, hip, and knee joints.

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It is easy to forget that a muscular effort is both a mechanical and a neurological event. Accordingly, strength has both neurological and mechanical components. The effect of an “unknown weight dropping in a hand-held bucket” is a prime example of how interlocked those events are.

Now, someone who buys into the Hebbian theory of learning (after Donald E. Hebb, author of The Organization of Behavior [1949]) will hypothesize that the neurological component of strength can be improved by building neural pathways. For the record, I buy Hebbian learning lock, stock, and barrel, for professional reasons.

The Hebbian theory is often summed up by the slogan “neurons wire together if they fire together”, so training the neural component of strength is basically teaching the neurons you want to fire together to do just that. Hebbian learning would, for instance, explain why goblet squats and pressurized kettlebell swings (so-called ‘hardstyle’) transfer to squatting and deadlifting.

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For all the above reasons, I contend that the following drill is actually useful for kettlebell lifters and perhaps for athletes who need to stabilize submaximal weight quickly with one hand.

Not the part where I drop it though.

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The crown achievement of this post was showcasing my Instagram and that’s Louie Simmons’ fault.

Without Louie Simmons and his Westside Barbell method, I might have invented concurrent training. Instead, I’ve just been reinventing the wheel, because my water jug is to kettlebell lifting what Louie’s bamboo bar is to powerlifting.

However, my point is a little more general than that. I’m willing to bet my shirt (although I obviously don’t wear it that often) that adding “stabilization” exercises to the routine of a beginner would make them stronger when they finally hit the big weights.

Of course, these exercises must be specific. No-kettlebell jug-ing may be fun for a powerlifter but they’re not going to cut it specificity-wise. Bandbell bench press do. Then again, dips, push-ups, and pull-ups have an often-neglected stability2 component, and they are great to prep people to hit the powerlifts.

Didn’t I mention reinventing the wheel?



[*] This is a theoretical maximum under the assumption that each word carries marginal information. The actual information content may, in fact, be lower.

[2]^ I didn’t say “tested the model” and that’s intentional. Cholewicki and McGill spend the whole final section of their paper explaining that the model cannot, in fact, be tested and that their study is a validation but not a test. Cholewicki, J., & McGill, S. M. (1996). Mechanical stability of the in vivo lumbar spine: implications for injury and chronic low back pain. Clinical biomechanics, 11(1), 1-15.



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