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central nervous systems role in trainiing

Respect for Heavy Weights – Singles, Doubles and Triples

You know as a bodybuilder for most of my career I never had as much respect for the amount of quality work that powerlifters put in doing heavy singles, doubles and triples.  Well, all that has since changed immensely in performing my first powerlifting show.  Honestly, doing those heavy lifts wasn’t so much about the lifts themselves as I’m a huge fan of all the movements.  The bench, deadlift and squat are bread and butter exercises, but I found that doing them for repetitions lower than five seemed somewhat boring and ineffective.

Boy was I wrong.  It was the addition of 5-3-1 the popular program by Jim Wendler helped bring me back into the fold in doing heavier lifts.  Additionally, since joining Hostyle, under the tutelage of Curd Hos, I managed to finally overcome my revulsion for heavy trips, doubles and singles and gained the first hand knowledge of just how effective these heavier loads are for building strength and size.

The Central Nervous System

Strength training targets a lot of different aspects of fitness depending upon the rep ranges and loads utilized, but serious strength training involving a heavy load with 1-3 repetitions targets a lot more of the central nervous system.

This feeling of CNS fatigue caused by the heavy weights was something inconclusive to me, as I was used to feeling the burn and localized muscular fatigue of lifting for repetitions.  Trust me it’s very, very different.

Programs that say you can go from a heavy 1RM to high repetition work severely limits your performance based entirely on the fact that your nervous system becomes too taxed to create enough stimulus to the muscles to be effective if you go from heavy singles to multiple repetition work.

Even if your work capacity is very high lifting heavy will limit the amount of serious strength work you can perform after doing enough max effort work or dynamic strength training.

Learning to Feel The Central Nervous System

The problem for many individuals is actually feeling the limitations of the central nervous system and its effects on the musculature.  Simply because if you’re used to powering through endless amounts of volume you believe that you can still perform at a high level.  After heavier loads this simply isn’t possible.

Lifters that are very metabolically efficient and are used to a high volume of training will have a tough time recognizing that heavy lifting requires a lot from the body.  It may not be physically demanding, but the nervous system will be taxed to the point of exhaustion, versus the muscles which still feel like they’re capable of performing extra work.

This is comparable to having a speaker wire that is frayed just enough that it only has a couple small copper wires that are still in contact with the speaker.  You may be trying as hard as possible to lift the loads, but the neural signals just aren’t coming through to stimulate the muscles with enough action potentials to properly drive enough muscle fibers to cause any good stimulation.  You will be essentially wasting your time.

Neural Drive

All muscular actions are originated in the nervous system, which happens to be the first thing that improves when you’re first undergoing a strength training regimen.  When the body becomes accustomed to lifting initial loads it’s efficiency becomes greater and greater at coordinating the muscles motor units to fire in sync with one another.  This is how you can see great progress as a beginner very rapidly.  Your muscles are simply learning to react to loads and apply more force where they are needed.  However this isn’t the best part.  Neural adaptations are always occurring, which is how you can keep on increasing strength even if you don’t desire increased muscle size.

Neural drive is comprised of three different components in which the muscles are affected.  The rate (how fast your CNS can produce a muscle action), duration (how long your CNS can keep motor units activated) and the magnitude (how large a motor impulse is activated in the muscles).

These three components are stimulated to a certain degree with each muscle action that we do.  The key for neural adaptations for strength is a duration dominant drive of high magnitude.  This occurs under a heavy load that must be sustained until completion of the lift.  By the way all this information was taken from Christian Thibadeau’s work in Theory and Application of Modern Strength Training to put credit where credit is due.

The difference to the body can easily be seen in comparing the two graphs below.  One graph is the Duration Dominant High Magnitude of a heavy lift, versus the Duration Dominant Low Magnitude (high repetitions, low to moderate loads).  The difference is that with the high duration and magnitude of the low repetition work the muscles and central nervous system are severely impacted, creating an overall larger stressor for the body.  This amount of stress isn’t readily apparent if your metabolism is efficient enough.  So even though you feel you’ve recovered from this stressor, you’re NOT!

powerlifting with heavy singles, doubles and triples


The nervous system isn’t something that you can readily feel during training, at least not locally.  It’s more of a systemic feeling.  You may feel energized, amped and raring to go after doing those heavy sets of triples, doubles and singles; however, you nervous system is slagged.  Trying to perform at a high level with more sets and repetitions of a moderate load for repetitions only seems to decrease your performance simply because your body isn’t ready for that type of stimulus.  It simply can’t fire up your muscles the way it should, as mentioned previously.

So to conclude you can’t always feel your nervous system when it’s working hard.  It simply feels like some hard work, but limited amounts.  If you’re a high energy trainee like myself, then you need to plan your workouts accordingly and if it’s a heavy loading day with singles, doubles and triples –plan to take your time, blast the heavy weights and then finish with some very light weight stuff or conditioning just to take the edge off.  You’re not going to get much out of trying to push the heavy weights and then blast the same muscle group with moderate bodybuilding loads.  It’s just not going to happen.  The Force may be strong with you, but you’ve only got one nervous system.


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25+ Years Personal Trainer - Specialize in Men and women over 40 Bench Press Athlete Best Comp Bench CPF 534 lbs Raw Feb 2017 RPS 550 lbs Raw April 2017 Founder Hostyle Conditioning Founder Hostyle Gear Founder Hostyle Kettlebell Systems

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