The Truth About Building Strength (PART 2)

Posted on 21. Jul, 2011 by in Mental Strength & Life, Muscle Mass, Physiology, Strength & Power

The Truth About Building Strength (PART 2)

In our last piece we talked about strength being a function of the nervous system.  The nervous system is broken into two components, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).  The CNS is made up of your brain and spinal column.  The PNS consists of the nerves that branch off the CNS into the body.  The function of the nervous system involves more than just sending signals from your brain to your muscles in order to make them move.  That aspect is an active aspect of the CNS.  There is also a passive or autonomic aspect.  This is the side that handles respiration, your heart beat and the processes that encompass your sleep and recovery.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is broken down further into two different components, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  Going back to the Eastern systems we referenced last time, the sympathetic nervous system is the yang aspect.  It involves our “fight or flight” responses.  The parasympathetic nervous system is yin.  It covers rest and recovery.

Most of us who are involved in fitness and strength training, especially, are well acquainted with our sympathetic nervous systems.  We engage this aspect of ourselves as often as we can.  Have you ever felt that “second wind” come through to let you finish a workout that seconds before you thought would end early?  That’s the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicking in.  The SNS involves hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones help break down tissues to make them available for immediate use by the body so that it can deal with the immediacy of the threat at hand (yes, your body does see your workout as a threat).  This is where the whole “fight or flight” thing fits in.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which could be referred to as the “rest and digest” system, is equally as important as the SNS but most of us don’t really consider it as much.  This side of the autonomic nervous system handles the recovery and rebuilding of tissues that were broken down by the SNS.  That’s the main reason that rest and recovery are so important to our building of strength.  If we don’t let hormones like testosterone and insulin do their restorative building all we do is continue to break ourselves down and eventually we become weaker and weaker.  That’s the exact opposite of what we are trying to do!

When we engage in weight training, circuit training, plyometrics, sprints or other forms of intense exercise we elicit a response from the sympathetic nervous system.  Our body’s primary goal is to provide the energy necessary to complete the task at hand.  We don’t really differentiate between a heavy clean and press or climbing a tree to escape a tiger.  Both of these efforts are extreme and the body responds accordingly.  All parasympathetic functions cease and the body devotes all of its efforts to supplying the muscles with energy.  Ever worked so hard you puked?  The SNS considers digestion a waste of energy at this point.  It can cannibalize your own tissues much more efficiently.  That’s why you puke.  The food in your stomach is too much trouble to deal with so your body purges it out of the way.  This is not to say that the SNS is bad, any more than the PSNS is good or bad.  They just are.  A smart person understands the nature of each and uses them to their maximal benefit.

Which brings us back to the parasympathetic nervous system.  Because we favor yang activities like training hard we often forget the benefits and downright necessity of taking it easy.  We all know, and many of us may even be, the guy whose approach is that, “If one hour of training is good, then three or four hours must be better!”  Over time we begin to see that this is also the guy who is constantly hurt and for whom improvement becomes more and more elusive.

What’s missing is a chance for the PSNS to effectively do its job.  This is also sometimes referred to as anabolic recovery.  Contrary to catabolysis, which is triggered by the SNS, anabolysis is the building up of tissues.  Proper nutrition and adequate rest are the two most basic aspects of recovery.  Additionally, yoga, tai chi, chi gung and massage are ways to help speed recovery and encourage the proper functioning of the PSNS.  As Westerners we often find it more difficult to embrace this side of being active.  As a culture we are obsessed with harder, faster and stronger and forget that softer, slower and gentler can actually help us get there.

If you are one of those guys who just can’t stomach the idea of a yoga class, or for whom tai chi is just something old Chinese people do in parks, fear not.  Over the next few installments I’ll be offering specific exercises designed to help engage the PSNS and promote anabolic recovery, and don’t worry if you’re seen doing them they won’t compromise your meat head status.


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