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Strength and Neuromuscular Coordination

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Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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PumpkinPerson (PP) has some weird—and uneducated—views regarding strength and coordination, which, of course, implies that he has no understanding of what “coordination” truly is. He seems to have convinced himself that coordination weightlifting does not require coordination (neuromuscular coordination; hereafter NMC—the ability of the central nervous system—CNS—to control muscles). That view is patently ridiculous. In this article, I will explain the logic behind the fact that strength and power exercises, in particular, NEED a high NMC, and without a high NMC, the athlete in question cannot perform to their highest potential.

PP wrote about an “athletic g factor” to attempt to liken it to the “g factor” regarding “intelligence” tests, but I’m not worried about that comparison (IQ is boring to me now). What I am worried about are his outlandish claims regarding what he believes regarding strength and NMC. PP cited Jensen’s Bias in Mental Testing where Jensen cited a correlation matrix in which “all of [the] correlations were positive“, writing that he’s “not sure why some commenters think weight lifting requires coordination when the correlation between strength (hand grip, chinning) and coordination (Pursuit rotor tacking, Mirror star tracing) is zero” (PP; Physical Coordination).

Well, “some commenters” have actual experience in what he is talking about, so, forgive me if I don’t believe the claims that, in my opinion, he pulled out of thin air. Take chin-ups. Imagine a case of someone attempting to chin-up that does not have high NMC. Since they were not coordinated, do you think they would be able to do a controlled rep in order to complete one rep? Or would their body be all over the place, flailing around since they do not have the mind-muscle (MMC) connection required to complete the lift. Now take his other example, hand grip. On its face, one might assume that this requires no NMC. But think about the process of gripping something tightly. If the muscles in the forearm, for example, are not adequately trained, then, in all lifts involving forearm strength (a great majority of which involve at least some type of forearm strength) will not be able to be performed properly, since the individual in question does not have the NMC required to properly do the exercise in question.

PP then says that when he “lift weights, [he doesn’t] feel like [he’s] using coordination.” This proves two things to me: (1) PP does not know how to lift properly, and then (2) follows that he does not know about the MMC.

The MMC is where the mind and the body “meet.” Acetylcholine functions as a neurotransmitter. This neurotransmitter “communicates” with the muscles in the body to cause a contraction. This contraction, then, causes the action of voluntary muscle movement. (I had an A&P professor explain to me that, out of the whole textbook he taught out of, one of the only things in the textbook that we could choose to do was move the body—contract muscles and cause movement). So when acetylcholine is released, it latches onto muscle fibers and causes muscle contractions.

We can put the MMC in this way: imagine doing a movement such as a bicep curl. One is not actively attempting to use the proper levers in order to properly lift the weight. On the other hand, if one is actively thinking about the muscles being used in the movement, then they are using the connection—they are strengthing their MMC and, in turn, developing the proper NMC which is required in order to properly lift weights and get the most returns possible from your time spent lifting.

20190220_153711 (1)

The above diagram I drew is the process by which muscle action occurs. In my recent article on fiber typing and metabolic disease, I explained the process by which muscles contract:

But the skeletal muscle will not contract unless the skeletal muscles are stimulated. The nervous system and the muscular system communicate, which is called neural activiation—defined as the contraction of muscle generated by neural stimulation. We have what are called “motor neurons”—neurons located in the CNS (central nervous system) which can send impulses to muscles to move them. This is done through a special synapse called the neuromuscular junction. A motor neuron that connects with muscle fibers is called a motor unit and the point where the muscle fiber and motor unit meet is callled the neuromuscular junction. It is a small gap between the nerve and muscle fiber called a synapse. Action potentials (electrical impulses) are sent down the axon of the motor neuron from the CNS and when the action potential reaches the end of the axon, hormones called neurotransmitters are then released. Neurotransmitters transport the electrical signal from the nerve to the muscle.

So action potentials (APs) are carried out at the junction between synapses. So, regarding acetylcholine, when it is released, it binds to the synapses (a small space which separates the muscle from the nerve) and it then binds onto the receptors of the muscle fibers. Now we know that, in order for a muscle to contract, the brain sends the chemical message (acetylcholine) across synapses which then initiates movement. So, as can be seen from the diagram above, the MMC refers to the chemo-electric connection between the motor cortex, the cortico-spinal column, peripheral nerves and the neuromuscular junction. A neuromuscular junction is a synapse formed by the contact between a motor neuron and a muscle fiber. This is why beginners in the gym get stronger in the first 8 weeks or so of training—there has not been enough time for muscle to adequately grow in that time span. Thus, when people lift weights correctly, what they are doing is training their NMC—and their mind—to be able to adequately perform these types of actions in a safe, controlled manner.

How is NMC measured? It’s not simple to measure it, and in reality, the most feasible way to “measure it” in real life situations without the use of a lab is to just see one’s progress while they progress through higher and higher weights from their starting weights and they learn to perform the exercise in question safely. But a more empirical measure used in order to measure NMC are electromyography (EMG) tests. In fact, this test is THE MEASURE used to measure NMC, since all of the relevant variables in question (some seen in the above diagram) are tested. EMGs are used for numerous reasons, mostly in order to test for types of motor diseases which affect muscle action. There is also a related measure here: a nerve conduction study. This measures the speed and strength of signals traveling between two synapses, and so, the better one’s nerve conduction is in regard to muscle action, the higher their NMC is and, therefore, the better they will be able to perform any certain lift. So, for example, we can say that one’s NMC increased and the cause was resistance training if their EMG tests increase.

Imagine an Olympic lifter going to snatch 400 pounds. Would any sane person bet that they have low NMC (i.e., a low rate of firing between synapses as measured by an EMG)? A claim such as this would be quite preposterous—individuals like Olympic lifters clearly have trained both their bodies and minds in order to lift to the best of their abilities. And if they did NOT have high NMC (i.e., a higher rate of firing between synapses), then the weight would wobble and ultimately fall, causing the lifter serious injury. But, of course, we do not see that, since strength and NMC are closely related.

I now have some examples of studies which looked into this matter (that thinking about the action one is performing activates the primary muscles used in the movement in question), which will definitely put PP’s claims to rest for good.

Neuromuscular coordination is needed, for example, to be able to “squat lift” correctly (meaning, pick up a load from a squatting start and lift it; Scholz, Millford, and McMillan, 1995). Our understanding of how this occurs has greatly increased in 30 some-odd years since our technology has improved.

Now, take the MMC. We can simply define it as “One focusing on using the muscles in question to perform the lift.Calatayud et al (2016) studied 18 resistance-trained men on a 1RM (one-rep max) bench press. Each individual in the study participated in 2 sessions: one to determine their 1RM and another experimental session. Calatayud et al (2016) attempted to control for as many factors as possible in order to attempt to see if the baseline changed at all. For example, all measures were made by the same two investigators; all measures were taken in the same facility; all participants participated in the same warm-up mobility drills prior to performing the lift; all participants performed the lift in the exact same manner they performed the two aforementioned sessions (same technique and body position, i.e., suicide grip and powerlifting technique).

They found that (1) higher levels of EMG activity lead to moving more weight; (2) the men could “selectively activate pectoralis and triceps muscles during the
bench press when this exercise is performed at low intensities
” (Calatayud et al, 2016), at moderate intensities; (3) that focusing on one muscle (i.e., triceps brachii over pec major) did not hamper activation in one over the other; and (4) a threshold exists between 60-80 percent existed for muscle activation. Thus, experienced resistance-trained men can actively increase activity in certain muscles when cued to focus on those certain muscles.

Snyder and Fry (2012) studied 11 D-III football players on the bench press while recording EMG activity. They found that, when verbal cues were given to focus on the chest muscles, EMG increased by 22 percent, but when verbally cued to focus on the triceps, the pec major returned to baseline (though this does not mean, of course, that performance was hampered), while EMG activity increased by 26 percent. However, in-line with the findings from Calatayud et al (2016), when 80% 1RM were tested, EMG activity in the triceps remained unchanged, implying that there is a threshold.

The results of this study show that trained subjects can alter the participation of muscles in both moderate and higher-intensity multijoint resistance training exercises in response to verbal instructions, because both TB and PM activities were increased selectively in response to 2 different sets of instructions at 50% 1RM and 80% 1RM. This indicates that verbal instructions from trainers, therapists, and coaches are likely to have a measurable effect on muscle involvement, although it is unclear how generalizable this effect might be to all training exercises. Previous research from our laboratory (23) indicated that untrained subjects performing a lat pull-down at 30% max isometric load could respond to verbal instructions to increase back muscle involvement by increasing latissimus dorsi activity while maintaining proper form and similar speed of movement. The subjects in that study increased latissimus dorsi activity by 17.6%, whereas in the current study, verbal instruction resulted in a 22.3% increase from baseline at 50% 1RM for PM and a 25.6% increase for TB. However, antagonist activity was not measured by Snyder and Leech (23), and it was possible that the subjects activated antagonist muscles to offset additional force produced by agonist muscles. This study addressed this possibility, but no changes were seen in antagonist muscle activity with verbal instructions. The question of the effect of higher testing loads was also addressed by this study, and it was found that at 50% 1RM, the subjects were capable of altering muscle participation of both the horizontal adductors and the elbow extensors, but at 80% 1RM, only the horizontal adductors were affected. (Snyder and Fry, 2012)

If the activity of a muscle as measured by EMG is increased, then we can say that, for all intents and purposed, that NMC is high. One who is not familiar with a lift will have low NMC, that is, the firing will be low compared to someone with high NMC. Quite clearly, verbal instruction to focus on certain muscles can better activate them, and, using EMG, we can say that they have high NMC if the firing between synapses is fast.

Rutherford and Jones (1986) write that “It is concluded that a large part of the improvement in the ability to lift weights was due to an increased ability to coordinate other muscle groups involved in the movement such as those used to stabilise the body.” How weird is that… While Kim, Lockhart, and Roberto (2009) in their sample of elderly individuals found that “Strength gain by exercise training plays a role in the improved coordination of other fixator muscles necessary for body support while performing daily tasks such as cooking, gardening, reaching for an object, and walking, and in gaining more coordinated contractions between agonist and antagonist muscle groups leading to greater net force in the imposing movements.” Finally, Dahab and McCambridge (2009) found that strength training in kids improves the number and coordination of active neurons along with the firing rate pattern. This is important because the number and coordination of active neurons along with the rate of firing pattern influences—very strongly—NMC and how coordinated they will be.

In conclusion, it is quite obvious that PP does not know what he is talking about and only writes what sounds good in his head without having an adequate understanding of anatomy and physiology, NMC, MMC, APs and the like. These types of confusions can be cleared up by having an adequate understanding of anatomy and physiology and knowing how and why muscle actions are done, where they begin and where they end. Clearly, the claim that weight lifting requires no coordination is false.

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1 Comment

  1. Ben says:

    can you build strength with 30 rep sets?

    Like

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