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3 CNS Hacks for a Better Workout and Training Response

If you could improve explosive power output by 3-8% by improving the way you conduct a warmup, would you be interested?

The science of the brain is allowing us some understanding into things that make athletes respond to, and improve from training, including many means that previously weren’t being connected with improved performance.

I recently chatted with Dan Fichter regarding the way our knowledge of the brain is changing the way we approach training athletes.  If you didn’t get to hear it yet, please check it out (Podcast 8: DanFichter).   Through this interview, and many other things I’ve been learning this past year, I’ve found that there are portions of the warmup that are critically important for neural mapping, multi-level activation, and improving movement patterns.

Since the warmup is, first and foremost, a method of engaging the nervous system, I’m going to share with you three methods that can make for a better warmup for the sake of improving one’s power output in the main workout, whether that workout is weightlifting, plyometrics, speed, or any combination.

3 CNS Hacks for a Better Workout and Training Response

The three pieces we’ll chat about are:

  • Using vision and decision making in the warmup
  • Trying superslow movements for better motor-mapping
  • The priority of oscillatory and reflexive movements in the late warmup

Use Fast-Paced Vision and Decision Making as Part of the Warmup

Warming up for a workout can become much of a mundane formality, given enough time.  In many cases, a simple adjustment of exercises can be enough to pump some new breath into the daily workout, but good coaches can select warmup activities that do even more.

I’ve known for a long time, and seen it confirmed by dozens of athletes and clients, that the best way to warm up for my highest vertical jumps was a few pickup games of basketball.   For the sake of training many athletes, this isn’t an option, or, it was already part of the process if athletes are coming into the weight room after their team sport practice.

Training isn’t just about the muscular and kinesthetic system.  It’s also about the visual and vestibular systems of the athlete.  More and more coaches are beginning to learn that there is much more to vision than just “seeing”, but rather, understanding that vision is linked to many more neural networks than simply the ability to look at things.

In “Light, Medicine of the Future”, Jacob Liberman tells us that light and vision plays a role in regulating the hypothalamus, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system.

Vision training can be used to help activate lagging muscle groups, or even put extra reps on one’s bench press or increase vertical jump ability through modulating colors or visual focal points.  This practice does take a lot of trial and error, and I am just starting to work in this arena.

Something a little more practical would be utilizing the use of colored cones in conjunction with movement drills, such as shown below, in a drill executed by Brett Bartholomew.

Integrating visual, and decision making based visual aspects into the warmup can also allow a coach to assess the quality of movement when athletes must visually react to a stimulus, and not just perform a “canned” movement that they can repeat and learn in a closed environment.

Training and competition are two different things, and seeing how athletes react from a visual and vestibular perspective can be enlightening.

Another practical visual drill I often have athletes do is hops or crawls on a carpeted area of our building with circles of various sizes and colors, having them crawl, hop or lunge on a specific color.

I recommend that the density of this type of training in warmup procedures is fairly high to promote focus, increase blood flow, and keep the energy level of the athletes high.

Of course, you can always use a game like tag, or trash-ball to warm up, but that wouldn’t be politically correct in many coaching situations where we are paid to have more structured, textbook warmup routines.

Try Super-slow Movements for Improved Learning and Motor Mapping

When it comes to training, most coaches are fairly fixated on “fast”, while most overlook the idea of why it might be helpful to slow things down, even to a “super-slow” level of movement.

If you were able to tune into the Just Fly Performance Podcast, Episode #8, you would hear Dan Fichter of “Wannagetfast” talking about how he had seen things like athletes putting 3” on their vertical jump after a series of super-slow lunges.   For those of you on the powerlifting side of things, I’ve also heard Dan talk about how superslow cross-crawls helped Louie Simmons pack some great weight onto his deadlift max in a short period of time.

In the Special Strength Training for Coaches Manual, research definitively shows that multiple repetition speeds used in the course of a training program will yield higher strength gains compared to only one rep speed, even if that one rep speed was very fast and explosive.

I’ve even found that being forced to slow my squats down to 4-2-4 and 5-0-5 tempos due to back injury was a key to hitting a lifetime best in the standing vertical jump.  These slow tempos aren’t even “superslow”, but from a neural perspective, they play a helpful part in getting the job done, and when it comes to barbell exercises, they are a great option.

We don’t’ tend to think of the results of slowing movements down from a neural control perspective, but in doing so, we miss a lot.  Athletes get plenty of neural mapping for explosiveness in the course of sprinting, jumping, plyometrics and Olympic lifts, so slowing down 2-5% of the total training regimen isn’t going to turn anyone into a slow twitch monster.

Some of the movements that I really enjoy slowing down for a workout are, but aren’t limited to:

  • Petersen Step-Ups
  • Cross-Crawl
  • Bear Crawl
  • Lunges
  • Skater Squats
  • And More

Most of the movements I like to do in the super-slow arena are bodyweight and unilateral, since this is how the body operates in sport.

I’ve taken a liking to the Petersen Step-Up in particular, because of its ability really zero in on lower quad development.   Many hip and lower back dominant athletes tend to really wiggle their way around lifts that are supposed to develop the quads, but like the Olympic lifting adage goes “if you don’t have quads, you probably won’t get quads”.  I think this is true to a degree, but at the same time, you have to back the lower quads into a corner they can’t get out of if you really want them to grow!

By slowing things down to a rate of 30 seconds to 2 min per rep you can not only improve the neural map of the quads in knee extension, but you also engage the whole spectrum of muscle fibers (and not just slow-slow twitch like you might think in slower movements; another Dan Fichter gem I’ve picked up).

If you haven’t seen the regular Petersen step up, here is a nice sample video of the exercise, and I’ve found good results by slowing it down to enhance neural mapping of knee extension.

This is also a great movement because it is not done “through the heel”, which puts force off of the big toe, and reduces the linking of the glute.

The possibilities of super-slow movements are endless based on a coaches intuition, creativity, and needs of athletes.

Oscillating and Reflexive Movements are Key

The best way to warm up for more powerful movement is oscillating, reflexive work.

When it comes to getting an athlete ready for a high power output with precision, reflexive work is a critical part of the equation.

Here’s a secret: Sprinting is reflexive.  Doing it in enough density without over-blowing the system seems to almost always do the trick when it comes to improving an athlete’s ability to produce power.  Here are a couple of my favorite sprint combos to do so if you have the space:

  • 200m @ 80%, 150m @ 85%, 100m @90%, 50m @95%. Walking recovery
  • 3x150m gear change or sprint-float-sprint, broken into 3×50 meter segments on 2-3’ recovery

If you have less space, or have athletes whose mechanics get rather bad at the first hint of lactate, dribble series are an excellent alternative.

Doing things like 3-5 sets of 20-40 meter dribbles on a minute rest are a great way to get a powerful reflexive element in the warmup, not to mention a nice little psoas burn to remind you that your hip flexors are, in fact, working.  (If you feel your quads doing dribbles, I would recommend a good therapist, or Be Activated practitioner!)

A video posted by Joel Smith (@justflysports) on

One of my favorite reflexive drills: High-low dribbles

You can add to the reflexive nature of dribbles by performing alternating low, medium and high dribbles, at 5-10m intervals.  By alternating dribble heights, I find that the psoas and hip flexor bundle is worked at different lengths, and I feel more of a training effect in this critical muscle group after this type of work.  For many quad-ab linked movers, this type of work is a useful warmup practice to encourage reflexive glute-psoas firing.

Even with no space, there are loads of reflexive movements you can do in the weightroom itself to prepare for harder work.  Even rhythmic movement in traditional activities is great here, since getting a small amount of lactate going gets the Cori cycle engaged, giving athletes energy for later in the workout, as well as breaking neural thresholds for the sake of stronger activation.

Here is a simple, yet effective drill that Cal Dietz has posted, and I’ve seen around in a few track and field circles, the oscillating lunge jump.  This movement is “reflexive” because of the rapid reversal action of the lead leg from hip extension into hip flexion.  This coupling seems to help to improve agonist-antagonist efficiency, or in simpler terms, the ability of opposing muscle groups to work together to produce better movement.

Some of my favorite reflexive activities are things like oscillating lunges, line hops for time (done over a rope), rapid fire plate hops, and more.

If you have no equipment at all, and don’t give a f@#$, you can always bust out a set of seizure hops, as demonstrated below by the legend himself, Frank Yang.

As I am learning in both coaching, and life, many things that work well aren’t always what we would term politically correct.

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  1. Reading the article. For the lunge at slower pace. you are holding at the bottom of the lunge for a period? If the rep take 30 seconds, 10 seconds down- 10seconds hold at bottom, 10 seconds up? how many reps is this for?

    Similar to the siezure hops, I have seen the quick forward/backward hops, and lateral quick hops used for oscillating.

    Do you recommend the sprints over the other stuff if you have space?

    • Chris,

      I don’t think the hold at the bottom is needed, but I suppose you could do it. This would be for 1-2 reps. Yes, quick forward and backwards plate hops are also great! I would generally recommend sprints if available, BUT for athletes with bad sprint technique, I’d do dribbles or some sort of plyometric.


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