Speed doesn’t kill, but slowness might. Whether you’re an Olympic lifter attempting a new personal record in the snatch or a martial artist in the fight of your life, how explosive you are (or aren’t) often separates average contenders from top-tier competitors.
Your workouts should cover as many athletic dimensions as possible, and explosiveness is no exception. The question is, how do you teach yourself — more specifically, your brain — to be fast? Is this a quality you can even train at all?
Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “yes.” The right drills and exercises can light your central nervous system (CNS) on fire, get your head in the game, and help you crush whatever it is you’re training for. Here’s how to hack your mind and unlock your athletic potential.
What Is the Central Nervous System (CNS)?
Your CNS is physically located in your brain and spinal cord. It’s notably distinct from the peripheral nervous system, which does provide supportive information that helps your CNS effectively process and perform tasks.
Put simply, one of the many important roles of your CNS is to elicit physical responses to different stimuli. This includes muscular contractions in the gym, but also covers everything from flinching away from a hot fire to swatting at an insect that buzzes near your ear.
Why Activating Your CNS Matters
You can think of your central nervous system as the command center that enables every physical action you perform in the gym. Without an alert and active CNS, you won’t be able to squeeze out as many reps of biceps curls, dunk a basketball, or hit that new personal record deadlift you’re chasing.
Even though your nerve synapses have the potential to fire in a fraction of a second, your CNS adheres to many of the same biological “laws” as, say, your cardiovascular or muscular systems.
Your heart doesn’t go from zero to 120 beats per minute in an instant, and your muscles probably can’t contract their hardest if they’re ice cold. Therefore, a good CNS warm-up, or “primer”, can help prepare you for the athletic demands of the workout to follow.
How to Activate Your CNS for Better Performance
Some warm-ups are specific — if you want to snatch with precision, your warm-up needs to be perfectly tailored to that exercise. On the other hand, if you just need to get your heart rate going, there are quite literally hundreds of ways to get cranking on your cardio.
CNS primers land somewhere in between. Any drill or action that demands lightning-fast movements or explosive contractions will do the trick, but — generally speaking — more specificity is better than less.
Strong athletic performance starts in the mind. It follows, then, that imagining yourself performing well will have a tangible benefit to how you move in the gym.
This idea is far from conjecture — research has observed that people who visualize themselves performing a task well before they begin have faster reaction times, better coordination, and stronger overall results. (1)
Use Explosive Movements
If you want to prime your CNS to perform at its peak, your movements and drills need to serve that end. As such, you should work with exercises that demand rapid force development, abrupt changes in direction, and general plyometrics.
Exercises that require you to hit the proverbial gas pedal will “remind” your body that it’s time to get alert. It’s for that reason that plyo work, explosive calisthenics, and even Olympic lifting are often utilized during an athletic warm-up routine. (2)
Work With (Some) Weights
There’s a very delicate balance you must maintain when using CNS primers. You’ll generally find it easier to contract your muscles if you give them something more than thin air to contract against, but on the flip side, working with too much resistance can easily slow you down.
The best way to prime your nervous system for power is to challenge it with a light weight. Some research has demonstrated that as little as 50 percent of your 1-rep max effectively stimulates power output. (3)
This is why you’ll commonly see power-based drills involve heavy medicine balls or a kettlebell in lieu of a barbell loaded up with plates. There’s heft there, but you can still move the object quickly.
Benefits of CNS Activation
Make no mistake — your central nervous system is always “on”. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have any bodily control whatsoever. In terms of gym-related performance, though, there’s definitely some merit to going the extra mile to prime yourself prior to your training session.
More Strength Gains
This may come as a shock, but it’s true — using CNS primers will almost certainly help you set a new personal record in the gym.
Several research reviews and meta-analyses back the idea that combining power training, specifically prior to your standard lifting regime, is more effective for facilitating strength gains than standard resistance training alone. (4)
This holds true for strength athletes like powerlifters and is especially valid for traditional athletes who work on the field or court.
A Better Warm-Up
There’s nothing wrong with a low-intensity, cardio-based warm-up to kick off your gym routine. That said, the main pitfall is that it will do little to prepare your body (and your mind) for the specific tasks at hand.
A CNS primer or a series of plyometric drills will raise your core temperature while also “turning on” your mind-muscle connection. You’re likely to feel better about your back squats if you warmed up with a few sets of box jumps or medicine ball slams.
More Movement Confidence
Not every benefit needs to come with a science-heavy, research-backed perk package to be worthwhile. It may simply be the case that going through some plyometric drills or flying through a light set of back squats helps you feel better about your performance in the gym overall.
A light jog or some burpees will get your heart rate up, sure, but may not necessarily inspire confidence about your capabilities. Conversely, there’s something primal and cathartic about really leaning into a set of med ball slams.
Ballistic exercise jazzes you up and helps you feel engaged with physically moving. This should bleed into your workout at large and get you more invested in your training.
Who Should Use CNS Activation Primers
They certainly can help just about any flavor of gymgoer, but primers are more relevant for some groups than others.
A large portion of the athletic demands of a good CrossFit workout involves ballistic movement. During a CrossFit WOD or group class, you regularly need to sprint, jump, and throw — all of which require your CNS to be fired up.
A good CNS activation routine can serve as an effective warm-up for your next CrossFit training session by ensuring that your brain and body are linked and prepared for the tasks at hand.
The very essence of weightlifting is force development. Your ability to move a barbell quickly is what separates the sport from powerlifting, bodybuilding, or strongman. It follows, then, that a good CNS primer can help elevate your Olympic lifting sessions.
If you know you’ve got snatches or cleans on the menu, starting your training session with movements that help you feel more explosive is sure to pay dividends. You’ll feel a bit snappier and a little more connected to the barbell once you start your working sets.
Traditional Sport Athletes
A vast majority of the research aimed at how effective primers are (or aren’t) is conducted on traditional sport athletes. From basketball to badminton, almost all sports require that you be able to change direction quickly or generate high amounts of force in an instant.
Therefore, anyone who practices for an individual or team-based sport should probably make primers part of their training plan. They help you “turn on” your neuromuscular coordination so that you can be agile and adept on the field.
Competitive (or recreational) powerlifters don’t need to move a weight fast. The squat, bench, and deadlift are judged on whether or not you can get the barbell from one point to another, not how long it takes you to do so.
However, this doesn’t mean that force output is irrelevant by any means. The faster and harder you can contract your muscles, the easier time you’ll have breaking a deadlift off the floor initially or grinding through a sticking point in your squat.
Powerlifters might find some CNS priming useful in such contexts, as well as on days that the prescribed weights aren’t bar-stoppingly heavy to begin with.
Best CNS Activation Exercises
The beauty of a neural primer is in its flexibility. You can, in theory, turn just about any movement into something specifically tailored to engage your CNS. That said, some drills and exercises are more useful than others. Here are a few standout examples for you to play with.
Medicine Ball Slam
Medicine balls are fantastic for neural priming and force development. You needn’t worry about damaging the ball and can freely chuck, hurl, or drive it in any direction you like, as hard as you like.
Taking a med ball from a partial squat, to overhead, and then rapidly slamming it into the ground involves the musculature of your thighs, core, upper back, and arms. Moreover, many of these tissues have to go from a lengthened position to contracting in the blink of an eye.
Try four to six sets of up to five slams with about a minute of rest between sets.
Hang Power Clean
The power clean from a high (above your knee) hang position is forceful, abrupt, and explosive. You have less than one second to impart as much force into the barbell as you can. It’s a great tool for getting into your weightlifting groove without going through as much comprehensive movement as the full clean demands.
Work with three to five sets of two reps using a light weight before moving onto your heavier exercises.
Jumping is a great way to get your CNS in the game for any workout, but you can modify your plyometrics and perform depth jumps instead for a bit of added stimulation.
By first “falling” off an elevated surface, you add a degree of co-contraction to your lower body — your legs must absorb the shock of the fall and then redirect that energy into upward momentum.
Depth jumps will get your brain (and body) warmed and primed without any fancy external equipment required. Try as many as five sets of three jumps before your workout.
Single-Leg Lateral Jump
You don’t always need to awaken your CNS with force development. Drills that challenge your stability and bodily control do the trick just fine, too. To that end, you can work on one leg and try some single-legged lateral jumps.
Any explosive, dynamic movement performed on (or with) one limb will challenge your brain as much as your body. Not only do you need to contract your quads and glutes to move, you also need to maintain integrity and balance in your torso in real time.
Run through up to three sets of five jumps for each leg before moving on to your actual workout.
How to Program CNS Activation
Many CNS drills and primers are centered around the phenomenon known as post-activation potentiation (PAP). PAP is exactly what it sounds like — your potential to perform a certain task (like lifting a heavy weight) goes up directly after you activate your CNS (or a specific muscle).
Therefore, any CNS primer or drill you include should take place before you move on to your “actual” training session. Your primers should be quick and intense, but not exhausting. If you feel mentally foggy, disconnected from your body, or tired after, you likely worked a bit too hard.
Sample Lower Body Workout With CNS Activation
Here’s one example of how CNS activation work can fit into your overall training session. Note that the exercise(s) you select should in some way mirror or “feed” into your subsequent lifting.
- Incline Treadmill or Light Jog: 5 minutes
- Medicine Ball Slam superset Box Jump: 4 rounds of 3 slams and 3 jumps
- Thruster: 4×3
- Front Squat: 3×6
- Romanian Deadlift: 3×8
- Back Extension: 2×12
Interestingly, some literature has studied the potency of PAP in clinical settings and arrived at surprising results. Stronger athletes with more resistance training under their belt experienced the peak benefit of CNS activation sooner than less-experienced trainees. (5)
So, if you’re just getting started in the gym and still want to try out CNS activation, give yourself up to 10 minutes between completing your warm-up and starting your first working set of whatever exercise you’re doing.
Train Your Brain
Going fast is cool. Being strong is cool. But being strong and fast is a whole different beast. Whether you’re a competitive strength athlete or a track and field superstar, there’s no good reason to be sluggish during your training — or in competition.
If you’ve ever felt slow, behind the curve, or not in-tune with your body during a workout, your CNS might not be performing up to par. While healthy bodily functions mainly come down to your habits outside the weight room, you can prime yourself for power before you ever pick up a weight. You’ll notice the difference in the blink of an eye.
1. Blankert, T., & Hamstra, M. R. (2017). Imagining Success: Multiple Achievement Goals and the Effectiveness of Imagery. Basic and applied social psychology, 39(1), 60–67.
2. Darmiento, Anthony & Galpin, Andrew & Brown, Lee. (2012). Vertical Jump and Power. Strength and conditioning journal. 34. 34-43. 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182752b25.
3. Seitz, L. B., & Haff, G. G. (2016). Factors Modulating Post-Activation Potentiation of Jump, Sprint, Throw, and Upper-Body Ballistic Performances: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(2), 231–240.
4. Haff, Guy & Whitley, Adrian & Potteiger, Jeffery. (2001). A Brief Review: Explosive Exercise and Sports Performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 23. 13. 10.1519/00126548-200106000-00003.
5. Seitz, L. B., de Villarreal, E. S., & Haff, G. G. (2014). The temporal profile of postactivation potentiation is related to strength level. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(3), 706–715.
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