Could This Gadget Zap Your Brain to Improve Lifting?

Strength athletes hear a lot about how they need to perfectly perform every one of their reps to create and enforce the right neural pathways involved with the lift. But what if there were a device that could further stimulate those neural pathways, making it easier to learn form and maintain it at high intensities?

This is where Halo Sport comes in, a company dedicated to bringing tech that was once confined to hospitals and clinics to the world of athletic performance. The Silicon Valley company just announced they’ve secured Series B financing, but they’ve been on the market for some time and have already collected a devoted fanbase of athletes like the United States’ Olympic ski team, CrossFit™ athletes Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet and Kari Pearce, ironman Tim O’Donnell, and bench press world record holder Emily Hu.

“It helps you concentrate on controlling your movement and ensures the brain creates the maximum neural drive,” she told BarBend. “It feels like a slight tingly sensation, and I’d say it increases the amount of focus you feel. It definitely helps me maintain better form for a better top set in all of my lifts.”

Wait, How Does This Work?

It looks like a set of headphones, but it sends electricity to your brain through silicone diodes located underneath the headband. Not much electricity, relatively speaking — 1.4 to 2.2 milliamps of positive electric current, or about what a 9-volt battery produces — but through a process called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) it stimulates neurons in the motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for movement.

This may “prime” the neurons to fire more easily and by temporarily increasing the brain’s “neuroplastic” state, it may help them to form new connections and to learn and ingrain movement patterns. In addition to possibly helping with power and endurance, it may also play a hand in skill acquisition in general. That’s why it’s also used by musicians, who rely heavily on muscle memory.

TDCS isn’t new and has been used to improve the movement and coordination of stroke victims and people with Parkinson’s disease, along with treating symptoms of osteoarthritis, schizophrenia, and other disorders1 2 3 4. But Halo has taken the concept to the gym with pretty interesting results.

From the Lab to the Gym

U.S. Ski’s high performance director Troy Taylor told the BBC that, “Halo offers a unique and new technology with the ability to increase the brain’s ability to learn new skills, which has never been done before,” adding that his athletes “experienced less wobble and more applied force in their jumps.”

In a new interview with Medgadget, powerlifter Emily Hu noted:

Even as a non-beginner lifter, I found the Halo could still help me learn better technique and improve in a sport in which I was already competing at a high level. (…) You feel a little different the first work out, and then it adds up over time (…)

It was more like I could concentrate on maintaining better form, so getting stronger wasn’t the primary effect but a secondary. The better form just let me lift harder, more efficiently, and be able to do more repetitions.

Halo Sport has conducted some of their own studies showing better skill acquisition, force production, and jumping ability. As far as impartial, peer-reviewed studies on athletes go, there’s not a huge body of evidence and results aren’t always consistent, but some research has indeed found that tDCS can improve endurance and perceived exertion among cyclists as well as exertion during the 10-rep max of advanced strength athletes567. (Note that these studies weren’t performed with the actual Halo Sport device itself.)

Are There Downsides?

Halo was founded by a team that previously developed neurostimulation devices to treat epilepsy and the company is helmed by by neuroscientist and recreational cyclist Dr. David Chao. He recommends using it no more than once a day, three or so times per week. (He says that using it more than once per day would bring diminishing returns.) Powerlifters would benefit most from using it in their heaviest set and it’s particularly useful if the athlete always does their utmost to maintain perfect form when they train. This way there are already plenty of neurons to enforce form. (You do that anyway, right?)

While there’s great evidence that tCDS can make neurons more or less likely to fire, critics argue that it’s not responsible or safe to market this kind of technology to consumers and that the role of the motor cortex in learning and athleticism is not fully understood. And despite the studies cited above and the wealth of anecdotal evidence, there’s not much data on long-term effects or on athletic feats performed outside of a lab.

At about $750, it’s also a pretty expensive gadget. That said, the anecdotal evidence is pretty interesting — just remember that like a lot of training supplements, it only works if you do.

Featured image via @haloneuroscience on Instagram.

References

1. Dagan, M. et al. Multitarget transcranial direct current stimulation for freezing of gait in Parkinson’s disease. Mov Disord. 2018 Feb 13. doi: 10.1002/mds.27300.

2. Bornheim S, et al. Motor cortex Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) improves acute stroke visuo-spatial neglect: A series of four case reports. Brain Stimul. 2018 Mar – Apr;11(2):459-461.

3. Ahn, H. Efficacy of transcranial direct current stimulation over primary motor cortex (anode) and contralateral supraorbital area (cathode) on clinical pain severity and mobility performance in persons with knee osteoarthritis: An experimenter- and participant-blinded, randomized, sham-controlled pilot clinical study. Send to Brain Stimul. 2017 Sep – Oct;10(5):902-909.

4. Osoegawa C, et al. Non-invasive brain stimulation for negative symptoms in schizophrenia: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Schizophr Res. 2018 Jan 31.

5. Lattari E, et al. Effects on Volume Load and Ratings of Perceived Exertion in Individuals Advanced Weight-Training After Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Jan 11.

6. Lattari E, et al. Effects of transcranial direct current stimulation on time limit and ratings of perceived exertion in physically active women. Neurosci Lett. 2018 Jan 1;662:12-16.

7. Angius L, et al. Bilateral extracephalic transcranial direct current stimulation improves endurance performance in healthy individuals. Brain Stimul. 2018 Jan – Feb;11(1):108-117.

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