People ask me all the time what the secret to bigger lifts is. It’s easy to assume that world records are won solely by having the biggest muscles, but building muscle is just one aspect of increasing strength. There’s another equally important driver of strength that I train to see even more improvement in muscle force output: the brain.
Specifically, the motor cortex.
Why You Should Train Your Brain
How much you lift comes down to the force your muscle produces when it contracts. Your muscles are made up of individual fibers, and they have to contract at the exact same time to produce force. A strong electrical signal from the motor cortex of the brain coordinates the individual fibers to work as a team, helping you produce maximum force and hit new PRs. Without coordination from the brain, it would be impossible for athletes to get stronger.
According to a study published in Sports Medicine by Australian scientist Dr. Anthony Shield, the brain rarely activates all motor fibers in a muscle group at once, even if an athlete is pushing his or her muscles to their max.(1) However, with repetitive strength training, the brain does learn to activate motor fibers in a more synchronous manner and the deficit decreases over time.
The brain loves repetition. I didn’t become a world-record-holding powerlifter overnight. Rather, I train six times a week, repeating key movements over and over again. This commitment to repetitive training strengthens the signal from my brain to my muscles, which increases muscle fiber recruitment so I continue to get stronger.
Of course, reps alone aren’t worth a thing if you have poor form. By using the right movement to build strength — every single rep — the brain learns to fire the correct muscles in precisely the right order. But say I squatted consistently with improper form — my brain would activate the wrong muscle fibers and strengthen incorrect pathways in the brain.
This was exactly the problem I was facing in my third year of competitive powerlifting. Of the big 3, the squat is and has always been my weakest lift. I had desperately been trying to hit a 300 lb squat for the better part of a year, and I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I wanted despite squatting 2 to 3 times a week and bulking up from the 114 lb weight class to 123.
Luckily, I train with one of the best squatters in the world, Dan Green, and he noticed that the issue was not my lack of muscle (I mean, have you seen the size of my quads?!) but my technique. More specifically, I was not bracing my core properly during my descent, so I was losing stability in the lift.
When squatting heavy weight with a barbell (i.e. 80% or more of your 1RM), stability is achieved by taking a large breath before the movement and holding it through the entire repetition. When squatting heavy for a few reps, doing this to maintain a strong brace is crucial. However, the effects of a weak brace are less noticeable at lower weight ranges — you could probably complete your entire workout with a loose core and not even notice. Apparently, years of lazy bracing during my lighter workouts had taught me bad habits that were hindering my overall progress.
The essence of stability in powerlifting boils down to two things: timing and muscle coordination. These are both functions of the brain.
Luckily for me, I became one of the very first athletes to start training my brain with the Halo Sport neurostimulator that same year, a gadget devised to stimulate your motor cortex through what’s called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS).
What Is TDCS?
The device uses a small amount of electrical current to activate the motor cortex, increasing the strength of the signal to the muscles. A stronger, more coordinated signal means a higher percentage of muscle fibers are activated more efficiently, and I can produce more force from the right muscles at the right time. This tech may make it easier to form new connections and ingrain movement patterns — a randomized, double-blind study published this year found that TDCS can indeed improve perceived exertion and endurance during 10-rep max lifts among advanced athletes.(2)
Naturally, I decided that I was going to harness the power of this technology to break my squat plateau.
Note that this actually isn’t the only TDCS device available to the general public; there are many competitors such as The Brain Simulator and The Brain Driver that are used for skill acquisition. But to my knowledge, this is the only device that’s integrated into a headset and therefore convenient enough to be worn while you’re working out.
Do you have to wear it when exercising?
A lot of studies have found optimal results when people work out in the hour following TDCS, so you don’t have to buy a headset-mounted device to see better performance nor do you have to wear it during a workout if you do wind up trying it out.(2)(3)(4)
Personally, I used the TDCS device every day during my warmup (or immediately before my workout when training lifts in which keeping the headset fixed in place was more challenging, such as the bench press or the snatch), and I tracked my progress over time. I noticed immediately that I was able to squat more efficiently with proper technique — even as the weights got heavier. Maintaining my brace during the squat slowly became more intuitive for me.
Better form produced better results. I hit a 4 kg PR in high bar squats in just 4 days. Normally, I can anticipate a 1-2 kg PR between squat workouts, but 4 kg? That was significant, and it showed me that the limiting factor in my improvement really was my technique.
Seventeen days into my case study on myself, I finally broke the 300 lb squat and PRed my 1RM by 13 lbs. Less than 2 years later, I was able to add another 50 lbs to my squat through both strength and technique improvements.
And I did it all by focusing my training on the brain, not just the body.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
Featured image via @ami_the_benchbrah on Instagram.
- Shield A, et al. Assessing voluntary muscle activation with the twitch interpolation technique. Sports Med. 2004;34(4):253-67.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.