I was sweating my way through some overhead presses Monday night, when a curious thing happened: I had upped the load to 170 lbs. after a few trial lifts at lower weights, and actually managed to hoist it up there to a point where I could lock my elbows and take a breath.
This is a lot of poundage for me (hold your applause; it was on a machine, not in The Pit), so there was a brief debate going on in my brain between some old geezer and some other guy I didn’t recognize. The geezer was saying something along the lines of “What? Are you nuts? Put this thing down, you idiot!” and the other guy was saying something like, “Hey, check this out!”
Two reps later (not great form), my old geezer-self had returned and I was left wondering why I can’t channel that other dude more often.
It’s all about tapping into our central nervous system and getting it to convince our muscle fibers to respond when we hit the wall. At least that’s how Andrew Heffernan explains it in his excellent blog, Male Pattern Fitness. His hypothetical gym-goer, Olivia, never gets enough sleep, and she’s always stressed and exhausted. Nevertheless, she dutifully hits the gym several days a week, but it seems like no matter how hard she works, it’s rare that her muscles really get a workout, and she’s almost never sore. She can’t really ever power through a tough set because her muscles just seem to ‘turn off’ at a certain point.
She also finds that she can sometimes lift a certain weight for rep after rep, but if she increases the weight by just a few pounds, suddenly it’s impossible to lift even once. She can’t mobilize her nervous system to activate the fibers necessary for the heavier lift.
This is pretty interesting. I mean, it’s sort of understood that you have to exert yourself to achieve your fitness goals, but I’ve never seen it expressed as a dialogue between your muscle fibers and your brain. But it really doesn’t have to be that complicated, says Heffernan: Get enough sleep, manage your stress, and you ought to be able to make that conversation happen on a regular basis.