The neuromuscular system, or nervous system, can be described as the “mind-body connection”. The nervous system allows your brain to relay information back and forth to the rest of the body. This constant communication allows for all human movement.
During a workout, you have the potential to positively impact the nervous system because it’s one of the only times in life we consciously get our brain to send instructions (signals) to our muscles and expect specific responses. The “conscious” aspect of this interplay between the brain and muscles during a workout is vital when trying to train or retrain the nervous system.
Sensory receptors (the part of the nervous system that sense the outside environment), and motor neurons (the part of the nervous system that elicits movement), live in the muscles. Since during a workout, we are (hopefully) thinking about what our muscles should be doing, we have the ability to make positive changes.
One of the most vital components of the nervous system is its proprioceptive capabilities. Proprioception is the body’s ability to know where it is in time and place. The body uses its proprioceptive abilities to get information about its surroundings. For example, when we are walking, our feet give us proprioceptive feedback about the terrain we’re walking on. A well-functioning nervous system, using proprioception, enables the body to adapt to its surroundings without consciously thinking about what their body is doing. Proprioception tends to decrease with age. This decrease in proprioceptive abilities can lead to improper posture, poor balance and an increase in the likelihood of falls.
Try these two exercises to train your proprioception and balance!
1. Single leg balance
Make sure you have no shoes on. Stand on your right foot. Lift your left leg. Close your eyes and try to balance for as long as you can. Switch legs. Focus on your support ankle. Pay close attention to your distribution of weight. Try not to put more weight on one side of the foot then the other.
2. Tandem Walks
Stand with your right heel touching your left toes. Your feet should make a vertical line. Maintain that vertical line as you walk forward as though you’re walking along a tight rope, stepping your left heel in front of your right toe, and then your right heel in front of your left toe. After three steps, pause and close your eyes for five seconds. Pull in your low abdominals like you’re trying to put on a tight pair of jeans. Open your eyes and continue with this pattern. Stop every three steps and close your eyes. Repeat this pattern 10 times.
For best results, perform both of these exercises in bare feet. If you have no pre-existing feet or ankle injuries, try spending time each day at home with no shoes on. Simply walking around in bare feet will help “wake up” your proprioception and the mind-body connection between your feet and your brain.
You can train your nervous system by incorporating unstable equipment during every workout. For example, stand on a bosu ball to perform squats or upper body exercises, or lie on a foam roller and do flys or bench press exercises.
Highways vs. Side Streets
Although all exercise trains the nervous system to some degree, if you constantly do the same exercise over and over, you may be training the nervous system connections that are already strong, and ignoring nervous system pathways that are weak.
Think of the nervous system as a series of roads connecting the brain to different muscles. The nervous system has highways and side streets. Traditional gym exercises train the “highways” that go from the brain to large muscle groups that elicit big movements. These “highways” are usually already strong connections.
Many people ignore the “side streets” that go from the brain to smaller, more posture-based muscles like the deep core, or the muscles of the foot and ankle. Eventually, if you only train the “highway” connections, one runs the risk of these “side street” connections disappearing. For example many people have next to no “side street” connection to their deep transverse abdominals, which can lead to lower back injuries.
Some of the most common “side streets” that are ignored are the connections to the feet, the medial quadriceps of the knee, the deep abdominal muscles, glute medius muscles and rotator cuff muscles.
Here are a couple of exercises that train the “side streets”:
1. Resistance Band Ankle Exercise
Make sure your shoes are off. You will need a resistance band or towel to perform this exercise. Lie on your back, left leg bent with your foot on the floor. The right leg should be fairly straight, with the resistance band wrapped around the ball of your right foot. Slowly point and flex your right foot. Repeat 15 times and then switch legs. Make sure you perform the exercise slowly and try to feel all the muscles in your foot. Try to differentiate between your ankle moving, muscles within the arch of your foot and your toes.
2. Towel Toe Pulls
To perform this exercise you’ll need a towel. Sit in a chair with your shoes and socks off. Lie a towel down in front of you. Place your foot on the towel, close to you. Use your toes to pull the towel towards you. Make sure you go slowly and take your time so you really feel your toes moving. Try to pull the entire towel towards you. Reposition your foot whenever too much towel gets underneath your arch.
3. Leg Squeezes
This exercise strengthens the medial quad muscle. This muscle is important for proper tracking of the knee. Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, parallel and hip distance apart. Place your fingers in the inside of the knee. Squeeze your leg muscles and try to “turn on” the muscles on the inside of the knee. Do three sets of 10 repetitions. These muscles are not strong, so the rest of your leg muscles will try and take over. Try not to let that happen by focusing on the inside-knee muscles.