Faster Strength Gains Through Brain Boosting
In the world of sports, enhancing performance through brain training still remains relatively new ground. Proper muscle control and coordination has major implications for professional athletes and competitive play, but moving with a body that is misaligned can leave us vulnerable to injury and certainly to decreased sports proficiency.
But do we have actual control over our movement? and how important is our posture prior to movement in the context of sports performance?
Let’s take a deeper look at how our brain functions as the master computer and controls all musculoskeletal movement. Posture is the effect of how both the feet and the eyes align the body to resist the pull of gravity.
For example, if an athlete presents with postural imbalances, such as a lower shoulder or rotated pelvis, it goes without saying that their postural strategies will be weak. If proprioception is optimal when all muscles are under equal tension, then the real question is, why would the nervous system purposely create abnormal posture when it is an energy saving system.
What is proprioception?
Proprioception comes from our vision and specialized nerve cells located in our skin, muscles and joints. The sensory information coming from these nerve cells make it to specific parts of our brain for integration before projecting onto our muscular system for movement and coordination. So it is absolutely essential for our proprioception to be at its peak before we decide to move. In order for our muscles to contact with just the right amount of tension to generate strength, the brain has put in place these neural networks that are part of the motor system. Some of these neural networks allow for voluntarily muscular control (this part is known as the pyramidal pathway), and others are part of an involuntary system that modulate and regulate muscle tone prior to movement (this part is known as the extra-pyramidal system).
But just how important is the extra-pyramidal system for sports performance, injury prevention, and reaction time?
Let’s take a closer look.
The extra-pyramidal system is a pathway composed of many structures, known as tracts or pathways, that each handle their own different and specialized tasks. Each tract originates from one or more nuclei (small bundles of nerve fibers that have specific functions). The two tracts of interest for sports performance and movement are the vestibulospinal and reticulospinal tract.
The Vestibulospinal Tract
The medial vestibulospinal tract, which promotes stabilization of head position, head coordination, and bilateral eye movement by innervating the neck muscles.
And the lateral vestibulospinal tract which provides signals to the extensor muscles in the legs to help maintain upright and balanced posture.
The reticulospinal tract
It is one of the oldest descending pathways in phylogenetic terms and is divided into two tracts to act on the motor neurons supplying the trunk and proximal limb muscles.
The medial tract is responsible for contracting the extensor muscles and the lateral tract for inhibiting the extensor muscles.
Together, they provide a counter-balancing influence on muscular output.
So the reticulospinal tract is in fact modulating muscle tone for the extensor muscles, providing a posture that is both fluid and adaptive.
This means that an uneven weight distribution of our feet causes the reticulospinal tract to project unevenly on our muscles, creating abnormal tension of the flexors and extensors chain. From a postural perspective, one shoulder and hip will be lower, affecting global performance. Not to mention that the reticulospinal tract also serves as an outlet for the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. All of these brain connection structures share one thing in common: to maintain posture based on the afferences (ascending) it receives from the feet and eyes.
As such, it is clear that posture, which we assume without thinking and is familiar to us, is under involuntary control. We have limited control of some of its aspects since muscle tone is also not volitional. This implies that the corrective mechanisms have to be of the same nature and must act on a long-term basis to re-educate the efferent (descending) part of our brain – the extra-pyramidal tract – by sending it the right afferences.
Take the squat for example. Strength coaches understand the mechanics of the exercise. They know that your knees should not go past your toes and that you should keep your chin up and keep the bar levelled across your back.
But how can your trainer adjust the exercise if, before you get under the bar, your right shoulder is lower, your pelvis is rotated and one of your feet is flatter than the other? The best trainer simply cannot adapt the exercise enough to truly prevent an injury.
So how can we fix this?
By testing the brain! Here are some simple tests and corrective exercises that can be performed daily to improve the brain-body connection.
#1 – Convergence testing (weaker hemisphere and cerebellum)
In sports performance, eye muscle weakness affects reaction time as well as perception of self and promotes injury.
- To test: Position the tip of a pen at 90 degrees and ask your client to look at the tip of the pen.
- Positive test: The client cannot hold visual fixation on the same target.
- Indicates loss of proprioception
- Potential problems: double vision, blurred vision, headaches, poor cognition, poor proprioception, indecisive plays.
To fix: Perform eye exercises as seen in this video
#2 – Romberg test (cerebellum)
Balance is the single most important element dictating movement strategies. A positive Romberg affects hand, eye, and foot coordination, as well as ability to balance and maintain postural stability which is essential to an athlete who is acquiring or reacquiring complex motor skills.
- To test: In a quiet room, feet together, arms out to side, and eyes closed.
- Positive test: Swaying or falling to one side
- Indicates loss of proprioception
- Potential injuries: risk of loss of balance and falling
To fix: On the side of the loss of balance, flex your arm at 90 degrees and perform a figure 8. For example, if you fall to the right, use your right arm.
#3 – Single leg test (cerebellum)
- To test: Stand on one leg, then the other.
- Positive test: pronation on one foot as opposed to the other side.
- Indicates uneven weight distribution, poor proprioception.
- Potential injuries: ankle, knee, hip and back.
To fix: Stroke the skin of your feet with a pen and perform this exercise as seen in video.
In conclusion, if you present with imbalances in your alignment before you perform any exercise, you cannot generate as much strength as you should and you are at risk for an injury. Even the best trainer cannot do much about that, unless he changes faulty motor patterns, giving you the edge you deserve for committing to a healthy lifestyle!