Extra Workouts Part 1: Neural Activation Training

Extra Workouts Part 1 – Neural Activation Training

Today I am going to unleash your next greatest training tool.

First we are going to talk about training frequency and extra workouts, then I will get into something I call Neural Activation Training, which you can use upwards of 2-3 times a day in addition to your regular workout routine. This type of training won’t induce overtraining and can help you develop speed and power like you’ve never had before, which leads to increased strength and size. Neural Activation Training also just happens to increase fat loss.

*** Do I have your attention? ***

Good! Read on.

Extra Workouts

If you want to know about adding extra workouts to your routine, you are on the right track. If you don’t know what an extra workout is, which many of you don’t judging by my recent poll, then this is the place to learn.

For some time now I have written about using extra workouts to increase training frequency, and the benefits of increased training frequency over time. When I say increased training frequency, I don’t mean increased volume in a single 60 minute workout. I mean putting varying types of stress on every muscle group as frequently as possible, such that the target muscle group can still optimally recover. Volume is increased over time, but frequency is maximized.

I referenced increased training frequency in my Werewolf Training routines and in my Fat Loss for Men & Fat Loss for Women routines. In fact, I base most of my workout routines around increased training frequency at this point because I know how effective it is.


Benefits of Increased Training Frequency

Increased training frequency can be used with the following goals in mind:

  • Increase speed
  • Increase power – maximize explosive work capacity
  • Increase size
  • Increase strength
  • Faster recovery
  • Rehab
  • Prehab
  • Even out a muscle imbalance
  • Overcome a weak point
  • Prepare for the next workout
  • Prepare for a competition
  • Improve sports performance
  • Increase general work capacity – stamina & endurance

Many elite athletes and coaches in the strength and condition field swear by increased training frequency or extra workouts. Dave Tate of Elite Fitness, Louis Simmons of Westside Barbell, and Christian Thibaudeau of T-Nation have all discussed the use of increased training frequency to break through strength plateaus.

Louis Simmons and Dave Tate always talk about dynamic effort training such as dynamic benching and box squats, and “extra workouts” like sled dragging and truck pulling. Christian Thibaudeau is a big proponent of what he calls Neural Charge training, which is more or less what I’ll be talking about today. Stumbling upon his Neural Charge videos actually prompted me to finish this article.

Are You Afraid of Overtraining?

Don’t be afraid. Overtraining is a legitimate concern, but Neural Activation Training will not cause you to overtrain when used properly.

You overtrain when you cause significant muscle trauma and neural fatigue, and you don’t allow your muscles to recover before training them again. Neural Activation functions to activate the neuromuscular connection, but does not cause the tremendous damage to muscle tissue that traditional resistance training causes, specifically the negative contractions, which are responsible for 80% of the DOMs you feel after training with high intensity.

In fact, most “hardgainers” benefit more from training 6 days a week for 30 minutes, then they do from training for 3 days a week for 60 minutes. As you can see, total training time is exactly the same, but I guarantee you the 6 day routine will outperform the 3 day routine 95% of the time.

Similarly, do you think one, 2 hour workout each week would elicit the same results as four, 30 minute workouts? That is just a joke. I think you understand my point.

Based on these theories and real world results, we could go so far so to say that training 7 days a week, 3 times per day, for 15 minutes per session, will far outperform a tradition 3, 4, or even 5 day split. The VITAL distinction you have to make, is the type of training that is performed in each workout. Using a routine like this, you can’t go in the gym everyday and max on deads in workout 1, squats in workout 2, and bench in workout 3. That would most definitely lead to overtraining. Thus our extra workouts should consist of HIRT, dynamic effort, and Neural Activation. (The point I’m making also qualifies the use of endurance cardio over HIIT for fat loss in certain situations, but I don’t want to get into that discussion right now.)

Simply stated, you have to know how to train for maximum growth with a minimum amount of neural fatigue. Anyone can train 7 days a week if they can properly utilize extra workouts by perfecting Neural Activation Training.

The Science Behind Neural Activation

Neural Activation Training utilizes explosive loading, which affects all 3 of the main neuromuscular functions and encourages the body to release muscle building anabolic hormones.

The 3 neuromuscular functions include:

  1. neurotransmitter activity (how the brain communicates with the muscles)
  2. the excitation contraction coupling (ECC) process (the physiological process of converting an electrical stimulus to a mechanical response).
  3. motor unit recruitment (the number and type of muscle fibers recruited to perform work)

When your body is in this powerful physiological state, it is highly effective at activating fat burning enzymes, and becomes highly sensitive to insulin, which increase protein synthesis and promotes rapid fat loss. If you care about the scientific buzz words, you should read about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catecholamine, insulin,
glucagon, and second messengers (cAMP).

The Differences Between Types of Fatigue

With NAT you don’t want to experience any fatigue. Instead, these workouts stimulate the nervous system causing you to feel energized. If at any time you experience fatigue, you should stop immediately.

  • Neural Fatigue – when the nervous system is activated repetitively to the point of failure or near-failure. An example would be a max effort bench press/squat/deadlift session or a HIIT session run at maximal intensity. This leads to decreased performance.
  • Metabolic Fatigue – when the metabolic system runs out of the necessary fuel to function at optimal levels. An example would be exhausting your glycogen supply or accumulating excessive lactic acid. This leads to physical fatigue and cramping.
  • Muscular Fatigue – when the muscles have accumulated too much damage or trauma without adequate recovery time. An example would be training the same muscle groups too often. This results in overtraining.

The result of all of these chemical and physiological interactions means increased anabolism, increased fat loss, and increased performance across the boards. So, the question remains, how do we do it?

How to Implement Neural Activation Training (NAT)

To make the most of your extra workouts, I obviously recommend using a technique called Neural Activation Training. This type of training should never be taken to failure and barely includes any negative (eccentric) movements, so it is not likely to induce any sort of overtraining or DOMs.

Warm Ups

Neural Activation Training does not require much of a warm-up. Simply performing the chosen exercise at about 50-75% of maximal force for 1-2 sets should be enough.

Sets and Reps

Basically you are doing 6-8 sets of 3 reps of bodyweight or otherwise really light weight exercises such as bench press, push ups, pull downs, rows, jump squats, deadlifts, etc… This is not dynamic effort training where you use 50-60% of your 1 rep max for 8 sets of 3 reps on bench press, board press, deads, box squat, etc… although it is similar.

The 6-8 sets is more of an example than a rule. Your NAT workouts can be a short as 30 seconds, if for example you are using NAT to prepare for a workout, or as long as 30 minutes, if for example you are using NAT as your only workout of the day or to prepare for a competition the following day.

Note: if you ever notice that your speed is slowing down, this means your nervous system is beginning to fatigue and you should immediately stop your NAT workout.

How to Land Softly

It is very important to land “softly” so that you won’t wreak havoc on your joints. What this essentially means is to always land with bent joints and absorb the impact with a short negative motion before explosively reversing the motion. Because the load is minimal, so is the impact, which means your joints won’t take a beating.

If your landings are stiff, are jarring/slapping, cause you to lose form, cause instability, force you to pause or reset before reversing direction when a reset is not required, then you need to practice your landings without worrying about reversing the motion first. If the exercise is weighted, then you are using too much weight.

You can do your Neural Activation Training anywhere, just as long as you are able to use 100% of the force you are capable of generating, while eliminating most, if not all, of the negative or eccentric movement.

Integrating NAT Into Your Current Workout Routine

No matter which workout routine you are following, whether Werewolf Training, P90X, Stronglifts 5×5, or Jillian Michaels Ripped in 30, you can always add Neural Activation into your weekly routine.

Here are some ideas for integrating NAT:

  • Add short Neural Activation sessions to the beginning of any of your workouts. Use as a warm-up for the day’s training or as preparation for an upcoming workout.
  • Use a full NAT session at night if you workout in the morning to prepare for next morning’s workout.
  • Similarly, if you workout at night, use NAT training in the morning to prepare for the coming workout.
  • Use one longer Neural Activation session on off-days from your regular training routine.
  • Use several short NAT sessions on off-days.
  • Fill an entire active recovery week with Neural Activation Training.
  • Going on a vacation or business trip? Don’t worry about going to the gym, just use NAT sessions every morning and night in your hotel room.
  • This list could go on and on, you are only limited by your own creativity and instincts.

NAT for the Lower Body – Jumping

Most lower body NAT training involves jumping or lunging. Although speed deadlifts can be used, it is a little more difficult to execute a perfect NAT rep because you have to slow down at the top of the movement to avoid hyperextending your lower back or worse. For similar reasons, I also don’t recommend applying NAT to exercises like good mornings and stiff leg deadlifts unless you are an experienced athlete.

How to Land

There are two types of landings:

  1. Reset - You are catching yourself softly in whichever position you land, then reset your stance and jump again. An example would be an easier version of jump squats or vertical jumps where you reset between reps. Box jumps and depth jumps also require a reset but are typically recommended for advanced or experienced athletes.
  2. Explosive reversal – Catching yourself softly in the bent knee position, then immediately reversing the motion. Your standard bodyweight jump squat or vertical jump is a great example, so are speed lunges.

Using your arms

You want to use arm swing for NAT jumps.

Fingers should point straight down to start a jump. Your arms should swing explosively straight out and up so that your fingers are pointing towards the ceiling, then as soon as your legs start to descend, immediately reverse your arm motion. Your fingers should be pointing back towards the floor when you land. Arms should not flare out or flap like wings, nor should they remain tucked in to your sides when jumping.

How to Jump

Every jump should be performed with about a 35 degree bend in the knees.

With a vertical jump, you will stand with knees bent at 35 degrees, arms pointing towards the floor. Simultaneously swing arms up while jumping straight up (not forward, backward, or to the side), then land with the 35 degree knee angle and immediately jump again unless a reset is required.

When preforming box jumps, at no time should you be jumping down off of the box – that is not the goal of the movement. Always step down and reset properly. Similarly, when performing depth jumps, do not jump back up onto the box or bench. Always step up and reset properly.

Unfortunately I don’t have the time or resources to make videos of every possible way to apply NAT to your favorite exercises. Thankfully, Mr. Thibedeau and T-Nation went ahead and did that for me.

Here are some specific examples taken directly from Christian Thibaudeau’s Neural Charge list:

NAT for the Upper Body – Push Ups

Some of the best upper body NAT training involves push ups. As with deadlifts, it is difficult to execute a perfect NAT barbell row due to the limited range of motion. Instead I would recommend inverted rows, cable rows, or dumbbell rows unless you are an experienced athlete.

There are two types of landings:

  1. Reset - You are catching yourself softly in whichever position you land, then reset your hands and push again. An example would be a plyo depth push up, where you drop off a box, a book, or a stack of plates, catch yourself softly on the floor with bent elbows, and explosively reverse direction. You’ll want to reset briefly at the top before dropping off again or it becomes a different kind of exercise.
  2. Explosive reversal – Catch yourself softly with bent elbows, then immediately reverse the motion. No pause or reset between reps. Your standard plyo push up and all the hand-width and incline/decline variations are great examples.

How to Execute the Plyo Push Up

To execute a Neural Activation plyo push up, get in push-up position, lower yourself down slowly for the first rep, then push yourself up off the floor, as high as you can, then attempt to catch yourself softly in the lowered position so that you can immediately push off with full force for the second rep, and finally repeat for a third rep.

This can be done with wide, medium, close grip (diamond push ups), and at a variety of inclines.

You can also use plyo push ups to plyo jump up onto boxes or plates, then reset on the floor and try again. At no time should you attempt to reverse the push up off the box or plate – that is not the goal of the movement. Always reset from the floor.

You can also drop off boxes or plates to perform plyo depth push ups. At no time should you drop immediately off the box or plate after performing a push up. Always reset after every rep or you risk turning the drop into an eccentric rep movement.

One set of 3 reps without a reset should take you as much time as a normal speed bench press.

Here are some specific examples taken directly from Christian Thibaudeau’s Neural Charge list:

Full Body NAT – Olympic Lifts and Other Barbell Movements

Pretty much any powerlifting or Olympic lifting move can be used with NAT training. Consider speed deadlifts, speed squats, push press, snatch/clean jumps, and snatch/clean high pulls.

Most of these exercises except for the ‘speed’ movements will require a reset.

More examples from Thibaudeau’s list:

Full Body NAT with a Medicine Ball

Exercises performed with a medicine ball are great because you don’t have to slow down at the end of the rep, and since we are only using a minimal load, using a 10-20 lb medicine ball works great. For each exercise listed below, you should release the medicine ball with maximum force. In the push press throw example, you should attempt to catch the medicine ball with elbows and knees bent so that you can immediately reverse the movement and throw it again.

I don’t have any videos for these examples, so you’ll have to think about it, which is great practice for becoming instinctual with your training.

  • Chest throw
  • Chest throw kneeling
  • Soccer throw
  • Behind the head triceps throw
  • Medicine ball slam
  • Throw up, catch, and slam
  • Push press throw
  • Snatch throw
  • Medicine ball clean
  • Medicine ball shot put
  • Goblet speed squat
  • Speed deadlift

NAT with Bands

I found this list posted in a forum. Not sure what all of them mean, but do the research and figure it out if you want. I know I will.

  • Speed press
  • Alternating speed press
  • Speed chest press
  • Alternating speed chest press
  • Speed lat pulldown
  • Alternating speed pulldown
  • Speed rowing
  • Alternating speed rowing
  • Speed curl
  • Alternating speed curl
  • Speed triceps extension
  • Alternating speed triceps extension
  • Push-ups with added band
  • Pull-through and swing

NAT with Dumbbells or Kettlebells

These exercises are pretty obvious. They can be performed with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or any other 1-armed implement.

  • DB/KB swing
  • 1-arm DB/KB clean
  • 1-arm DB/KB clean and press
  • 1-arm DB/KB clean and push press
  • 1-arm DB/KB snatch
  • DB jump squat
  • DB jump lunges

Conclusion

Again, Neural Activation Training is not resistance training, weight training, bodybuilding, powerlifting, or any other paradigm where you might train anywhere near failure. This is specifically a neuromuscular activation system.

Neural Activation Training will help you build that mind-muscle connection, stimulate your nervous system, and has shown to increase your strength and power when used properly over time. You can integrate NAT into any and every training routine imaginable. As always, the possibilities are limited only by your creativity.

Additional Resources:
Acute Salivary Hormone Responses to Complex Exercise Bouts
Hormonal Responses in Strenuous Jumping Effort
Acute testosterone and cortisol responses to high power resistance exercises.

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22 Responses to “Extra Workouts Part 1: Neural Activation Training”

  1. Very interesting post… I can see how NAT would be an awesome way to train your body for muscle definition since the mind to muscle connection is so important when it comes to doing reps for strength versus reps for size.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Ivan Stoitsov is pretty aesthetic in that picture, eh. Been ‘mirin’ him for some time now.

    Steve, have you ever heard of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. You should check it out and write an article about it.

  3. BUM says:

    I will try these, especially the Plyo Push Up. Thanks! On the jumps, do you jump continuously? I like to land into a squat, then bounce right back up and jump, sometimes raising my knees to my chest!

    • Steve says:

      Whether or not you jump continuously depends on the exercise. Speed squats and the vertical jump series are continuous. Depth jumps and plyo depth push ups require a reset. Bringing your knees to your chest during a squat jump is not that great for Neural Activation since it involves too many motions and doesn’t really transfer to a specific lift. Think about it – what exercise actually involves bringing your knees to your chest after a squat-style push? You should definitely use that movement in a HIIT, HIRT, tabata, general cardio, or a martial arts workout. Know what I mean?

      • BUM says:

        Yeah, makes sense. Knees to chest after a squat jump is really hard anyway, i can’t do them too much. I do them better like you said, during HIIT without going all the way down, but with a small hop in between. Absolutely kills me!

  4. Rick Kaselj says:

    Steve,

    Never heard of NAT.

    Very interesting concept.

    Rick Kaselj of http://ExercisesForInjuries.com

    .

    • Steve says:

      Hey Rick. You’ve never heard of NAT before, because I coined the term right here in this post. However, other people have given similar concepts other names in the past. You have to admit, the theory is kind of like Westside’s Dynamic Effort method, which is where I first learned of such things.

  5. Very cool concept Steve! You’ve really offer a TON of information in this post, you generous dude you.

    Have you utilized the methods described, and if so, do you have any results you could share?

    I’m always looking for new ways to spice up my workouts, and though some of these resemble exercise I already do, this really helps to define my intent a lot more clearly. Plus, you offer numerous lifts that I’ve never even thought to include.

    I’ve been out of commission for pretty much going on two weeks now, so I can’t wait to get back in the gym. I’m definitely looking forward to incorporating some NAT training in order to get back to where I was, as well as taking it to the next level. I’ll keep you posted.

    Take care,

    -Matt

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Matt. I’ve used dynamic effort and plyos to help increase my strength in the past. I’ve never had a strong bench, but I used dynamic benching to hit a PR of 310 back in 2005. Right now I’m using NAT nearly everyday, in the morning to wake up and before a workout to warm up.

      I’m going to share a secret with you and the few Swole readers who might read this comment. I’ve recently returned to training after laying off for nearly a year and only trained sporadically for a year before that, so all of my lifts are way down and I lost a great deal of muscle mass. Now that I’m back into training again, I’ve used Werewolf Training and NAT with a high protein diet and a bottle of XTend every morning for the last 8 weeks. I’m up 22 lbs total and I’ve never experienced strength gains like this in my life. 8 weeks ago I could barely bench 200 lbs once. 4 days ago I repped 230 x 3. Squat and deadlift are also increasing quickly and none of my pants or shirts fit that well right now. Muscle memory can be attributed to some of these gains, but I’ve never seen muscle memory affect strength and size quite like this.

  6. Jack says:

    so im starting my second cycle of WW strength, and so could you give like an example/schedule of how to integrate this into that like in the mornings and/or at midday? also how many times per day should I do this? Thanks.

    • Steve says:

      You can do this 0-10 times a day, whatever your schedule allows. Wake up in the morning and do some NAT training to a) wake you up and b) prepare you for your daily workout or c) prepare you for tomorrow’s workout. Just pick like 3 exercises and do 3-6 sets of 3 reps. You can stop when you feel like you’ve performed 2 sets at maximum intensity… when your nervous system is fully stimulated.

  7. Jack says:

    Thanks, I tried it and it feels great.

  8. Scott says:

    Question on the NAT work outs?

    Inverted row, how do you do that with this type of work out? Are you just doing 3 inverted rows fast then stop for a few seconds and then go to the next set of 3?

    How heavy should you go on speed deadlifts? I am assuming stay light?

    FOr any of the NAT work outs it is just a set of 3 as fast as you can? How long do you rest in between the sets?

    If you wanted to make it a longer work out how do you choose which of these exercises to use?

    Can you do more then 6 sets of something or more then 3 reps?

    Thanks in advance,

    Scott

    • Steve says:

      Inverted rows – yep, you’ve got it. The pull should start with an explosive reversal.
      Speed deads – as fast as humanly possible. 50% of your 1 rep max might even been too heavy. Try 33%.
      Rest between sets should be minimal. 20-30 seconds is all you need. I sometimes only rest about 10 seconds – enough to shake out and get in position for the next set.
      3-5 reps is enough. You can do as few as 2 sets or more than 10. Whatever it takes to fully stimulate the neuromuscular activation in the target muscle. Once you know you are using maximal force to execute the rep, you are fully activated and can move on to the next exercise. The purpose of NAT is not to get fatigued, but just to activate the nervous system.

  9. Gogo says:

    what is the NAT inverted rows, or in other words, how can it be performed ?

    • Steve says:

      From a free hang, pull your body up to the bar as quickly as possible. Let your body drop under control as quickly as possible and reverse the motion as quickly as possible. Do 3 reps. It’s all about pulling your body to the bar with maximal speed. I also like to do this with my feet elevated to the height of the bar.

  10. Fred says:

    how can u tell if ur nervous system is stimulated

    • Steve says:

      When you perform a set and can tell that it is a maximal effort/power attempt. If you perform a set and afterwards think to yourself “I can do better than that,” then you know you’re not fully activated yet.

  11. james says:

    Im in an active recovery week. Is it a good idea to use some of this NAT training during this time?

  12. Dakota says:

    I really dont get the program. Is it 2 days on 1 day off? WW Training 3.0 on Day 3 is NAT and Abs. The workout is only like 20 mins long…. Is this right or am I not seeing something? I just want to make sure that I am following this program to the “T”. I run the HTML sheet 3 times for 3 cycles correct. Then its Recovery Training?

    • Steve says:

      You’ve all that correct. NAT is not a physically demanding training style. It is more for the CNS than to tear up muscle tissue like regular weight lifting.

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