People spend hours and hours in the gym training their muscles. I suppose I may be splitting hairs here, but they’re not really training muscles, they’re training nerves. Nerves are the forgotten component of most training days.
What Do You Mean I Don’t Train Muscles?
All that time training in the gym may make your muscles bigger and stronger, or give them more endurance. But in reality, muscles are relatively simple things and only do one thing. They contract.
The real workhorses of the skeletal muscle system are the nerves. They send impulses to the muscles that tell them to contract. But it’s not just an all or nothing thing. How hard should they contract? What about the number of muscle fibers to use? And how many muscles are involved?
How Do We Train Nerves?
When we do movements, any movement, our nerves become better at sending that particular signal to our muscles. This is what muscle memory really is, a well-worn path of neurons that is familiar with a movement and can send an accurate message time and again.
With more complex movements multiple muscles have to be coordinated. This is why complex movements take a lot of practice. We have to learn how to coordinate many muscles into the right sequence of tension and relaxation. Performing a movement like a barbell squat involves almost every muscle in the body.
Muscles are grouped into motor units, which is just a bundle of muscle fibers and a single neuron. This neuron is what causes those muscle fibers to contract. It’s connected through a chain of neurons to the brain and that’s how messages are relayed to muscles. And these motor units work together to contract a muscle.
As these neurons become more conditioned through training they can fire faster and stronger. They also grow a thicker layer of insulation, called a myelin sheath, that lets signals travel faster. All of this adaptation results in better muscle utilization, aka you get stronger.
Neurological adaption is so important to strength that most initial strength gains for new weight lifters are almost exclusively from neurological
adaptations! If you’d like to read more about this check our my article What Is Strength Really?
When you’re sweating to the oldies, does anyone still do that, remember your little neurons firing like crazy, propelling you to greatness!