Many people think that their muscles are the limiting factor of their strength, however this is not the case. We have all heard of those emergency situations where someone is able to perform an amazing feat of strength such as lifting a car off someone trapped underneath. These feats of strength happen because your muscles are actually capable of generating more force and strength than you think.
There is a caveat here though and it is for good reason. The amount of strength we can actually access is under the control of our nervous system. The reason for this is simple – to protect yourself from yourself. If your muscles were able to use all of their capable force, they may in fact cause you a serious injury such as a broken bone or a torn tendon. It is believed that the average person only uses around a third of their actual maximum capacity.
Factors that affect your strength level
When you exercise, you do a number of things that affect your strength level.
Firstly you help to coordinate the efforts of each muscle fibre. Just like an orchestra requires the synchronized efforts of all musicians to sound good, a muscle needs the synchronized efforts of it’s muscle fibres to generate force at the appropriate time. Practicing movements through exercise leads to better coordination of these fibres, just like an orchestra improves by practicing together.
Secondly, through repeated exposure to certain movements and loads, the body realises that the threat of injury associated with the exercise is much lower. The less perceived threat there is, the more access to strength the body will grant. The interesting thing about this factor is that it is very specific to the task at hand. For example walking regularly and comfortably does not necessarily mean that you will have good endurance on a stationary cycle machine.
How can you get the most out of your nervous system for exercise?
This comes down to knowing what factors cause the nervous system to put the “brakes” on and trying to reduce these factors.
The first factor is instability. If the body senses it is not stable, it will reduce the amount of force you can produce for safety. The 2 most common areas that are most responsible for these feelings of instability are the feet and the trunk area. This is also why balance exercises go hand in hand with strengthening exercises.
The second factor is fatigue. This is not necessarily fatigue of the muscles, but fatigue in their nervous system from too many demands. The nervous system almost always fatigues before any signs of muscle fatigue appear. It is for this reason that the average intensity for strengthening exercise programs should be around 70% of your maximum effort. This is also the reason that rest breaks between sets are essential and should never be shortened.
One of the final factors that is important is mindset. The great saying from Henry Ford “whether you think you can or can’t -you’re right” holds true. If you visualise and believe that you can do something, your chances of actually doing it are much higher. Telling yourself that a weight is too heavy, or you are too weak is talking your nervous system out of the task.