Ever try to move fast?
No. I mean F-A-S-T.
When was the last time you were at a gym or doing a workout and you tried to hoist a barbell overhead as explosively and quickly as possible? Or when was the last time your were running on a treadmill or riding a bicycle and moved your feet and legs so fast that your brain hurt trying to keep up?
The fact is that when it comes to optimizing the performance of your nervous system and cementing the connection between your brain and the rest of your body, it doesn’t really matter that much the heavy stuff you lift or how much muscle you build. Sure, strength and muscle-building are fantastic tools for aesthetics, for symmetry, for musculoskeletal development and even for anti-aging.
But when it comes to optimizing your brain and nervous system, recruiting muscle fibers, enhancing nerve firing speed, and optimizing brain-body coordination, it is far more important to instead focus on fast, explosive movements—whether you’re a weekend warrior or a professional athlete. I was first exposed to this concept when I interviewed a well-known sports performance coach named Nick Curson. Nick, who is the creator of a training system called “Speed Of Sport” and who trains some of the top UFC and NFL competitors on the face of the planet. Rather than giving the men and women he trains extremely heavy weights, he instead has them move light weights and their own body weight as freakin’ fast as they possibly can.
Why? Because there are two important attributes that go hand-in-hand with strength (and are often mistaken for strength): power and speed – and in this episode, you’ll learn how to optimize power and speed so that you can move like a cat, sprint like a cheetah and spring like a tiger.
How to Increase Power
Let’s start with power.
Power is the ability to generate lots of force in a short period of time. While strength refers to how much force your muscles can exert, power refers to how quickly that force can be exerted. If your muscles can’t generate high amounts of force in short periods, then you’re low on power and unable to use the muscle you do have to its full potential. If you’re performing a strength-oriented task, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to complete it, whether it’s lifting a weight, moving a couch, or climbing a flight of stairs. All that matters is that the task gets done; doing it slowly doesn’t take away from the “success” of completing it.
But when your goal is to develop pure power, speed counts. The speed with which you lift that weight, move that couch, or climb that flight of stairs dictates how successful you were at quickly recruiting your muscle. When you train for power, your brain, spinal cord and entire central nervous system learn to control your muscles in a far more efficient way, creating enhanced muscle utilization without the negative effects of too much muscle bulk.
As a matter of fact, when you train for power and use strategies such as keeping the number of repetitions low, lifting light weights fast, and moving quickly, power training will even increase your ability to maximally utilize muscle without bulking you up (or tearing muscle fiber and subsequently making you sore). The advantage of being able to more effectively recruit the muscle you already have, without necessarily increasing muscle mass, is that you’ll need to recruit fewer muscle fibers for any given intensity. So power is like putting a faster engine in your car without increasing the size of the car or the weight of the engine itself. This results in lower energy costs, less muscular fatigue, and ultimately better performance in any movement.
There are three primary strategies for increasing power as fast as possible: plyometrics, speed-strength sets, and complex sets. Each of these strategies, along with tips for developing potent power no matter whether you’re in the gym, backyard, basement, park or hotel room, can be pursued using training tools for increasing power, including power racks, agility ladders, medicine balls, kettlebells, sandbags, adjustable plyometric boxes, weighted vests, training sleds and power cables.
As highlighted earlier, to fully optimize brain-body coordination, power training should be accompanied by speed training. So what’s the difference between the two?
How to Increase Speed
Simple: speed is the ability to travel any set distance over a short period of time. Power is the ability to generate large amounts of force over a short period of time. Get the difference? In a nutshell, speed is independent of force. As long as you do something quickly, then congratulations: you’re speedy. Even if that something was grabbing a feather off a tabletop or winning a game of spoons, you were able to move your hand over a set distance in a very short period.
So how does training for speed differ from training for power? You can probably guess the answer: remove the force and resistance component and just move as fast as you freakin’ can. For example, one protocol for increasing speed is overspeed training, such as cycling, running, or swimming at an extremely high turnover rate, which recruits new muscle tissue, specifically by engaging more muscle motor units than training at lower speeds. This is called a “neural adaptation,” and you can consider it to be like Miracle-Gro for your nervous system. Speed training teaches your brain to fire faster and control your muscles more efficiently at higher speeds and also develops quicker and more powerful muscle-fiber contractions.
Training to increase speed is very similar to training to increase power, except that you need less weight.
Training to increase speed is very similar to training to increase power, except that you need less weight. During a speed workout, you can actually restrict loads to no more than 10 percent of body weight. You simply get less benefit from adding external loads like heavy vests and heavy weights, as they diminish your ability to maintain a high turnover and to maximize neuromuscular recruitment. Makes sense, right? In addition to keeping loads light enough that you can move your body or body parts as quickly as possible, other crucial rules for speed training include:
-Do speed fresh. Your neuromuscular system is very prone to fatigue, so doing a set of fast overspeed running at the end of a long workout is not a good idea.
-Don’t get tired. Speed is not conditioning. If you want to breathe hard, do metabolic work, or train your cardiovascular system, then swim, bike, run, row, or do another form of interval training. Speed simply requires brief doses of fast low-volume work. This is why, in a high-cadence overspeed cycling workout, you pedal at low, not high, resistance, and usually early in your workout. If you’re exhausting yourself metabolically, it becomes very difficult to train your nervous system. This is also why speed training should include 100 percent recovery between sets, with zero muscle burn and zero hard breathing.
-Challenge your nerves, not just your muscles. If you’re not forced to think hard during a speed workout, it probably isn’t challenging your nervous system. This is why overspeed training on a bike is not done at 80 or 90 rpm. It’s a freakishly high 120 to 130+ rpm that makes your brain tired from trying to get your legs to turn over that fast.
Eating for Power And Speed
Finally, you can optimize power and speed and the strength of your nervous system by eating the right foods.
When it comes to power, the most important consideration from a food standpoint is supporting your nervous system, since the speed with which your nerves communicate influences the speed with which your brain can speak to your muscles and vice versa. The three best ways to accomplish this are with omega-3 fatty acid intake, amino acid intake, and B-complex vitamin intake.
Your nerves are wrapped in myelin sheaths and a diet for power should be composed of the specific nutrients that support the formation of these sheaths, as well as the health of the nervous system as a whole. For example, omega-3 fatty acids (especially docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) are particularly important in building these sheaths around nerves. Flax seeds and walnuts are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but the amount of DHA actually absorbed from seeds and nuts is relatively low. Very good sources of more readily available omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, sardines, cloves, grass-fed beef, halibut, shrimp, cod, tuna, kale, collard greens, and winter squash.
In addition, activity in the nerves is carried out with special messaging molecules called neurotransmitters – and in most cases, these neurotransmitters are amino acids or derivatives of amino acids. For this reason, optimal protein intake, along with a balanced intake of amino acids from food or supplements, can also be very helpful for building power and speed. Some of the best high-amino-acid protein sources for your nervous system include grass-fed beef, wild salmon, eggs from pastured chickens, raw organic dairy, almonds and almond butter, quinoa, spirulina and chlorella.
Finally, in order for the nervous system to synthesize and circulate these neurotransmitters, you need to have adequate B vitamins: B6, B12, and folate are especially important in nerve metabolism. Excellent food sources of vitamin B6 include bell peppers, turnip greens, and spinach; excellent sources of B12 include calf’s liver and snapper; and excellent sources of folate include spinach, parsley, broccoli, beets, turnip and mustard greens, asparagus, romaine lettuce, calf’s liver, and lentils. My top recommendations for supplements to build power and speed as quickly as possible, including choline, L-tyrosine, green tea extract, and a full vitamin B complex.