Updated: Dec 24, 2019
As a serious athlete, you are accustomed to spending numerous hours each day in the weight room, week after week, month after month, season after season. Have you ever wondered if what you are doing was the most efficient and beneficial training method? Is there something else out there that you probably never heard of? There is and our Olympic and National Training Centers use these training methods every day.
For the past five and a half years, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to neuromuscular training, the type of training our USA programs implement with their athletes, by former USA Gymnastics coach, Chris Brennan. After a career working with and alongside past Olympians, such as John Rothlisberger, John Macready, Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Aly Raisman, and Paul and Morgan Hamm, Chris founded his own neuromuscular training company called JEKL. Since opening his doors, hundreds of athletes of all ages, sports, and skill levels have gone through this program, including two Olympic Lugers (Emily Sweeney and Dominik Fischnaller), four Major League Baseball players (George Springer, Chris Denorfia, Matt Buschmann, and Matt Carasiti), several Minor League Baseball players, and dozens of Division I, II, and III collegiate athletes. In the winter of 2013, I took what I had learned from Chris and we created JEKLBall, a neuromuscular and sports performance training program. In 2019, B Sports Performance was created, and uses the same neuromuscular training techniques for athletes of all sports, each of whom have been overwhelmed with the positive effect this type of training has on their athletic development.
So, what is neuromuscular training? Neuromuscular training simply involves both your nervous system and muscular system working together to increase athletic conditioning. Your brain communicates with your muscles through your nervous system, giving instructions for your muscles to grow, so that they get stronger to adapt to the work load you are putting them through. Since your nervous system is the fastest responding system in the body, the more we engage it during exercise, the quicker and more efficient our muscular strengthening process is. That leads to the next logical question: How do you engage your nervous system in exercise the most? This is accomplished by performing movements that actively engage multiple body parts simultaneously using multiple movement patterns. Neuromuscular exercises involve static holds of several parts of the body combined with dynamic, full range of motion movements. For example, the Single Leg Pull-up:
The Single Leg Pull-Up is a great example of what a neuromuscular exercise is, due to the fact that there are numerous instructions that your brain is giving out to different muscle groups located throughout your body simultaneously. If you notice, one leg is completely straight with the foot pointed. This static hold requires the gluteal muscles, quadriceps, and parts of the calf and even foot to contract constantly. This position of the leg is held throughout the exercise while the other leg squats down as far as possible while the arms straighten. The abdominal muscles are also in a state of constant engagement in order to keep the body straight, rigid, and close to the bars. From here, two separate dynamic movements occur: one, the upper body (latissimus dorsi, teres major and minor, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, biceps, brachioradialis, etc.) engages in a pull movement while two, the lower body (quadriceps, gluteal muscles, abductors, adductors, calf, etc.) engages in a press movement to propel the body upwards to the starting position.
Another example of a neuromuscular exercise is the Jump Lockout:
The Jump Lockout has numerous working parts as well. In this exercise, the abdomen, gluteal muscles, and quadriceps are immediately engaged while still on the ground and throughout the entirety of the exercise. From here, there is a slight bend of the knees followed by a jump to propel the body upwards (quadriceps, calves, feet all extend in push motion). During this jump, the upper body (triceps, trapezius, pectoral major and minor, etc.) assist in the lift-off from the ground, engaging in a press movement. Once the arms are in a full lockout position, these upper body muscles, along with the abdomen, engage in a static hold while the legs are lifted up in a pike position. This lifting of the legs requires a dynamic movement of the abdomen while the quadriceps, adductors, gluteal muscles, calves, and feet are contracted in a hard, static hold.
As you can see, in these relatively simple gymnastic-based neuromuscular moves, the nervous system is actively helping the brain transmit several pieces of information to your body at one time. And all you need is your own body weight! (Humbly speaking, it is more than likely that you will only need partial amounts of your bodyweight as most of us are not strong enough to handle our full bodyweight). During this time, our anaerobic (muscle-building), aerobic (cardiovascular conditioning), and recovery systems (cellular growth vs. cellular repair and disposal) of the body are being conditioned simultaneously, providing athletes with static strength, explosive power, muscular endurance, and increased range of motion. As neuromuscular training specifically emphasizes full range of motion, we train the muscles in their entirety, from attachment points through the belly of the muscle to the other attachment or insertion points. Not only does this result in our ability to recruit more muscle fibers when we are asking them to work for us, but our ability to perform correct movement patterns is drastically improved and we experience an increase in joint stability, resulting in far fewer injuries. Even when injuries do occur, recovery time is cut down substantially as the overall health and mobility of our muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments are good.
Since neuromuscular training is so efficient, training times are reduced substantially allowing athletes to focus on other aspects of their game, be it mental development or actual practice time spent on the field. However, this type of training calls for athletes to take ample amount of recovery time in between neuromuscular workouts to rebuild and grow, especially for newcomers to this type of training. B Sports athletes, even the professional ones, only neuromuscular train twice a week, with the exceptionally conditioned athletes training three times a week. This is due to the fact that it takes up to 72 hours for your body to fully recover from a neuromuscular workout. Olympic gymnasts train 6 days a week and about 8 hours a day in this capacity, however, they have spent their entire lives from the age of 3 to get to this point. It also helps being exposed to this type of training before puberty as it develops certain neural synapses allowing for optimal athletic performance neural pathways to become established. Any athlete who has never done this type of training before will soon do more harm than good by overtraining. There is always plenty of other things to do during the week outside of strength conditioning. Our baseball athletes, on days other than their twice a week neuromuscular regimen, stretch, perform mobility work, overspeed train, delve into their mental and emotional development, stretch some more, take batting practice, work on their pitching/throwing mechanics, execute their throwing programs, practice fielding, work on their athletic footwork, etc.
The physical benefits of using neuromuscular training are quite clear, however, it is the mental benefits that reign supreme. Let's take a look at how your brain is set up so that we can understand what is happening to this vital organ while going through neuromuscular training. As mentioned previously, your brain is working on overload to send messages to the muscles in your body through the nervous system to complete each movement. We can break your brain down into two hemispheres: the right and the left. The right side of your brain is emotion and intuition based. It has the ability to perceive the big picture creatively. The left side is analytical, seeing things in a sequential fashion. This side has the ability to see cause and effect which allows for us to break down the big picture into manageable details. Each side is responsible for how we perceive the world at any given moment. The corpus callosum is the connection between the right and left sides of the brain that allow for the transfer of information between the two.
There are several specific movement patterns that are staples in neuromuscular training that promotes cross hemisphere communication:
Bilateral coordination and balance- Bilateral coordination is the ability to coordinate both sides of the body simultaneously while in a controlled and organized manner. Coupled with balance activities, bilateral coordination indicates strong communication between both hemispheres and effective sharing of information. Examples of these movements could be a simple as a straight arm jumping jack or more in-depth like a single leg pull-up.
Mismatched movements on different planes- By pairing up opposite movement patterns and by working on different planes of motion (i.e. inverted, horizontal, etc.) to heighten body awareness, both sides of the brain are activated, increasing cognitive function.
Introduction of new progressions- Since the left side of the brain is comfortable with the familiar and the right side is comfortable with the new, adding new progressions or movement patterns to old exercises activates both hemispheres. Neuromuscular training is always filled with exercises that once you achieve some success, a new progression is added, making it much more challenging. (We will discuss progressions more in greater detail later).
Crossing the midline of the body- When one side of the body crosses over to the other, the brain concurrently sends signals from one side to the other as each hemisphere of the brain has sensory and motor function of the opposite side of the body. A great example of a simple exercise would be windmill calisthenics.
So why is all of this important? Improved coordination between the two sides of our brain directly results in an increased proficiency in the achievement of our tasks and goals. Since each side of our brain has specialized functions, cooperation is vital for us to have consistent success, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
We discussed earlier about how added progressions help with the coordination between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, but they also add another mental component. When training in a gymnastics atmosphere, you never really master an exercise as there is always an added element making the exercise more challenging. This can be a very humbling experience as the moment you believe you have become proficient with a certain movement or exercise, another more demanding progression is added on. This can result in an immediate and direct conflict between your ego and your rational mind as you may feel that you are no longer succeeding. Your ego does not want to be humbled, it does not want to fail. Yet your analytical side can understand and process that you are not strong enough to complete this task, yet. It knows that if you keep working at the movement in a disciplined manner, not worrying about whether or not the end result has arrived but are rather concerned about the conscious effort to perform the exercise correctly to the best of your ability, you will get strong enough to do it.
All things equal, you are either strong enough to complete a neuromuscular exercise progression or you are not, as you are simply fighting gravity. If you are not strong enough, a choice is presented in front of you:
to accept that fact and keep working at it,
or to emotionally react in a negative manner and give up.
Similar choices are presented to you if you are strong enough but still not executing:
adjust your energy level towards what you are doing so that you execute the skill,
accept the fact that you are not willing to execute that day and move on knowing you can get after it the next training day,
or stay in the same mindset and continue to struggle.
Your perception is the key that dictates what you do and therefore your level of success. In a world where instant gratification runs rampant, neuromuscular training directly contradicts and challenges this misperception of success as you quickly learn that true success is not in the end result, but rather it is the journey, that is filled with failures and time spent picking yourself up, that offers the greatest growth and achievement. Each success and failure in neuromuscular training offers immediate and direct feedback, allowing us the opportunity for constant self-reflection.
No matter who you are, what you do, or your level of athletic prowess, neuromuscular training will challenge your body to a point of failure; even the most basic looking exercises can be the hardest ones. I have seen numerous athletes watch a demonstration of an exercise and attempt the exercise with full confidence that they were going to crush it, while within twenty seconds, they come up from the floor out of breath, face red, with a look of befuddlement and annoyance that they could not execute a seemingly simple movement. This works on the flip side as well. It is amazing to see the reaction of someone who looks at an exercise and says "there is no way I can do that," and when they finally get up to try it, they knock out 10 reps. Neuromuscular training can be used as a tool to teach us that our initial perceptions are usually wrong and negatively based giving us the opportunity to strengthen our mental awareness, resolve, and tenacity along with increasing our emotional resilience.
Whether looking at the physical or mental benefits of neuromuscular training, it is clear to see how positively impactful this type of training is for baseball athletes (and really, any athlete). A neuromuscular athlete creates solid joint stability through strengthened muscles attachment points, explosive power movements, and an increased level of body awareness, giving him or her all of the physical performance and longevity qualities they are looking for in less time. Mentally, a neuromuscular athlete welcomes a challenge as opposed to shying away from one as the training itself is a constant battle of your mental fortitude. Even during those times when an athlete is aware that they are simply not willing to execute that day, and appropriate and more positive response is triggered as they know they can succeed next time, or even better, help their teammates succeed now. By efficiently conditioning functional athletic strength with mental resolve, an empowered and confident athlete arises through neuromuscular training.