Nervous Energy and Peaking

Not long ago, after a workshop I gave, I received this email:

“According to an old graphic that belonged to Charlie Francis, here are some breakdowns when it comes to nervous system involvement on exercises:
Explosive Work – 90%
Lower Body Work – 70% to 40%
Upper Body Work – 40% to 25%
Isolation Work – 25% and lower”

One of my key pillars of training athletes is that there is a Nervous System “Hit” from training. Some things seem to impact performance more than others and this simple chart seems to capture it very well.

We find this in the weightroom with max deadlift work. After a true max deadlift, everything seems to just sink for a few weeks. A session of goofing around with heavy deadlifts to win a bet my senior year in college almost cost me my season. I ended up with a hamstring pull sprinting a few days later (the heavy deadlift made my hip feel “twitchy” and I compensated) and I struggled to recover for weeks.

When I was training with Dick Notmeyer, I couldn’t do anything besides the Olympic lifts in training because, honestly, we didn’t have the time. The O lifts demand a massive amount of rest time between reps. I have fond memories of Eric Seubert and I watching our sweat pool on the cement floor between sets. I often wondered how I was going to get back on the platform and do another rep! That’s the kind of hit we get from explosive work! You literally can’t do heavy O lifts or heavy deadlifts and bounce back a few minutes later and have all the skills you need for exacting technical work.

There are several points that leap out here:

1. Francis’s insight about these percents will give us a clue about why “the biggest bang for the buck” programs tend to be shorter and sweeter. Pavel’s training program of:

Day One

Bench Press

Day Two
Bench Press

is a wonderful template for anyone too busy to train. But, these workouts can be exhausting when seen from Charlie’s great insight.

I’m doing the Hercules Barbell Club Beginner’s Program again and I am fully behind Dave Turner’s insistence that we only do it three days a week. I am sore in places I didn’t know I had! Twenty-six total sets of O lifts in a workout is taxing!

2. This will also hint about why people who follow “Frankenstein Training,” bodypart splits, isolation exercise (you know…traditional bodybuilding), can spend so much time in the gym. I’m not saying this is bad or good, but when I watch guys do four or five variations of curls in a gym, you can see that is not going to burn the nervous system up like a max Clean and Jerk. Writers from the last century used to call this “muscle spinning” and this is a route to simple hypertrophy, but I have yet to see it carry over into the athletic field. This isn’t a “good or bad” statement as many have the goal of simply looking better.

The reason this discussion is so important is that I often laugh when people ask me about “Peaking Programs.” If peaking was such a science, then why don’t we see everyone running, throwing and jumping personal records at the Olympic Trials. Now, it might be hard to peak again at the Olympics a few months later again, but, honestly, if peaking works, shouldn’t everybody know that on the second Tuesday of June at 10:00 am, we need the ultimate performance? Why even host the trials as we all know that the top three are going to go on?

Because it doesn’t happen! Francis’s insight also gives us a clue that the actual training to prep for a peak might be undoing the work. Please do NOT think I am recommending that you just do arm curls or whatever to save your nervous energy, but you can see what an art form it is going to be to balance everything. I will include my standard list of “Peaking Secrets” that I use with my people:

1. First, realize that you are powerless NOT to do something stupid. So, accept that. Embrace it. Now, promise yourself the following: The Goal is to Keep the Goal the Goal. Anything you add to your plan that is NOT part of the goal is going to be the problem. Don’t do it.
2. Pieces of paper are cheaper than surgeries. Write out your goals, a specific date to achieve them, and a general plan from what has worked in the past and what has worked for others. This is 99% of success in planning.
3. Grab a calendar and make a few big red letter “X’s” on dates where you know things are coming up. Now, don’t be surprised when things come up. Next, take a yellow highlighter and highlight the days with “issues.” It could be something as simple as school finals or appointments for the dog.
4. Steal other people’s paths. There is tons of information available for anything you are attempting. Success leaves tracks: follow them.
5. Assemble the tools, supplies and information needed for correctives. If you are going to use a foam roller in this program, get a foam roller. Allow about ten percent of your training time to restorative work, correctives and any kind of voodoo that you think helps.
6. If you are involved in a sport, 80% of your training time should be doing the activity. For most, ten percent of your time should be on developing strength, another ten on correctives, but the bulk should be on the specific activity.
7. For most situations, the day before competition should be an 80% day (hard to define, but most people have a feel for that), but TWO days before should be 60%, perhaps just a warm up. The “Two Day Lag Rule” has survived the test of time. If the event is really important completely rest three days before and perhaps four days before, if possible. Don’t try to stuff weeks, months or years of work in the last week.
8. The airline industry was made safer because of checklists. Use this simple formula for success: make checklists and follow them. If you need them for your warmup or mobility work or whatever, make them. I am reminded of the football team that showed up to a game without footballs. I remember because I was the head coach. Use your lists to free up space in your brain to focus on the work at hand.
9. Evaluate any program or system every two weeks. Make small course corrections when you are still basically on target.
10. Be sure (!!!) to plan something for the successful completion of the program, season or system. Look “after” the finish line, so to speak. Answer “Now what?” long before you come to that point.

I find this list of ten to be as helpful in storing nervous energy as any fancy, computerized print out.

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