Your body is a pretty amazing piece of kit. It can achieve amazing feats of mind boggling endurance and awe inspiring strength. It can learn new movements and information at any age and has the capacity to adapt to incredible ranges of conditions and regenerate from almost anything given time. You might not even be aware of some of the most amazing things your body and brain will do for you. Our brains and nervous system have evolved in such an incredible way that there are a lot of mechanisms that occur without us even being conscious of them. I know right!! Amazing! (I’m a huge fanboy of the human body if you hadn’t guessed).
A lot of these background mechanisms are involved in keeping us alive, functioning properly and keeping us safe. One such mechanism is something called neural inhibition.
What is that?
Neural inhibition is a safety mechanism built into our neuromuscular system. In essence when your brain detects you trying to do something that it knows you're not able to do or ‘shouldn’t’ do, it’ll decrease the muscle activation to certain areas that are working to lessen the impending devastation of your body.
A prime example of this in training terms is during a deadlift. Say you’re trying to lift a heavy weight and you feel your grip giving out halfway through the pull. Your brain detects this happening as it is constantly receiving feedback from joints and connective tissue. Your brain doesn’t want you to mess yourself up so being the good guy that it is, it’ll reduce muscular strength and tension to the working muscles (back, legs, arms etc) so that you have to drop the bar as your spine is starting to resemble that of a pissed off cat.
Now take that same weight, but lift it whilst using wrist straps or a mixed grip. Your brain doesn’t get the same signals from the body that your grip is about to fail and therefore you're able to lift the bar with comparatively little effort. Time for high fives, beers and happiness!
Here’s the lesson in this example. Your grip strength dictates how well the rest of your body is allowed to function by the brain. the rest of your body was neurally inhibited because the forearm muscles couldn’t handle the weight. The good news is that training will increase neural drive to the forearms, reduce the receptor sensitivity and diminish neural inhibition. Translation - In this scenario, training your grip will allow your bigger muscles to do their thing!
That’s cool Alex….but I’m not a deadlift junkie like you. What does it mean for me?
This mechanism isn't just present when we’re trying to lift heavy things. If your brain detects instability or disproportional tension then the same mechanism kicks in. If your hips are unstable and the deep musculature isn't use to moving in full ranges…but you still really want to move, then your brain detects this and starts to increase (tighten) or decrease (loosen) the neural tone of muscles around the pelvis in an attempt to stabilise the area. So sometimes we can feel tight or restricted in movement because we’re simply not stable enough in the joints we’re using.
A prime example of this is tightness in the hamstrings. A lot of people crank on their hamstrings because they ‘feel’ really tight, but really the hamstrings are just trying to help you not injure your spine! If you’re someone that always seems to stretch out their hamstrings every day or every training session but they still always feel tight, try this experiment:
- Lie on the ground face down.
- Brace your core.
- Slowly bend your knee and try and touch your heel to your glute.
- Tense your hamstring as much as you can while doing this.
Your foot got no where near your glute and your hamstrings cramped so badly that you immediately levitated off the floor trying to get rid of it?
If this is what happened to you then you need to start training your hamstrings in shortened positions as opposed to stretching them constantly. Cramping is a sign of neurological confusion and shouldn’t be ignored. Use cramping as an indication of what needs training. Do you cramp when you point your toes? Then you need to do more of that.
But still, what does it mean for average Joe.
If you have these instabilities and imbalances then your brain puts neural inhibition into action and constantly has to work keeping the balance for your joints and reining you back in during movement. An unstable body makes all movements very inefficient and costly on your energy systems. So just from an energy efficiency point of view, it pays to be more stable. Overcoming neural inhibition and creating more stability in your body will also lead to better joint mechanics which will decrease pain and improve your joints and longevity as you age.
What to do about it?
You can overcome weak positions, instability and consequently neural inhibition by spending more time in those positions and creating tension through the muscles and joints. Have a look at some of the videos we have posted for ideas on specific movements to train. But be free to think about what you specifically need and move into those ranges. If you struggle with rotating your shoulders? Make a point of rotating them super slowly and to their full range of motions 10 times a day. If you’ve ever rolled your ankle then try strengthening the outside of your lower leg by pulling the outside of your foot up, pushing the inside down and holding that. Working on different positions in the ankle joint and foot throughout the day should be a habit.
Always remember that whatever movement you’re doing at any given time, your brain is getting better at it. But also remember the way the human body works is in such a way that no single input will ever achieve a lasting change. It always takes multiple inputs over a period of time. You don’t get stronger by lifting a single weight once right?
If you’d like to know more about movement and creating stability and mobility then have a look at our movement and mobility events on Sundays.
“You always regret not training the position you get injured in.” - Dr Andreo Spina