Well it’s a close second at least anyway (mobility training might be more important, at least as a person ages — because I believe the ability to move is really important).
It’s hard to rank physical qualities when there is so much overlap between them.
You can call it strength training, you can call it resistance training, it all essentially implies the same thing.
You are developing the neuromuscular system’s ability to tolerate load, either through nervous system adaptation or muscular adaptation, or most likely a combination of both — hence – ‘neuro’-‘muscular’.
For simplicity sake I’ve divided my training programs into three separate segments worth focusing on:
- Neuromuscular System Development (NMSD)
- Energy System Development (ESD)
- Mobility System Development (MD)
There are some grey areas in this simplistic representation for sure, but I also find it easier to segment it like this for most people.
For instance full range of motion neuromuscular training appears to improve mobility. While mobility training can improve your ability to move through a large range of motion with a lot of energy system and neuromuscular training exercises.
Why is Neuromuscular Training Important?
Update: I wrote this post on resistance training, after this post, you should really read it. It will cover category 2-4 basically from below.
The short version:
- It’s associated with better quality of life as you age (than pretty much any other physical quality, even aerobic training)
- Reduces chances of developing debilitating ailments like osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes etc… And it decreases risk of falling!
- When combined with dietary intervention, it has the best exercise association with fat loss and more importantly desirable fat free mass (like muscle) retention
- Performance Improvement. If you play sports or do a physical activity, even if only for fun, strength training is one of the most researched performance enhancers
- (Not listed in that article, didn’t get around to it) Injury reducer. Research suggests that proper strength training reduces injury rates (at least in sports, so it’s logical that would transfer to real life) by about a third (33%)
Why I include Speed/Explosive Power training, even for older adults:
- Trains tendon strength/elasticity better than just strength training (due to high speeds)
- Improves reaction time, this is especially important for fall prevention (we’re not doing depth jumps or anything with 60 year olds, but 6″ drops off a box to find their balance, you bet!).
- Improves velocity (for instance, faster walkers tend to live longer…just saying)
Nervous System Explosive Power has been shown to be one of the first neuromuscular qualities we lose as we age (leading to hip fractures, falls, etc…) and also one of the biggest indicators of quality of life.
Neuromuscular training combats the loss of muscle mass (which we lose as we age) and motor control.
A basic activity like jumping can place strain of up to 9x your own body weight on the joints, while sprinting can be 6x your body weight, and light running (jogging) can be 2-3x your bodyweight.
Shouldn’t we prepare certain people to tolerate that? Even if they are only running around, playing with their kids?
Most neuromuscular training can actually be less strenuous on the actual joints than you think and proper neuromuscular training has one of the lowest injury rates of any physical activity you can participate in.
There is not as much room for technical errors due to fatigue, so you typically rest longer and that rest helps maintain high quality work.
Whereas high repetition work, especially endurance work, can take a person beyond fatigue to a place where technique breaks down. which more adequately prepares the body for high repetition, low weight activities in particular.
Lastly, by comparison, most energy system activities (endurance activities), do not translate as well to the development of a necessary strength base.
Sure running will develop some strength, but not much, whereas strength training will significantly aid with running performance still, and train a little bit of the energy systems involved in that sport.
There is a greater cascade effect with neuromuscular training into other disciplines, than it works in the opposite direction.
i.e. Category 1 below translates better into performance in categories 2, 3, 4, than 4 would translate in reverse.
Strength Training For Beginners
If you’re just getting started out and like many are overwhelmed by the huge amount of advice. Don’t fret!
Strength training is much easier than many make it out to be.
I’m working on a great — and currently 100% free — new resource for people new to the world of gyms and training, called “White Belt Fitness“.
It’s not quite complete, but there is a lot there for you to read through.
One of my most viewed articles ever is actually this one: ‘Is It Better to Lift Heavy Weights or Light Ones?’
And you can read more about the specifics of this post in this follow-up post.
4 Components of NMSD
Let me start by stating that these are just rough groupings, there is a lot of grey area between some of them (
In order of execution within a training session:
1. Explosive Training (Speed/Technique/Explosive Power/Explosive Strength/etc…)
Any technique work trumps anything else, likewise for unloaded speed work and generally olympic lifting or any plyometric (stretch shortening cycle) work done to enhance explosiveness/speed and well you get the idea.
Anything else done with maximal explosiveness can also typically fall here.
Plyometric or Nervous System Shock Training could also be here.
Olympic Lifting would fall here too and medicine ball work done for explosive power — i.e. not energy system development that might be done with high reps, low force and challenges fatigue rather than explosiveness.
Pretty much anything done at high speeds/velocity relative to the other 3 components; Low repetitions (less than 12 seconds) and long rest intervals to make sure the nervous system has recovered and can maintain a high quality of work.
If you want to get faster at something it needs to come ideally first in a training session when your nervous system is nice and fresh, or that kind of work really becomes Energy System Work.
i.e. if you are doing sprint work to get faster, or agility work to improve your multi-directional speed, this should come first in a training session either before your energy system work, or before any other nervous system work you have planned on that day.
It’s a bit of a grey area, because the demands of such work are very neurological, but they also tax the shortest energy system intensely. There is also some crossover with strength training (mentioned below).
Explosive power is typically developed with less than 5-6 reps (or typically under 12 seconds of work) and is done at maximal velocity.
Speed/technique work confuses a lot of people, because to maintain high quality work, you need to take long rest intervals and that doesn’t feel like you’re working very hard.
That’s what makes paired or combined training so effective here, we can do some upper body work while we rest for instance, though for speed training pure rest is often best.
There are occasions where heavy explosive training or heavy strength training can work mesh quite well with this, using a neurological phenomenon called Post-Activation Potentiation (or PAP).
Basically you can use explosive loaded training and heavy resistance training to prep the nervous system for higher outputs, though this is a fairly advanced training strategy that most people shouldn’t concern themselves with.
Don’t let the long rest and low duration of exercise fool you, this kind of training is very demanding on the body and the nervous system and takes a long time to recover from.
Most people can only get away with this kind of training twice a week. If they are genetically gifted, three times a week at the absolute most for the top 1% in the world.
I want to note that a lot of textbooks have a grey area that puts these under the muscular strength category, rather than on their own. I think that’s a mistake because it is so different from the 2 subsets of strength training.
One is Speed-Strength, which some coaches include under strength and I’ve broken into their own categories.
Speed strength is what most power sports involve.
Plyometric activity done with a light load, typically less than 20% body weight but at high speed and force development.
Essentially this is where the emphasis in the training is on velocity.
The second component that often gets lumped under strength but I lump into this separate category is Strength-Speed.
Strength-speed is typically synonymous with olympic lifting, but KB swings could also be in this category.
It might also include heavier plyometric actions, where the velocity drops or the ground contact time is long — i.e. low reps of medicine ball throws with heavier balls, like 20+lbs, which lowers the stretching shortening cycle and emphasizes more strength over speed.
Essentially this is where speed is still a factor, but the emphasis is more on how much load you’re moving as quickly as you possibly can.
Ultimately these are kind of the two sub-sets of this type of training that I break into their own grouping.
2. Muscular Strength
Muscular strength is associated with resistance training done at about 1-8 reps, based on your max ability.
Though there is a grey area of about 5-8 reps that can get lumped in with hypertrophy training (a big grey area itself that is questionable to even include).
Another way to frame that you are using loads that are 80% of your absolute max capable load (AKA 1 repetition maximum or 1RM) for one repetition, or higher.
What it really means though is your ability to move the maximum amount of weight in any given exercise, I just generally don’t train it like that.
i.e. You won’t find many of my programs that include attempting to lift your one repetition maximum, unless you’re a powerlifter, olympic lifter or a pretty high level trainee.
100% = 1RM (your max ability is 1RM)
I’m a much bigger fan of doubles/triples for intermediate to advanced lifters (give-or-take: 91-96% of max), and beginners are usually between 5-8 reps for this type of training (give-or-take: 80-85% of max).
Lower rep exercises take precedent in order of execution, so you would typically want to do 6 reps before you do an exercise with 1o reps, before you do an exercise with 15 reps.
Rest is still rather high like the explosive work above, but paired sets work even more nicely here (upper and lower body exercises paired together for example).
Rest intervals are usually a minimum of 2 minutes, upwards of 5 minutes, and I’ve heard of coaches with high level athletes using rest intervals as long as 10 minutes.
Actually I’ve also heard of this for explosive work too, it just depends on a persons recoverability — their ability to recover from set to set in this case.
Sets are usually under 25-30 seconds in duration, though they could perhaps be stretched out to a max of 40 seconds for 8 reps done with a very slow tempo (4 seconds lowering, 1 second up, for example but I rarely see the point of that here).
The Sub Sets
Understanding the 2 sub-sets here is beneficial because it can help to understand how to work off percentages of either your maximum ability, or more likely your perceived ability (1RM estimation).
As 1RM changes with training, you’d have to test it every day to work accurately off of it and that would simply take too long. It’s tough to work off of completely.
The first consideration is Absolute Strength.
Absolutely strength is the absolute highest amount of weight lifted regardless of the person.
The second, and generally the one I use for comparisons is Relative Strength.
This is the highest amount of weight lifted applied relative to the bodyweight of the participant.
For instance the athlete that weighs 150 lbs and moves 300 lbs, has a higher relative strength than an athlete that weighs 200 lbs and moves 350 lbs, even though athlete B has a greater amount of absolute strength.
Both have their pros and cons in their consideration, but using relative strength is generally the better approach for most folks outside of strength sports that don’t have weight classes (which is almost none).
3. Muscular Hypertrophy (grey area)
Now here is where my classification system gets a little hazy.
I include this because it’s a legitimate goal for an overwhelming number of people but it really overlaps with category 2 and category 4.
Typically I say that muscular hypertrophy (which means muscle growth really) is about 5-12 reps (maybe 5-15), but you can get muscular hypertrophy at less than that, and higher than that depending on how you train and the volume of training you use.
The reason I’m not inclined to use <5 reps for hypertrophy is that it would take a lot of sets to get enough volume, which means a lot of time.
Research generally shows that 8 sets of 3, has about the same hypertrophy effect as 3 sets of 8. The former just takes about 3x as long to complete.
The reason I’m not inclined to use >12 reps (maybe >15 depending on my mood that day) is that higher reps have to be taken more to fatigue and again it ends up being very time intensive to use 20, 30, 40, 50 rep sets to get a hypertrophy effect using low loads.
Plus most people get bored about 12-15 reps, and lose focus, it can just get messy.
*Remember: Grey area.
A lot of people would do well to gain a little muscle (fat free mass or FFM) and lose a little fat mass (FM) and this is mostly the rep range to do that in.
Inevitably a lot of my clients start in this range because it provides a little bit of strength improvement (more so in the 5-8 rep range) and it provides a little bit of endurance improvement (more so in the 9-12 rep range).
You get a bit of the best of both worlds, you just won’t develop as much strength or as much endurance, so eventually a lot of trainees need to consider doing a little more dedicated work in category 2 or 4.
Category 2 work, helps increase the loads that can be used in this rep range.
Category 4 work, helps increase the number of reps a person can do with any given load.
Both help the intermediate to advanced trainee push through roadblocks.
It used to be said that rest intervals for hypertrophy should be about 60-120 seconds with 5-12 reps (less rest for higher reps) aimed at hypertrophy — that showed a bigger hormone response, but that hormone response was never actually shown to lead to hypertrophy so it’s been pretty much scrapped at this point.
Recent research suggests that self-imposed rest intervals work just fine and that longer rest intervals won’t impede hypertrophy, so I usually give people minimum rest intervals and tell them to rest as long or as little as they like.
If workload/ability goes down a lot (some is to be expected) then you probably didn’t rest long enough and should consider more rest.
It never hurts here really to rest a little longer if you need to, other than the few seconds you might waste.
For most folks, this is where the majority of training volume will lie as it’s balanced.
4. Muscular Endurance (Strength Endurance)
Is the maximum number of repetitions a person can lift with a given weight, typically 40-70% of the maximum load someone could move.
Maybe even as low as 20 or 30% though, depending on who you talk to, but I personally don’t see the point of training much above 25-30 reps in a set unless it’s testing a calisthenic ability like a push up.
Training for endurance will put a person at 9 reps or higher, and thus crosses over into that hypertrophy zone .
I’m more inclined however to train maximum endurance at 12+ reps (again maybe 15 reps, but I generally stick with 12, as 8-12 is a big part of that hypertrophy zone already).
Some muscles/movements seem to lend themselves better to muscular endurance training, with deeper stabilizing muscles generally viewed as responding better to higher repetition ranges (think direct shoulder/hip/wrist/ankle work).
It’s unlikely that you’d attempt something like crunches or seated calf raises for only 5 repetitions, right?
You use short(er) rest intervals compared to other training and this type of training might actually work better with single sets (rather than grouped sets) to keep the rest intervals short — because the work portions can be so long too, it’s hard to pair two muscular endurance exercises together.
That’s the basics of NMSD, and it hopefully explains (especially to clients I have) what that acronym means when you see it in a program.
For a more in-depth look at these elements, check out this follow-up post.
Don’t forget ESD either, you want to maintain other physical qualities despite what strength zealots might claim.
You can’t really do neuromuscular training effectively every day (most people can’t anyway), it’s just too taxing on the body.
It’s often best to use some lighter ESD methods (read: aerobic work) on your off days for 1-3 days a week, maybe 20-30 minutes at a time.
As I said before there is a great deal of cross-over between anaerobic forms of ESD (not entirely though) and neuromuscular training so using one or the other (or together…) is a good way to ensure you can recover.
You might only do speed work twice a week, but it covers a similar energy pathway as the short energy system does. You don’t want to layer, heavy neurological strength training over that work too much (though if you do, it’s probably after the technical speed work).
If you have questions about how to fit things together, please leave a comment.