18 min read

Neuromuscular System Development

Neuromuscular System Development

Neuromuscular training is perhaps the most important training, exercise or movement recommendation I can make to anybody.

Or at least it's as important as mobility system development. The two are very interdependent. 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 weight 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:

  1. Neuromuscular System Development (NMSD)
  2. Energy System Development (ESD)
  3. 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 the desirable range of motion for 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 Improvements. If you play sports or do a physical activity, even if only for fun, strength training is one of the most researched performance enhancers
  • 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 33%

Why I include Speed/Explosive Power training into the mix, even for older adults:

  • Trains tendon strength/elasticity better than just strength training – due to high speeds and eccentric forces
  • 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…

Nervous System Explosive Power has been shown to be one of the first neuromuscular qualities we lose as we age. It's also lost to greater extent than other qualities (like aerobic fitness), which can lead to hip fractures, falls, etc… And it's one of the biggest indicators of quality of life.

Neuromuscular training combats all that and it prevents muscle loss too (which we lose as we age) and motor control.

Handling Joint and Muscle Stress

A lot of people express concern about heavy weight training but aren't aware of the following.

Maximal jumping can place a strain of up to 11.6x your own body weight on your joints, while sprinting can approach 6x your body weight, and light running (jogging) can be 2-3x your bodyweight. Even walking according to that last paper can yield up to 1.5x the stress of your bodyweight at faster speeds.

Running at slow as 6.7 mph is ~2.5x your bodyweight as a ground reaction force.

Makes you think twice about achieving a bodyweight squat or deadlift, right? And that's on two legs! Even a 2x bodyweight squat or deadlift is a pittance by comparison in most instances.

Shouldn’t we prepare people's tissues to tolerate that first? Before we throw them out on the pavement and tell them to go for a run for their heart health?

"Don't run to get fit, get fit so you can run." ~ Mike Boyle

It necessitates some future consideration for explosive training (like jump or sprint training) if you want to participate in any impact related activities. Even if that's only running after a toddler in your backyard.

Muscle adaptations to handle this stress happen over several days to months at a time (to see a noticeable differences in a lab setting). Bone is similar and can be dramatically more dense after only a few weeks or months of training.

Tendons on the other hand take considerably longer to adapt to these joint stresses. It can take upwards of 6-12 months for tendons to show noticeable adaptations in research settings.

Meaning the sweet spot for working into an impact-related sport like distance running (which is one of the most popular aerobic activities out there) is somewhere between 1-6 months probably before you're really capable of pushing your physiological limits.

A lot of neuromuscular training (resistance training especially) is 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.

That first month is critical for establishing resistance training tolerance. It's the first step in my mind. Followed by a progression of impact progressions to allow for the slow regeneration of those tougher tendon tissues that will help you prevent injury.

If you haven't been running or in an impact related activity for quite some time (more than a year or two for example), and you're not reasonably strong, there is going to be a problem if you try to do that impact-related activity again. It's just a matter of when that problem happens.

If this is you, you want to work up slowly towards the impact of running and jumping. Something as simple as light skipping that first month or two is a better starting point than going out to see how fast your 5k time is these days.

Lots of rest, don't let fatigue accumulate too much and slowly improve your tolerance to impact AND fatigue resistance. That's why when I'm working with people who want to run again, we work up pretty slowly on the distances. Much slower than a lot of people think.

I also encourage people to start on softer surfaces if that's possible. Grass or turf is a great starting point. Shorter distances, with rest, and a slightly higher speed – it's actually easier to learn technique at faster speeds than most people instinctively want to 'jog'.

A treadmill for instance is also softer than pavement. It's not ideal in the sense that it doesn't train motor skill as well, but that can come later after the body has gradually gotten more and more used to the impact.

Fatigue is the enemy of technique, so an interval based approach to this is necessary in my view and I'll do an article on how I approach it some day. You want the rest to maintain high quality and reduce any failures in the tissues that aren't yet prepared to handle the grind of a 5k or 10k run.

Otherwise endurance work will more typically take a person beyond fatigue to the place where technique breaks down, and injuries are more likely to happen. Most people progress too quickly, or jump right back up to relatively long distances. Anything over 800-1600m at a time is a long-distance for someone who hasn't run in quite some time. And I'd argue 200-400m is a better starting point for most.

Energy system activities (endurance activities) even impact oriented ones like running do not translate into any development of a strength base. A strength base is the precursor to tolerating the stress of impact in general. So take your first month of any fitness routine, and make sure you prioritize neuromuscular work.

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!

What I'm about to write will feel overwhelming, because it's a lot of upfront considerations that I as a strength & conditioning coach should know for intermediate and advanced trainees.  

Not necessarily what a beginner should start with. If you're brand new to resistance training I suggest you start with this more in depth article:

How to Safely Get Started With Exercise - Part 2 Resistance Training
This is a step-by-step guide for safely integrating resistance training into your exercise schedule.

I hope you get beyond that some day, but that day might not be this day. 🙂

The Components of Neuromuscular System Development

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 typical training order execution:

1. Explosive Training

Plyometrics, Speed, 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 near-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. Keep in mind this is a fairly advanced training strategy that most people shouldn’t concern themselves with until they are beyond 6 months of pretty consistent training.

Don’t let the long rest and low duration of exercise fool you, this kind of training is still very demanding on the body and the nervous system and takes more time to recover from than most 'aerobic' work (especially non-impact aerobic work). You can't do this kind of thing every day, and maybe not even every other day.

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.

Two Subsets of This

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 these 2 subsets of strength training:

  1. Speed-Strength
  2. Strength-Speed

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.

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 considerably or the ground contact time is long — i.e. low reps of medicine ball throws with heavier balls, like 20+lbs, which lowers the stretch shortening cycle and emphasizes more strength over speed.

Essentially the latter type of training still factors in speed, but the emphasis is predominantly on how much resistance you can move as quickly as possible instead of how fast you can move a minimal amount of resistance.

Ultimately these are kind of the two subsets of this type of training that I break into their own grouping under the "Explosive Power" type.

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.

*Higher Note:

This is a bit of an abnormal situation. Human beings are stronger eccentrically lowering a weight or yielding to weight than they are concentrically (or 'actively') lifting it it up.

Making it possible for a human to have some assistance (i.e. spotters, or a second limb) on the concentric (lift up) and use their own muscle power on the way back down. This is called supramaximal training or eccentric-overload training. And it can be useful in more advanced trainees.

100% = 1RM (your max ability is 1RM)

1RM is essentially strength coach slang for the maximum amount of weight a person can lift in any given exercise. Often you may see load recommendations based of it but I don't personally take that approach. I rarely recommend work anywhere near a true 1RM.

i.e. You won’t find many of my programs that include attempting to lift your actual one repetition maximum, unless you’re a powerlifter, olympic lifter or a pretty high level trainee.

Which doesn't mean we don't do 'singles.' Again, more slang for doing a single rep in a set. It just means I typically only do singles with weights I know people can lift 2-3 times.  I generally don't like seeing trainees miss any reps with pure strength work ≤4 reps.

I’m a much bigger fan of doubles/triples even for intermediate to advanced lifters (give-or-take: 91-96% of max), and I usually work with beginners between 5-8 reps (give-or-take: 80-86% of max) for their first few months at least.

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 high, comparable to the explosive work above, and paired sets work even better here – for example, upper and lower body exercises paired together in sequence.

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 person's 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 – for example: 4 seconds lowering, 1 second up, but I rarely see the point of that in this instance, unless hypertrophy is the goal.

The problem with basing future training off 1RM calculated or estimated today is that you should be getting stronger after every session you train. It's impractical to estimate or test it every day before you train in order to use percentages accurately, which is why I don't use or recommend that method.

It's useful in the lab because it gives us better quantitative data to apply to a population, but it's not as realistic to use in the gym.

Other coaches may find it useful because it's easy to tell a bunch of athletes just use a weight based on the testing we do monthly (or semi-regularly in any case). I don't. I prefer to work off Perceived Exertion instead.

Additional Considerations

You could argue that speed-strength and strength-speed fall under the strength umbrella to some extent but I like breaking them out into the Explosive Power category. While the reps and rest ranges are typically the same, the intent is very different.

Strength is training pure force production capability and that's it, in my view. Training closer to 1RM than 8RM will lead to greater force production but it also beats up on the body quite a bit by comparison. You'll get where most people "should be" with either, it's just a matter of magnitudes and how quickly you get there.

That said, it's still useful to understand difference between two 'types' of strength as they appear in the literature:

  1. Absolute Strength
  2. Relative Strength

Absolute strength is the absolute highest amount of weight lifted regardless of the person lifting it. If you lift 300 lbs and I lift 250 lbs, you have higher absolute strength. Even if you're a considerably larger person than I am.

Relative Strength, is the better comparator and I use it far more frequently when keeping loading schemes for clients in mind. This is the highest amount of weight lifted 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, with considerable overlap between category 2 and category 4.

I include this because it’s a legitimate goal for an overwhelming number of people, or at least it should be. Sarcopenia is a very real concern in the aging process and is an underappreciated contributor to a low quality of life and premature death.

Typically I say that muscular hypertrophy (which is a fancy word for "muscle growth") is about 5-12 reps (maybe 5-15), but you can can technically get muscular hypertrophy with lower and higher rep ranges too. Although there is a theoretical lower limit around 30-40% of your 1RM, which equates to about 30-35 reps.

In other words, any resistance you can use to execute more than 30-35 reps in a given exercise is probably useless for muscle gains. But anything below that is fair game, assuming you use a similar volume of training (# of sets) and proximity to failure in your training.

Meaning 3 sets of 25 (3x25) to failure, should be about as effective as 3 sets of 8 (3x8) to near failure.

I don't know if you picked up on that little caveat there, it's subtle.

Higher rep, lighter load training likely requires finishing each set much closer to absolute failure, most likely right-at it. Whereas, training at ~8 reps or fewer likely doesn't require training to complete failure (AKA momentary muscle failure, AKA absolute failure) to generate the mechanical tension necessary for growth.

Due to the nature of heavier resistance, mechanical tension is inherently present on reps using a resistance that cause about 8 reps or fewer. Meaning you can train closer to technical failure (1-2 reps in the tank) with lower rep ranges and reduce muscle damage, which also typically reduces muscle soreness by extension.

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 right to failure. It also ends up being very time intensive to use 20, 30, or 40 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.

Less joint stress maybe, but I'd argue that joint stress in the 12-15 range is similar enough. I'd focus my attention there if I was feeling beat up after a bunch of 5-8 rep work.

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 of effective repetitions (a separate article I've linked to above already), 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.

*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 (5-12/5-15).

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 either 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 plateaus.

Rest Considerations

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 by the intelligent trainers out there.

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. 2-3 minutes is usually sufficient for most though. Longer if you're in that 5-8 zone, maybe shorter if you want more endurance and you're in that 8-12 (or 8-15) zone.

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)

Muscular endurance is the maximum number of repetitions a person can lift with a given weight, typically in the 30-75% of the maximum load zone, because it would have to exceed that ~8 rep strength zone cutoff.

You can go as low as 20% maybe, depending on who you talk to, but I personally don’t see the point of training anything above 30-35 reps in a set unless it’s testing a calisthenic ability like a push up for reps and you want to challenge a rep record or something.  

Training for endurance will put a person at roughly 9 reps or higher, and thus crosses over into that hypertrophy zone to some extent, but most calisthenics quickly exceed 12-15 reps. The further you drift from that, the less effective this type of training generally tends to be in practice.

Training really high reps like 15-35 is absolutely gruelling if you do it right, and most people simply don't. The only training effect you get is improved muscular endurance and I could make a strong argument that you're probably better off just doing cardio than 15-35 reps if endurance is what matters to you.

Most people will quit a set of 15-35 reps early, long before they reach failure, so the hypertrophy is next to nothing. Even if it is possible, it isn't practical.

The longer I coach, the less I see a need for the extreme end of this kind of work. Certainly nothing above 15 reps realistically speaking. Unless you absolutely had to.

I would recommend using 9-12 or 9-15 rep ranges to give your joints a break periodically though.  Especially if you've been loading ≤8 (or lower) for quite some time. Trust me, if you do it long enough, you feel it.

I am inclined (out of curiosity) to periodically test standard exercises for max repetitions. Max reps on exercises like chin-ups, push-ups, bulgarian split squats or single leg squats, periodically find their way into my programs.

Exercise and Rest Considerations

Some muscles/movements seem to lend themselves better to the lower end of that muscular endurance training zone. Especially deeper stabilizing muscles. They seem to respond better to a slightly higher repetition range – think direct shoulder work, deep hip work, or wrist/ankle work).

It’s unlikely that you’d attempt something like crunches, lateral hip raises or toe presses for only 5 repetitions, right?

The long-standing convention for endurance work has been short(er) rest intervals. But I'm updating this to escape that convention. I think rest intervals similar to hypertrophy around 2-3 minutes are actually better in real-world application here.

If you want to actually train for muscular endurance (which is probably only a few readers) then I wouldn't train to failure (stay a few reps shy at all times). If you want to build hypertrophy with this rep range, then you should go to failure, at least on the last set if you're under 12-15 reps. Likely all sets if you're above that.

You could also utilize rest-pause training quite successfully I think, as long as you avoided absolute failure for endurance goals, and forced it for hypertrophy goals.

Ask me about it sometime, if you're curious...

Final Thoughts:

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 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. If you do, it’s probably after the technical speed work. i.e. I'd probably do any HIIT running intervals before I did anything else that day, even if it's also considered 'conditioning.'

If you have questions about how to fit things together, please leave a comment.