Neuromuscular Coordination in Weightlifting. The YO-YO Analogy.

The process in educating oneself to understand how the human machine works in weightlifting can be confusing and frustrating. Long scientific definitions with charts and graphs doesn’t always help a coach or athlete learn how to program training more effectively to improve results. I have spoken to many athletes and coaches who attended weightlifting or strength & conditioning seminars who learned a lot but didn’t know how to apply what they learned to their sport. Don’t get me wrong, education is important. However, what good is having your mind full of knowledge you can’t apply?

I am frequently asked by coaches and/or lifters what they should begin studying first to better understand weightlifting. You don’t need to know the names of every single muscle in the body and science hasn’t come close to detecting how many nerves we have. Science has estimated we have 100 billion to 1 trillion nerves in the body. So I’m going to be very basic. For weightlifting, you only need to have a firm knowledge of one main function and the two ways this function works in order to begin applying it for weightlifting Learning this function can be the beginning of a simple journey to father educate yourself and how to apply your knowledge to weightlifting. This is neuromuscular coordination.

In order to perform a task such as throwing a ball, running, or successfully completing a snatch or clean & jerk, the nervous system must recruit a specific muscle or group of muscles to perform these tasks. This happens in nanoseconds. In intense athletic activity the brain must send signals to muscles through nerves to contract (shorten) and relax (lengthen). Neuromuscular coordination works in 2 distinct ways.

The first way neuromuscular coordination occurs is called intra-muscular coordination. This is the activation of specific neuromuscular units within muscle fibers of one muscle group. Simply put how quickly can the brain synchronize through motor units to cause one muscle group to contract or relax. Think of the brain as a drill sergeant commanding a single platoon of muscle fibers to work.

The second way neuromuscular coordination occurs is called inter-muscular coordination. This relates to the interaction of different muscle groups to perform a specific activity. The greater the coordination between muscle groups to synchronize in order to sprint or jump the better. Think of the brain as a general commanding several platoons of muscles to work.

It is important to note that not all muscle groups play the same role. Some muscle groups stabilize the body and keep the body neutral while major muscle groups are known as the primary movers which are directly responsible for voluntary actions. The human body has anterior muscles (front) which are primarily the quadriceps, hip flexors, abdominal, and pectoral muscles. It also has posterior muscles (rear) which are mainly the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back muscles. The anterior and posterior muscles play important roles in weightlifting. The anterior muscles are the ones that are responsible for the most force production in weightlifting while the posterior muscles stabilize the body.

To better understand this I have an analogy that may help the reader obtain a clearer understanding of how neuromuscular coordination occurs when performing a snatch or clean & jerk. It’s the analogy of a YO-YO, invented as a weapon in ancient Greece and later became a toy in the West. It remains a popular toy and there are subcultures devoted to inventing tricks of high difficulty. For this analogy we will only go into it’s basic use a child would play with it, snapping it down and up on it’s string.

When getting in a optimal starting position for a snatch or clean, it would make sense to get in one where the lifter can feel more tension in the quads. The quads produce the most force from the initiation of the pull to the completion of a lift. A lifter will feel tension in other muscle groups as well such as the hamstrings and glutes, but the quads are the primary movers from the floor and have more nerves. What this means is when a lifter finds a set up where he/she can feel the weight predominately on the quads, the brain has more nerves and motor units it can recruit to begin to pull and will do so when tension begins building in the quads before pulling begins. Think of the start position as a YO-YO spinning at the bottom of it’s string. A spinning ball of power waiting to explode up.

As the lifters pulls from the floor and reaches full extension, the brain is working in nanoseconds as it sends the command to the quads and hip flexors to continue generating enough force on the bar to descend underneath it for a successful snatch or clean. Think of this phase as a yo-yo being pulled back up into the hand. The spinning ball of energy, the neuromuscular system if you will, picks up more energy as it rises up vertically. Once the quads and other muscles have contracted fully, it’s time to snap back down to receive a snatch or clean.

Once the bar has been received overhead or across the shoulders it is time to stand. The spinning ball of energy is back down again at the bottom of its string and must snap back up. The muscles have contracted, relaxed and now must contract again to stand from a snatch or clean. The neuromuscular system is working as fast as a lifter can think to perform these complex parts of a snatch or clean. If you snap a yo-yo down to the end of its string and pull it back up once, you can learn to do it vary fast. If you learn how to snap it down and back up repeatedly, each time it goes down and up can be faster than the previous one. Such is the extent of the energy you send to a yo-yo when you learn the various techniques of how to hold it in your hand and snap or flick your wrist.

I hope this analogy has helped the reader gain a better understanding of how the central nervous system works with muscles to accomplish coordinated movements. However, this should allow other important questions to be investigated. Are there specific muscle fibers more important for weightlifting? Yes. Is there a rep range that’s optimal for training these fibers? Yes. I’m not going to explain why here. There are numerous sources online for further study on this. Don’t think of what you need to learn as one big pile of topics about biology and physics you must learn all at once. Take on one topic at a time. Learn as much as you can. Observe other coaches apply what they have learned who have more experience and move on to another one.

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