“Neuro” Training…not EuroTraining

Google “Euro Training” with Terry Crews. Neurotraining isn’t that…indeed.

This article was written as part of an interview process for a job.  In case you’re curious, I was offered the job.  In addition to that endeavor, the other reason I wrote this because I’m getting tired of people coming out with “neuro-charged” workouts.  FYI – all workouts are “neuro”.  My attempt with this was to better define things.  Here’s a spoiler: the best neuro workout is a new workout done outside in nature.  Being in nature has a ton of benefits.  Doing something new and novel releases BDNF within your brain. Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor is a protein released within the brain that has been described as “miracle-gro” for the brain.  What increases BDNF? Exercise, sunlight, hypoxia, and new/novel tasks.  Training outside checks all those boxes.  Read on if you want more.  Enjoy!

You have made it to chapter 10, which means either you have:

  1. Read something so far that makes you feel this is for you, and now you want the “how-to” parts to integrate this approach into your lifestyle. 
  2. You skipped right to this chapter and have not read the rest. 

Either way, you are here, and we are going to give you an approach that will allow you to manipulate your exercise and movement practice into something that does more than just leave you with muscle soreness and fatigue. In my time with StrongFirst, I recall several members of the leadership team, stating that “any monkey can create a hard workout, it takes skill to make an effective one though.”   We are stepping away from the elementary, beat down workouts that will leave you smoked and going to grad school for an approach that will get the physiologic, cardiovascular, AND, most importantly, neurological adaptations to change your life.  

Going through school to become a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), I recall several instances where my professor mentioned the term “neuromuscular.”  Neuromuscular training, neuromuscular fatigue, and neuromuscular rehab are the most common examples that come to mind. But, then I would leave the clinic and go to the real world and observe healthcare professionals.  I never recall seeing anything “neuromuscular” ever being applied outside of a modality. Everything was orthopedic.  Fast forward to 2009 when my son was born, and I became fascinated with experiencing the developmental sequence he was going through to develop mature movement. Then I realized a problem – everyone was calling it by the wrong name. 

How humans develop movement is obviously about the physical development and changes that the newborn progresses through during the first 18-24 months of life.

The NDC (Neurodevelopmental Continuum) Postural progression

Every healthcare professional gets that from every University-based program that has an early childhood development course.  What they fail to pass on is that this acquisition of movement is equally reliant upon the cognitive growth and development occurring; the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system are developing together. Without the other, neither fully develop. This leads to the term I began using in 2009 – the NeuroDevelopmental Sequence. Shortly after this, I did a presentation for the NATA (National Athletic Trainers’ Association) titled “Putting the ‘Neuro’ back into neuromuscular rehabilitation.”  It was a hit. 

Movement is a stimulus to facilitate changes with the nervous system. Any mongo can “pick things up and put things down.” The physical benefits of this approach are seen in many of the strength sports. Movement is one of the easiest and lowest cost avenues to accessing -and manipulating- the nervous system. The best part is that barring trauma or a congenital condition that limits movement, moving is accessible by everyone. 

In today’s world, everyone is aware of the physical benefits of moving. However, what has stayed under the radar is the affects movement has on the brain. Remember, the brain learns to be a brain through movement – moving provides the sensory input that the infant needs to stimulate the brain and activate the most deeply rooted neuronal pathways.  Social media has made the quote, “we don’t stop moving because we grow old, we grow old because we stop moving” very popular. That quote is both quite profound and accurate. Watch an elderly gentleman in his orthopedic shoes walk. Why with age has his once long, robust, and proud stride been reduced to a slow, shuffle with his eyes glued to his feet?  Simple, in those thick-soled, rigid shoes, he can’t feel the ground. The only way he knows where his feet are is by sight.  Now, who recommended those shoes?  His doctor is supposed to be taking care of him. Instead of healthcare, the traditional model has given him simplecare; it is simple to recommend a shoe that the manufacturer advertises as being supportive, stable, and perfect for the elderly instead of explaining why being barefoot and maintains a connection with Mother Earth is vital for longevity.  Recommending a shoe is simple; educating an individual and creating trust is more challenging, and likely a pipe dream in today’s world of a fast-food style of traditional healthcare. 

Where do we start our movement journey? 

Lots of options and info out there…where do you begin?

Simply wherever you are. Regardless of age, sex, race, nationality, or social status, everyone on the globe should meet the minimal abilities of moving like an optimal human.  What are those minimums?

  1. Moving should not hurt.
  2. You should be able to get up and down from the ground. 
  3. You should be able to get from point A to point B.  
  4. You should be able to pick things up. 
  5. You should be able to hold and carry items. 
  6. You should be able to run (or move faster from A to B).
  7. You should be able to do ALL of these without holding your breath. 

Addressing all of those are beyond this single chapter.  But, we are going to get you moving on the three most critical. First and foremost, moving should not hurt.  Frequently we are under the wrong belief that with age comes normal aches and pains. THAT IS CATEGORICALLY WRONG!  Your joints are designed to last 120+ years if you use them right and take care of them. When was the last time you had the oil changed in your car or updated your smartphone?  When was the last time you started your day with a movement routine to get you ready for what life was about to throw at you?  When was the last time you warmed up before that hard 3 mile run (more than just ‘jogging’ for 5 minutes)? We take better care of our possessions than we do of our body, yet our body is the one thing we have that cannot be replaced.  It is your body.  It is your responsibility to take care of it and maintain it better than you do your phone. 

If moving hurts, that is a red flag.  Pain is an indicator and warning light yo the nervous system, but if you live with pain long enough, “hurting’ becomes the new normal.  We forget that movement should actually feel good!  Understanding this is critical because pain changes everything.  A few years ago, I had my Missouri State University Graduate students humor an experiment. I gave them each a small LEGO and told them to put it in their shoes and to leave it until the next class period.  That first day, everyone was limping and complaining that it hurt.  They all individually adjusted how they walked and moved around.  Surprisingly none the next class period, no one complained.  Everyone was walking funny, but no one had pain from stepping in a lego…why?  Their CNS changed how they moved to avoid the pain.   At our deepest of deep roots, all humans ==are driven by only= 2 things: avoid pain or seek pleasure.  We are simple creatures.

If moving hurts, that needs to be fixed.  Immediately.  Not with a pill or a cream to cover it, but investigated and fixed.  That might involve surgery, but barring trauma or injury, likely the fix is found somewhere other than at the skilled hands of a surgeon.  I cannot tell you how to fix your pain. That requires a licensed healthcare professional to spend time hearing your story, placing their hands on you, and assessing how your body moves.

The second priority is breathing.  I write an article with Missouri Sports Hall of Fame physician Dr. Brian Mahaffey where I explained how breathing needs to be both effective and efficient.  If you are reading this, your breathing is effective.  However, that does not mean it is efficient.  Try this-mist down and then take a big breath and hold it.  Time how long you can hold your breath.  If it is less than 30 seconds, your breathing physiology is impaired, creating a giant negative cascade of issues:

  • Lowered muscle contraction threshold (leads to tight muscles and muscle spasms).
  • Increased pain sensitivity (things hurt more). 
  • Decreased cutaneous/peripheral blood flow (increased muscle fatigue or earlier onset of fatigue).
  • Interferes with peripheral nerve conduction (poor sensory input).
  • Stimulates cerebral VC (contain fog, slowed reaction time).
  • Stimulates sympathetic activity (Readies the body to run or fight).

If you held your breath for 60 seconds or more, great job – that is the minimum expectation to be an optimal human.  The goal is greater than 90 seconds to be a genuinely efficient breather.

The next part of breathing is the how: are you breathing through your nose or your mouth.  One is correct, and the other is not.  I’ll give you a hint, one’s sole purpose for being on our face is to bring oxygen into the body. That would be the nose.  You can breathe through your mouth, but you can also drive a screw into a board with a hammer.  Possible, but not the vest tool for the job.  At times of maximal exertion, yes, we will breathe through the mouth (not because it brings more oxygen in-which it does not- but because it expels more carbon dioxide.). Humans can achieve and maintain 90% of their max VO2 with nasal breathing, yet most people only breathe through their mouths.  This begins another cascade of adverse effects on assimilation, defense & repair, biotransformation/elimination, transport, energy, communication, and structural integrity; all 7 of the functional biological systems.  This is an easy one to fix- just close your mouth.  Begin by simply paying attention to breathing through your nose.  Likely it will be tough at first, but our attention guides our intent.  It will get more comfortable, and your breathing will become more efficient.

The third critical component to movement we will cover here is getting up from the ground.  Every day we should all spend time on the ground.  Lying on our stomachs.  Lying on our backs.  Lying on our sides.  Rolling over. Sitting.  Our grade school teachers tried to teach us a valuable life lesson by having us sit criss-cross apple sauce on the hard gym floor.  We should never become afraid of the ground; it, along with gravity, are the only two constants across our entire lifespans.  Getting to the ground and up from the ground requires mobility and strength, both of which are vital to combat the aging process.  There is a drill I have all my athletes and patients play called the “Get Back Up Drill.”  I believe the first time I saw this drill was when Dan John demo’d it at the RKC Easy Strength workshop in Reno several years ago. It’s quite simple; begin by standing tall.  Now get down on the ground and lay on your belly.  Good.  Now, get back up (hence the name of the drill).  Begin by completing this as many times as you can in 1-minute.  Then do the next variation – instead of laying on your stomach, go down and lay on your back.  Do that for another minute.  Go ahead; I’ll wait.

This can become as complex as you want it to be; it is only limited by your creativity:

  • Each time you get down and back up, use a different strategy- no repeats.
  • Place your right hand on your left shoulder; now do the drill without using your right arm.
  • Repeat with your left arm.
  • Hold a weight (10-100lbs, your choice) and repeat.
  • Now start all over and to those all over again and BREATH THROUGH YOUR NOSE!

You literally just read the importance of this two paragraphs ago.  In all seriousness, this highlights how quickly we fall back to our bad habits.  To quote the Greek poet Archilochus, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”  Without a reliable and consistent breathing and movement practice, you will fall back to your bad habits that have been created by the conveniences of our modern world.  But that is okay.  This is not about being perfect. It is about being present.  If you are present, you are aware of what is going on.  Awareness is the first and best corrective strategy for addressing anything.  When you are aware of something – like that little itch on your right cheek (did you just scratch it?) – you take ownership of it and can make it better.  Better is our continual goal.  Better today.  Better tomorrow.  Better next week, and next month.  If we are staying present in our lives, we can consistently get better in every aspect of our lives 

Now for those that just want to go through a workout that integrates the “neuro” back in the neuromuscular, here goes.  You will need a lacrosse ball and a weight – I prefer a kettlebell because it creates a much different sensory experience than many other implements – but you can use a dumbbell, sandbag, loaded backpack, or small pet.  You will breathe through your nose as long as you can, then you will force yourself to breathe through your nose just a little longer.  At that point of panic, breath however you need to. Get a timer app on your smartphone or pay attention to your clock.  We are going to do five exercises for 1 minute each.  The exercises are:

  1. KB sit thru
  2. BoL Halo right leg/ BoL Halo left leg (30sec ea)
  3. Inverted one ball juggling (each direction 30 sec)
  4. Figure 8 swing 
  5. Skipping in place 

Complete 3-5 revolutions (15-25 minutes).

I prefer to let an app tell me what to do; my personal preference is the IntervalTimer app (available for free on the App Store.) Set it up for 1:00 on and 10sec off (time to switch stations without cutting into the 60sec work time – no short cuts!) Adjust it for 5 sets and then 5 interval cycles (the 3-5 revolutions). You can add rest time between the revolutions as well if needed, or you can add more revolutions (cycles in the apps language).

We covered the most basic movement requirements of being human:

  • getting up off the ground (#1) 
  • getting from point A to point B (#2)
  • holding/picking things up (#1, #3, #4)
  • getting from point A to point B faster (#5)
  • carrying items (#1, #2, #3, #4)

If you kept breathing through your nose (#7), you weren’t holding your breath, which means if you weren’t in pain (#1), you trained all aspects of being a human.  

Additionally, we worked on cross-lateralization (or crossing midline of the body), hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, mobility, stability, and strength.  On top of that, you likely broke a sweat and felt your heart rate pick up.  

If you REALLY want this to be a workout that stimulates the mind as much as it does physical side of things, do it outside with a friend, or enemy – turn it into a (friendly) competition. Your call.

Enjoy!

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