Neural Drive and the Triathlete

The more stable a joint is (from proper stabilizer/neutralizer development), the more force a prime mover working on that joint can produce. Asleep on machines, the nervous system is awakened when exercising in the proper environment. Yet when stabilizers and neutralizers are not activated—a direct effect of training exclusively on machines—the prime movers are inhibited.

To further illuminate the point I’m trying to make, let’s use a hypothetical example of a guy named Joe Pec Dec. Now, Joe spends so much time in the weight room that he probably gets his mail delivered there. In fact, the only time you don’t see this guy is when the local tanning salon is running a two-for-one special. Mr. Pec Dec (and hypothetical or not, he’s so much bigger than you and me, I suggest we refer to him as Mister Pec Dec) doesn’t care one iota about stabilizers or neutralizers, and that’s one of the reasons he trains on machines. Let’s face it: His goal is to get freaking HUGE. A body-building competition doesn’t give out awards for function. The requirements to grease the body down, step on stage, and flex individual body parts are elementary compared to the complex movements of swimming, cycling, and running in a triathlon. There is no need to:


Condition stabilizers and neutralizers in relation to the prime movers

Maintain their center of gravity over their own base of support

Integrate upper and lower extremity function

Train dynamic stability as well as static stability

Switch between righting reactions and tilting or equilibrium reactions

Be proficient at both closed and open-chain movements (see Chapter Five of Section Two)

Develop high levels of inter as opposed to intra-muscular coordination


It’s analogous to learning to drive a car. When you were fifteen or sixteen, despite your transparent attempts to look like you were born with a driver’s license, you had to really concentrate when behind the wheel. The distractions of light traffic, a person riding shotgun, or even a loud radio were detrimental to your mastery of driving (and hazardous to any mailboxes or trashcans that may have been positioned too close to the curb as well). You only had a certain amount of neural drive which you could allot to the task of driving.

But now you can sing to your favorite CD, put on make-up, talk on your cell, write down important messages, and eat a bowl of cereal—all while driving to work in rush-hour traffic. You’ve become, arguably, a better driver. You’ve reached the stage of autonomic development. You’ve got more neural drive to devote to the task of driving. Or, more specifically, being behind the wheel doesn’t require as much of your neural drive as it once did. The process of driving a car now doesn’t monopolize your concentration the way it did when you were a teenager. You’ve had years of driving in the real world, encouraging you to develop the skills necessary to function in that world. You’ve realized that if you want to go somewhere, you have to eventually take the car out on the road.

But bodybuilders aren’t going anywhere. Their competitive environment is the stage—a uniformly level environment whose only real threat is the occasional drop of baby oil that doesn’t get mopped up. Bodybuilders have the luxury of sitting down on a machine and concentrating solely on hammering out a set of eight to twelve with an obscene amount of weight. They can rely on the machine to:


Act as their stabilizers and neutralizers

Support their body

Isolate upper or lower extremity function

Nullify any need for dynamic or even static stability

Minimize the demand of righting reactions with no need for tilting reactions

Work primarily in an open-chain environment (sometimes a closed-chain one as well, but never both closed- and open-chain at the same time)

Train isolated movements requiring little to no intra-muscular coordination.


With no need to think about anything other than flexing a specific muscle, bodybuilders can focus all their neural drive on making that muscle work. This allows them to lift more and more weight and, with the right combination of rest and other ingredients, get bigger.

Triathletes—and this probably goes without saying—are different. Most of us don’t really care about bulging biceps or shredded pecs. We want to be fast, not big (the ripped quads are just a bonus). So if you want to be successful at this sport, it’s time you got off that machine and went somewhere. And if you want to go farther than your driveway, working on correct stabilizer/neutralizer development is not only a good idea—it’s essential.

Weak or untrained stabilizers can be overloaded quickly, sending inhibitory signals to the prime movers of a specific movement and resulting in decreased neural drive to those muscles. In other words, your nervous system will not allow the prime movers to fire at 100% of their capability when they are not protected by the stabilization provided by the machine. There is only one way to get around this problem and still follow the same machine-based gym protocol you’ve been doing for years. But I guarantee you that you’ll be a heck of a lot slower coming out of T1 with your gym’s leg press attached to your back.

Your body is smart. It realizes when the structural integrity of the joint over which that muscle crosses is compromised, even if you don’t. So you may be able to perform a squat on the Smith Machine with two hundred pounds. But your brain, just like when you were first learning to drive, won’t allow you to utilize that power on the bike when your legs aren’t guided through the motion like the thousands of reps you’ve performed in the past. There are just too many other things going on with which your machine-trained body is not familiar—like gravity, balance, and unguided motion. You simply will not be as strong on the bike as you thought. Strength training’s detractors will cite this as evidence that lifting weights is of no benefit to the endurance athlete. And if you continue to lift incorrectly, the only thing you really end up strengthening is their argument.

Go prove it to yourself. After a couple of warm-up sets, do eight reps of a bench press at a weight which makes the last repetition a challenge. Have your training partner spot you to ensure we don’t find your decaying carcass trapped underneath the bar a few days later. When finished, admire yourself in the mirror as you recover and stay loose for your next effort. Now, lie across a physio ball and perform a set of dumbbell chest presses with the same amount of weight.

I doubt you could complete another set of eight. You may not have even been able to get the weight up off your chest. Don’t feel bad. You just received a valuable lesson in neural drive which should feed your desire to train correctly. And if not, you can always get back on one of those machines and feed your ego!

Disproportionate development of prime movers in relation to stabilizers and neutralizers also changes the mechanics of joints. In the human body there are three classifications of joints or articulations: synovial, fibrous, and cartilaginous. These three can be further broken down into twelve subtypes, all of which share one common characteristic: They all are the points of contact between different bones. So if you change how a joint functions through an imbalanced exercise program (which is exactly the kind of program machine training lends itself to due to the inherent lack of stabilizer/neutralizer development), the result is the accelerated degradation of all the involved joint surfaces. Eventually you have bone contacting bone in places they were never meant to meet. The resulting liaison, despite all the anti-inflammatories in the world, can only end painfully.

In addition to the likely arthritic changes in a joint, overdevelopment of the prime movers in the absence of sufficient training for the stabilizers and neutralizers of the body creates a faulty motor program. Your body is like a computer. It stores the information on how to perform a given movement in what Richard Schmidt and Craig Wrisberg, in their book Motor Learning and Performance, term a generalized motor program. Yet each repetition of a movement performed on a machine essentially programs the computer with the wrong information. So stand up! Get off those machines. Turn your entire body on and program it with what it’ll need to survive your next competition.

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