Top 5 Bodybuilding Mistakes (Part 5): CNS Based Training

In part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 in this series I covered some of biggest bodybuilding workout mistakes we see bodybuilding enthusiasts and personal trainers alike making that (we feel) can hinder size gains.

Today I’m hitting you with the fifth and final installment to this Top 5 Bodybuilding Mistakes series, and, just as I did in the last four installments, I’m also providing you with the simple training solutions you can immediately use to correct these mistakes.

CNS Focused Training for Bodybuilding?

We’ve heard lots of talk about directing bodybuilding (hypertrophy) training at the Central Nervous System (CNS) through low rep, high speed or high load sets with longer rest periods between sets.

Although we feel there’s lots of validity to this approach for the purposes of improving strength (i.e. force production) – Focusing on the CNS is not something we emphasize in the Performance U approach to training for Hypertrophy (Muscle size) gains!

Why we feel it’s a Bodybuilding mistake:

Many people get training for increased size and training for increased strength confused. Although these two qualities are certainly not mutually exclusive, there are some undeniable differences.

In simple terms, Strength gains are about increasing force production.  Whereas training or Size gains is about changing physical appearance. And, unlike when training for pure strength gains, training for size is about getting the pump and creating microscopic damage to the muscle, which then causes it to repair and grow larger (i.e. hypertrophy).

Note: Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld have done a great job clarifying Why Bodybuilders are More Jacked Than Powerlifters.

Our general rule of thumb when training for strength is: The reps (predominantly) should be low (6 or less) and the resistance load should be high to create what is primarily a neuromuscular training stimulus.

Our general rule of thumb when training for size (i.e. Bodybuilding) is: The reps (predominantly) should be medium to high (8 and up) – the load should allow you to get those reps with good control w/o using momentum or the help of other muscles – to create what is primarily a physiological training stimulus.

We think of the body as a computer with strength training being more about upgrading your software (your CNS) than it is about the hardware (your muscles).

Put simply, strength oriented training (like Powerlifting) can be thought of as improving your central nervous system’s (CNS) ability to bring more muscle into the game through increased motor unit recruitment.

The heavier the weights you lift the more muscle fibers are recruited – It’s recommended to keep the reps between 3-5 as any lower and it is mainly neuro-muscular adaptations that improve the athletes strength” (Zatsiorsky, 1995)

Unlike training for improved strength (like powerlifting), the goal of training for size (like bodybuilding) is more about creating physiological adaptation than it is about creating neurological adaptation. It’s about upgrading your hardware (bones, connective tissues, muscles, etc.).

“Some non hypertrophy-related strength increases are possibly due to anatomical changes in connective tissue and angle of muscle fiber attachment to tendon.” (Jones & Rutherford; Narici et. al., 1989)

With the above in mind, lets be clear that there is certainly some carryover between muscle strength and muscle size, as a bigger muscle is capable of producing more force (i.e. more strength). And, if your goal is a Hybrid – you want to increase both strength and size – than you would need a hybrid training program that seamlessly combines each type of training modality. But to get into the specifics of that type of program is far beyond the scope of this post, which is pure Bodybuilding.

The Performance U Training Solution

Although all types of the foundational weight-training approaches (Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, Olympic lifting) can have neurological (software) benefits, the goal of the Performance U approach to designing bodybuilding programs is to create as much physiological (structural) change, not neurological (CNS) change.

That said, to keep our bodybuilding programs more well rounded, we may DO use some low rep / high load strength work (5-6 sets x 4-6 reps) with some bodybuilding / physique / figure athletes to improve their motor unit recruitment and simply to add variety to their training program. But we spend the predominant amount of training time in the set/rep range of 3-5 x 8-15 with 60-90 sec rest between sets per exercise.

In Summary

In the Performance U bodybuilding system, we don’t get caught up with all this low rep, high load or high speed, CNS oriented training for Bodybuilding (Hypertrophy training) purposes because you’re:

– Unable to lower the weight (i.e. perform the eccentric) in a slow controlled manner.

– Reducing time under tension (TUT).

– Unable to focus on the muscles being worked when you’re focused on getting the weight up.

– Due to the above, there’s minimal or no accumulated pump in the targeted muscles.


Instead, we recommend clients wishing to gain size on each rep to:

– Demonstrate good control (i.e. “Form”)

– Utilize a 2-3 second eccentric lowering

–  Mentally focus on the muscles being worked and squeeze those muscles at the peak of contraction.

–  Avoid fully “locking-out” to keep the muscles being targeted under tension throughout the exercise.

–  Focus workouts on creating a stimulus for maximal muscle growth, not on demonstrating strength.

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