Neuroplasticity: How to Train Your Brain for Greatness
When it comes right down to it, becoming a world class athlete and champion takes a tremendous amount of brain power.
It all begins with your brain and your nervous system and then your muscular, skeleton and other systems follow suit. It’s about training your nervous system to exactly respond and fire when you call upon it. When a swimmer or runner are in position at the starting block at the onset of a race, and the gun is fired to signal the beginning of the race, the athlete’s body must begin to do, at that exact moment, what it was trained to do. Perform.
So think about your daily exercise regimen. Besides using the usual gym equipment (treadmill, elliptical machine, spin bike, free weights, weight machines) do you also incorporate other different activities into your workout to optimize coordination and encourage your nervous system to grow new ganglia? Studies have shown that as you age you tend to experience a decline in motor skills, coordination and balance resulting in falls and unpredicted injuries.
At my gym, many of the other gym members think I am a bit crazy when they see me juggling rings in the air, spinning a rope over my head while twirling or simultaneously tossing & catching 2 weighted balls against the wall. These are all small exercises to teach my body right hand-left hand eye coordination…something we all need to work at developing. No, I don’t plan on becoming a circus performer, but I do know that it is extremely important to continually stimulate my brain with different coordination exercises…to grow my neural network.
Why is neural acuity important? Why must you train your brain and neural network to produce a particular coordinated effect or action? If you want to perfect an action or motion or activity, it is essential to lay down a strong pattern. Your brain has the ability (at any age) to both formulate and enhance its network. Neuroplasticity demonstrates that your brain is never too old to develop new patterns to produce a desired action or effect. So even as you age, your marvelous brain still has the capability to send signals to every part of your body to instruct an action. However, it requires your determination, practice, persistence and maintenance of good health.
One of the best athletes (and trainers) who has worked hard at his neural muscular development is Masters, Pan American and World Weightlifting champion, Oleg Danilov. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to him about his journey and how he has developed his neural network to be able to lift 215 kg (474 lbs) in a back squat and 190 kg (478 lbs) in an above head lift (split jerk) when called upon to win many competitions over the span of 30 years. Now mind you, Oleg is lifting these weights at his personal body weight of 175 lbs. (He is essentially lifting nearly 3 times his own body weight.)
At the age of 13, Oleg began weightlifting training in Minsk, Belarus, his homeland. He worked hard and truly enjoyed learning the techniques and skills of this sport. He explained that he learned to “train his body to perform”. In order to properly execute a lift , it didn’t require him to become extremely muscular (bulky) but instead demanded training his brain, nervous system and muscles to produce a coordinated action when called upon. This necessitated constant repetition of specific motor patterns and perfection of techniques. Technical proficiency wasn’t just desired, it was required!
Oleg fell in love with the sport of weightlifting and continued to practice for many years. Most recently, he has gone on to win these titles (for his age and weight class):
2012, 2013, 2014 USA National Champion
2013 Masters World Championship- Silver Medalist
2014 Pan American Champion and record holder in the Snatch lift
2015 Masters World Cup Champion
And while he has worked very hard improving his technique, coordination and neural efficacy, Oleg specifically attributes his weightlifting success to several factors:
1. His love for competition and the lifestyle associated with it.
2. His respect and humbleness for gravity. He declares, “There will always be a weight you can not lift”–accept it. (Love this!)
3. His mental toughness. Oleg best explains this as his ability to “combine years of training lifting hundreds of thousands of tons of weights into half a second of monumental effort, without even a little bit of doubt.”
4. His ability to handle failure and learn from it. Sometimes you lose. But not all is lost if you learn from the lesson.
Even if becoming a weightlifting champion is not in your stars, there is still much to learn from Oleg’s training, positive mindset and uber determination. Not only is training your neuro-muscular network important, but so also is training your attitude and outlook. No surprise here. With every sport, goal or dream, a positive attitude sets the stage for success. You have to believe you can.
So when you seem to be experiencing one of those days when life is really challenging, stressful or perhaps emotionally heavy, Oleg reminds us to never let those feelings get in the way of what you body, mind and spirit can truly do: “Sometimes I’ve had my very best lifts on some of my worst days.” Never underestimate the capabilities of your great brain! ( A sweet Tweetable!)
This article first appeared on Passionately Pam.