Neural Enhancement Training - Mind And Muscle

Body Builder Posing
Neural Enhancement Training
by: Marc McDougal

Whether they realize it or not, most trainees have multiple muscles that aren’t cutting it. I’m not talking aesthetically (although this often goes hand in hand), but structurally.

Picture six men on a raft, tearing down the white waters. What happens when one of them is too un-coordinated to paddle in sync with everyone else? Or maybe he’s just daydreaming about your sister. Either way, his oar is wet, but he’s doing less work than the writers for Friends. So what happens? Your negotiation and maneuverability goes to hell, that’s what. You slam into rocks, nobody has any fun, and somebody’s probably going to get hurt.

This is similar to an underperforming muscle during an exercise because of lack of neural activation. Once the proper dynamics of the movement are disrupted, problems begin.

Common reasons for lack of neural drive to muscles:

1. Tight antagonists
2. Lack of use
3. Chronic posture deviations
4. Neural impingement
5. Inflammation
6. Scar tissue
7. Fiber adhesions

Some of these issues need to be handled to a greater extent outside the weight room as well (soft tissue manipulation like A.R.T., stretching, nutrition, daily posture adjustments, etc), but these following methods will allow you to still have effective training sessions during the process instead of exacerbating the issues.

At this point, if some of you are thinking “lack of neural drive” is just weakness (as a relative value to other muscles at the same joint), and good for you…because they can become convoluted, so let’s look at the difference.

Lack of neural drive will almost always result in weakness over time, but weakness doesn’t necessarily mean lack of neural drive. So, as you’re incorporating some of these techniques; look over your program and make sure your training is balanced in the following areas: Quad Dominant vs. Hip Dominant, Vertical Pushing vs. Vertical Pulling, and Horizontal Pushing vs. Horizontal Pulling. Ensuring these are balanced can help to eliminate weakness due to poor programming instead of lack of neural activation.

This whole lack of neural drive thing is also referred to as Sensory Motor Amnesia. Most of what we’re trying to do here on the acute level (during your workout), is just to get you (or your client) to remember how to contract the muscle in question. Basically, do a simple exercise to really feel the intended muscle working, then go right back to the more complex exercise and activate that muscle properly during your set. Neural Enhancment Training also includes stretching of the overcompensating muscles, as this will minimize undesired involvement and encourage tension in proper musculature.

I always know when these protocols are successful, because of the look on the trainee’s face as they actually feel the proper muscles working for the first time, coupled with the fact that the exercise form is instantly and significantly better.

Following are the exercises that in the past 10 years I’ve seen the most faulty neural recruitment patterns with, and easy ways to fix them. You won’t find any isolation exercises, as those are really easy to recruit the proper muscle due to the fact that only one joint is doing the majority of the movement.


Two common recruitment issues are lack of quad involvement (a hip dominant squatter) and the opposite, lack of hip involvement, which is more common.

    1. Lack of Quad Involvement:How to spot it
      • If you have trouble achieving quad growth (relative to hamstrings and glutes); and
      • If your deadlift poundages are more than 125% of your squat (for 6 reps or less).

      How to fix it

      • Static stretching of hamstrings and glutes before and between sets of squats. Expect poundages to go down initially. This is a good thing, as it means the hams and glutes are contributing less.
      • Use knee extensions before and between sets of squats. Perform a submaximal set of 10 repititions, at around 75% of 10RM. Touch both quads with moderate pressure during the entire set. This is called “Systematic Touch Training”, a simple method that can help activate more motor units in those lacking neural drive to a particular area.


Lack of Hip Involvement: How to spot it

The knees will dive inward during the squat, especially when the set becomes difficult.
How to fix it

  1. Stretch the adductors before/between sets.
  2. Perform Seated Glute Raises: Sit on the edge of a bench, feet together. Squeeze your glutes and abdominals simultaneously so that you actually rise up from the bench (your shoulder height that is, I’m not asking you to levitate).
  3. Perform Swiss Ball Abductions: Place a swiss ball against a wall. It helps if you have a post/squat rack nearby to hold onto. Place the ankle/lateral calf of one leg against the side of the ball, and try to drive the ball against the wall by abducting your leg. Press and hold the ball against the wall for 3 seconds, relax, and repeat 5 times. Do this on both legs. What you are doing here is forcing the opposite leg (the one not pushing against the ball) to forcefully contract the lateral hip musculature to keep you from falling over. These same muscles prevent internal rotation of the femur during the squat.


Lack of Glute Involvement: How to spot it

  • Tendancy to sit too far back: The shoulders, knees and bar should be kept in line throughout the movement. A quad dominant deadlift will show the shoulders and bar behind the vertical line of the knees at the bottom 1/3rd of the lift.
  • Tendancy to feel the quads fatiguing: You should look to feel about 80/20 fatigue in the posterior chain vs. quads. Any more than this and the quads are working too hard.

How to fix it

  1. Stretch the hip flexors: The kneeling illiopsoas/rectus femoris stretch would be a good one for this purpose.
  2. Swiss Ball Abduction: (see above)
  3. Seated Glute Rasie: (see above)

Rounded Spine: How to spot it

  • Anything less than a tight arch in the lumbar region is unacceptable, excluding powerlifting.

How to fix it

  1. Stretch hip flexors: (see above)
  2. Back Extensions: Perform a set of 10 repititions of traditional hyperextensions, bodyweight only. Pause one second at top. Do this before and between sets of deadlifts. Do not fatigue yourself, just try to feel the muscles of the spine working.
    Back Extension
  3. Duct tape the extensors: When the other methods don’t work, this is the last resort. Stand (or have your client stand) upright with a tight lumbar arch. Run a strip of duct tape on each side of the spine, following the path of the erector spinae from the traps to just above the glutes. This has to be on bare skin, not through a shirt…although it can be done over a sports bra for female clients. As the trainee deadlifts, this sends auto-feedback cueing and allows them to feel their torso alignment when they otherwise couldn’t.

Seated Row/Bent Over Row


Lack of Rhomboid Involvement: How to spot it

  • Lack of full retraction of scapulae during concentric phase, or uncontrolled/lack of ability to prevent protraction during eccentric phase.

Seated Row Without Scapulae Retraction

How to fix it

Stretch Pecs.


Pec Stretch 1

Pec Stretch 2
    • Wide grip scapulae retractions.  Grab a straight bar with a wide grip, and moderate weight. Drive the shoulder blades together as if you were trying to pinch a pencil between them. Hold the retraction for 1 second, return to neutral slowly. Keep the arms straight throughout the movement. If possible, have a partner touch the rhomboids during the retraction. Perform a submaximal set of 10 before and between sets of Seated Row.

Pull ups/Pull Downs

Eccentric shoulder protraction: How to spot it

  • Inability to prevent shoulders and upper back from rounding excessively at end of eccentric phase, or even at the beginning or middle of eccentric phase in severe cases.

How to Fix it

    1. Stretch Pecs (see above)
    2. Perform hanging scapula depression/retraction to activate the mid and lower traps. Hang from a pull up bar, angle the torso back and pull your body up as high as you can without bending your arms. If this is too difficult, the same can be done on a lat pulldown station. With the pull ups, perform a set of 5 before and between sets. Use bodyweight, with a 1 second pause at the contraction.


Kneeling Cable Crunch

Cable Crunch Start Position
Cable Crunch Finishing Position

This one requires a bit of explanation. Although it’s one of my all time favorite abdominal exercises, more often than not, trainees don’t recruit their abs as much as they should during the movement, even if their form looks perfect. They end up using momentum, hip flexors, triceps, lats, etc.

By simply performing a heels elevated bodyweight crunch between sets, this opens up the neural drive to the abdominal region. You’ll notice a big difference right away.

Perform a set of 15 reps of crunches with the heels resting on the edge of a bench before and between sets of cable crunches. Make a fist and put it between your chin and your clavicle, pushing down on your fist the whole time. Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and hold your breath the whole way up. At the top, pause for 1 second and exhale forcefully.

Give these a shot, and look for an immediate improvement in your workouts and structural function.

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