In physique training the central nervous system is discussed quite a bit. People will talk about how they don’t want to burn out their central nervous system (CNS). While you cannot actually burn out your central nervous system, it is a good idea to make sure it is firing on all cylinders. The Central nervous system is comprised of two main systems the sympathetic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response that your body uses to react to stressful situations. The autonomic nervous system is used to modulate periods of rest and relaxation in order to assist the body in recovery and repair. During normal waking hours, there is a constant balance that these two systems fight to maintain. The balance between these systems can be measured by the changes in your heart rate variability.
Heart rate variability is the difference in time between a full beat cycle of the heart. If you picture the heart beating as a sin graph, heart rate variability measures the moment to moment changes in the projected distance between heart beats. This variation in speed is not constant and can change in a millisecond. Most heart rate variability sensors are able to pick up changes in the speed of the heart within fractions of a second. This makes heart rate variability sensors one of the easiest ways to track the status of the nervous system. When heart rate variability is high the interplay between the sympathetic and autonomic nervous system is more pronounced with the autonomic nervous system dominating. Under these circumstances many of the bodies stress response processes will be blunted. Most authorities point to the damaging effects of chronically raised cortisol experiences during low heart rate variability states as a major drawback of chronic stress.
Heart rate variability training allows people to see what levels of heart rate variability their body is operating at during the day. By using focused breathing most people can shift their body from a state of low heart rate variability to a state of high heart rate variability. This effectively switches the body from a state of parasympathetic dominance to autonomic nervous system dominance. In simpler terms it relaxes the body at its most fundamental level. This is good given the amount of chronic stress people are under.
For a natural trainer, reducing cortisol levels, and stress levels in general, is a fantastic way to get in better shape. Increasing testosterone to cortisol levels results in positive changes to the physique. In addition the reduced stress on the nervous system, over time, will allow a greater portion of the body’s recovery abilities to go toward physique enhancement and fat loss.
Heart rate variability can give your insight into whether or not you should be cutting calories more or adding volume in the gym for just a couple examples. Say for instance you have been dieting and have stalled. If your heart rate variability is as high as it has normally been after testing at a similar time for the last few weeks, perhaps you simply need to continue reducing calories. If on the other hand you see your heart rate variability starting to drop after testing at the same time for a few days, your body may be feeling stressed and need a greater amount of calories to continue making progress. If the nervous and metabolic systems are starting to resist the chronic stress you are putting the body under (dieting), you may need to relive it for a time in order to allow recovery (adaptation and adjustment to the lower level of body fat). In a similar situation let’s say you are training on a diet and your heart rate variability again begins to dip. This time you instead chose to reduce your volume in the gym by 50%. You could cut your sets in half while keeping your weight and reps the same and tracking to see whether the reduced stress allows your body to move back into a high heart rate variability state.
Tracking your body’s state is a great way to ensure further progress. If your are spending too much time in a parasympathetic dominant state you can be sure your body will not have muscle repair as a primary goal. Most likely your body will maintain chronically high levels of cortisol in order to break down and mobilize energy stores for the impending (flood, war, long winter, ….insert stressor hear..). In order for your body to be a willing participant in normal growth and repair processes it should be in its normal growth and repair state. In other words your body needs to be in its autonomic nervous system dominant state. If you can stay in this state by under eating and getting 4 hours a sleep you are lucky. Maintaining this state is the primary reason there is so much traditional bodybuilding advice based around eating a lot, sleeping, and staying relaxed in general. The body does not build muscle well, or shed fat well in a stressed out state.
One of the main benefits of anabolic steroids is their ability to allow the nervous system to tolerate a greater amount of stress. Steroid users will have a greater resiliency to acute stressors then people not on steroids. This includes psychological stressors. The nervous systems response to psychological stressors is nearly identical to that of physical stressors. By up-regulating the body’s nervous system, users can maintain internal balance in the face of stressors of all types. This is not to say that steroids assist people in general and should be taken by everyone. Keep in mind that assistance is ability to tolerate acute stress says nothing of ability to tolerate long term stress. As can be seen in many retired physique competitors, chronic usage of anabolic compounds can leave the body relatively frail and unable to tolerate stress. As is true in many areas of life, sometime, actions have equal and opposite reactions. So, while steroids have some great acute affects, it seems safer to attempt to assist the body’s nervous system in within the confines of its natural functioning.
Heart rate variability can be trained and enhanced. People who practice heart rate variability training show an enhanced stress response when compared to untrained people. What is more is that training your body to maintain higher heart rate variability has been shown to chronically lower stress levels and reduce the bodies exposure to cortisol. This is similar to the results people receive from practicing meditation. The difference is that most people are able to get in touch with their bodies in a much shorter time using heart rate variability training. Devices used to measure heart rate variability give the user a window into the state of their body’s nervous system. Heart rate variability training also requires the user to focus almost exclusively on their breathing patterns. Overtime, longer and longer sessions require more intense levels of focus. In addition the enhancing heart rate variability over time, this type of training will build the users concentration abilities.
The ability to concentrate can without a doubt aid any trainee natural or not. In addition to progressing toward physique enhancement goals, trainees will have a less stressed approach to their life in general. This creates a positive loop where by becoming less stressed you react to life events with less stress, which in turn reduces your stress. This positive loop is the main reason people generally report fantastic results from heart rate variability training or none at all. Like weight training, the majority of benefits come from sticking to a program. Heart rate variability training is the same. The results, both physical and mental, can be miraculous so long as you stick to the program.