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Restorative Workouts…My “Go To” Method for CNS Drain

Mary Kay

One of the most interesting ideas from the strength and conditioning world is the concept of restorative workouts. It surfaced when coaches noticed that certain athletic types don’t recover easily from high stress training simply by resting and refueling. In fact, whereas many still subscribe to the old-school philosophy of “the more you train, the better the results,” others now say “the more you do, the more you need to rest.” They also say that while the amount of recovery needed is in direct proportion to the intensity and volume of a particular workout, most adults tend to go to extremes by either doing too many, back-to-back high intensity sessions, or taking too many days off. The trick is using a different type of stress so that a lifter’s nervous system becomes more tolerant of neural fatigue allowing him/her to do repetitive intense work without crashing. Answer: the restorative workout.

Muscular Versus Neural Fatigue

Before jumping into what a restorative workout is, it’s important to understand some basic concepts about nervous system fatigue. As you already know, muscular fatigue is the declining ability of a specific muscle to produce force (aka can’t do 1 more bicep curl). Its impact is limited to a specific muscle group…in this case, the muscles that make up the bicep. Neural fatigue, on the other hand, affects the whole body. In short, when local nerves that join the CNS and muscle together are drained, strength and functionality of muscles across the whole body are affected. If you’ve ever done a hardcore leg workout, and then found you’ve lost strength in the bench press the next day, the bench press weakness didn’t come from muscle fatigue. It came from neural fatigue.

The MOST CNS-Draining Methods

In general, there are three factors that create central nervous system fatigue: 1) intensity level, 2) # and size of muscles activated, and 3) amount of micro-trauma or muscle tears created during a given workout. In other words, any activity that requires you to lift with intensity, use more muscles or extend the time under tension to the point your muscles “burn”...activates the CNS. The methods that are considered the most draining to the central nervous system include:

1. Strength work (anything above 85% of 1RM and “whole body” movements such as deadlifts, squats, etc.)
2. Lower body hypertrophy work (8-12 reps to failure)
3. Maximum effort speed work with full recovery between reps
4. Maximum effort plyometric work (e.g., depth jumps, box jumps, etc.)
5. Maximum effort agility and deceleration work will full recovery between reps
6. Maximum effort conditioning work (e.g., timed max effort intervals, skills for time, etc.)
7. Combat sports – sparring, boxing and mixed martial arts
8. Strongman activities (e.g., atlas stone carries, weighted wheelbarrow walks, max weight yoke carries, etc.)
9. Any activity performed with heightened psychological intensity (e.g., competitions, etc.)
10. Any activity performed under the influence of artificial stimulants (e.g., ephedrine, various energizing supplements, etc.

How to Recover from CNS Drain

When the CNS is drained, there are 2 options for recovery: rest or doing a restorative workout. While rest helps with general fatigue, a restorative workout is ideal for days when you want to exercise, but your body feels a little worn down but not like you're coming down with the flu.  Hence, these workouts are comprised of low-intensity activities that will get your heart rate up...even make you sweat, but don't require a lot of force/power production to overtax the nervous system. Typical activities include:

1. Steady state, low intensity aerobic work (e.g., walking, hiking, jogging, stationary biking, etc.)
2. Sub-maximal conditioning work with full recovery periods (e.g., bodyweight circuits, sled/prowler work, etc.)
3. Dynamic warm-ups and form/speed drills
4. Smaller muscle isolation bodybuilding work (e.g., curls, triceps, calves) 
5. Sub-maximal speed work with full recovery periods (e.g., run less than 80% of top speed)
6. Easy plyometric work (basic unilateral and bilateral hops etc.)
7. Footwork drills (agility ladders and dot drills)
8. Yoga and Pilates (for increased balance and flexibility, not for power)

The key is to not do too many exercises, and don't go all out. All you need is 3-5 methods for a total workout time of 30-45 minutes.

When to Use Restorative Workouts

When do you add in a restorative workout? The best advice is to listen to your body. I, for example, often plan a restorative workout after 2 moderate strength or hypertrophy days to ensure I’m giving my body ample time to recover. Two sample restorative workouts might be:

RESTORATIVE WORKOUT #1
A1-A4 are a circuit with no rest between stations. Rest 1 minute between rounds. Do 10 rounds.
A1) Treadmill Jog or Brisk Walk – 2 minutes
A2) Assault Bike – 30 seconds
A3) Hand-Release Push-ups – 5 reps
A4) Abs (Your Choice) – 10 reps

RESTORATIVE WORKOUT #2
A1-A4 are a circuit with no rest between stations. Rest 1 minute between rounds. Do 10 rounds.
A1) Rower – 250 Meters
A2) Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups – 5 reps
A3) Abs (Your Choice) – 10 reps

Like I said, some people need rest days.  Others find these sorts of workouts provide the right amount of challenge for an off day.  If you've been wanting another way to recover from a hard workout, give restorative workouts a try! They work!

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