Is Motor Unit Recruitment Speed Trainable?

Explosiveness is probably the most desired quality to have by athletes. Being explosive means you can be quicker and faster, jump higher, throw further, hit harder, or accelerate a bar faster than your opponents. Upon first glance, however, it usually seems like you have it or you don’t. Is that true though? When talking about explosiveness, we really mean the speed at which we can produce large amounts of force, or rate of force development. There are a number of determinants on whether a person has a high rate of force development or not including fast to slow twitch muscle fiber ratio, the size of fast twitch muscle fibers, and how quickly motor units can be recruited. Unfortunately our ratio of fast to slow twitch muscle fibers are set in stone. However we can optimize the fast twitch muscle fibers we do have by training them and growing them. A big difference maker, however, is motor unit recruitment, which has seen contradictory findings on whether it can be trained or not. I found a recent MASS article, however, by Michael C. Zourdos which reviewed one of the most conclusive studies on this subject in a long time.


The study compared muscle fiber conduction velocity in trained versus untrained subjects. The researchers observed that trained lifters are able to produce a greater rate of force development earlier in a lift than untrained lifters. Being able to activate the muscles earlier and with more force means that the muscle fibers are being signaled to fire earlier, which means the motor units conductivity is being more efficient. Part of the physiological reason behind this could be that the motor unit nerves develop more myelin sheathing increasing the efficiency of the signal. Since the trained subjects had high efficiency than untrained subjects means that it is possible to develop higher motor unit recruitment by training.


How is it trainable though? Zourdos explains that it is as simple as training heavier weights. He suggests adding heavy singles into your training programs more frequently, especially if you struggle grinding through a heavy rep. Increasing the amount of power exercises including olympic lifts, plyometrics, and speed sets are methods of increasing the efficiency of the neuromuscular system.


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