Nervous vs. Respiratory System & Performance

We’ve all heard the stories regarding instantaneous superhuman strength. The mother who lifts a car off her child who’s trapped underneath it, the man who involuntarily launches himself across the room after receiving a total body electrical shock, or the soldier who moved a one-ton helicopter off his comrade’s trapped body. While many of these stories are not proven and probably exaggerated, scientists are terming this “phenomena,” alleged as it may be, “hysterical strength.” The postulated mechanism is a sudden surge in hormonal output, such as adrenaline, that potentiates both central and peripheral outputs of other various physiological systems while ignoring protective mechanisms and homeostatic modulators. Effectively, this would result in abnormally temporal superhuman capability.
While scientists argue there is no proof of such occurrences they do, however, argue that it’s possible via said keyholes. It is an intriguing area of research, as the implications of its manipulability would obviously be high yield (maybe?) to those in the performance enhancement disciplines. Yet, the dangers imposed on the human body by such triggers would obviously make many experimentations highly unethical and as some would say – totally unnecessary.
Respiratory System vs. Nervous System
While the above is yet to be determined, what we do know is that with training we absolutely can manipulate the nervous system to produce greater and greater outputs over time, though maybe not enough to jump from a 135-lb deadlift to lifting an airplane. Anyone who’s trained a beginner athlete understands most adaptation is initially neural. Their muscles didn’t change too much, but their neural pathways became more efficient thus allowing them to get stronger, more explosive, etc. The same is true for many advanced trainees who’ve reached a plateau in physical qualities. Numerous elaborations of advanced programming methods exist that force the nervous system to produce higher levels of output than it did before. Such things include more aggressive loading parameters, different training frequencies, planning of recovery modalities, and a host of other attempts to stimulate further neural adaptation. This is to say:
      Your nervous system has a theoretical maximum (potential) that is beyond what current physicality’s you can display.
      The goal is to “tap into” as much of that “potential” as possible.
      This is represented by the formula: Potential strength – Limit strength = Strength deficit.
      Worry not about what quantity “potential strength” actually is. This is simply a theoretical model used for perspective. Limit strength is the highest level of strength you’ve actually produced at one point. Things like 1RM’s, highest Vertical Jumps/Hops, sprint times, etc. go here.
What is less appreciated about this concept is how it applies to other physiological systems as well. This model can be applied to the respiratory system, which has huge implications for athletic performance!
When you consider the respiratory cascade, from lungs all the way down to muscle mitochondria, there are a number of structural and functional parameters dictating the delivery of oxygen to working muscles. One particular aspect that sticks out is the design of the lungs. It’s been recognized that lungs present with a “structural redundancy” in that the size of people’s lungs is excessive for its usage. We really don’t use the full capacity of our lungs, or in other words, the respiratory system has a lot of “potential strength” and untapped force just as the nervous system does. What’s interesting is that for the most part our lungs don’t really adapt to training structurally, unlike the rest of the respiratory system which adapts both structurally and functionally. The only evidence for structural lung plasticity is following excessive tissue loss after pneumonectomy or with chronic hypoxia. This is the similar to the nervous system which doesn’t simply allow one to use all its strength and capacity at once, otherwise we’d witness “hysterical strength” happening every day! The respiratory system maintains its “potential strength” in a similar fashion by limiting central output. This “limiting factor” is further validated by the observations of various populations. Sedentary people have more structural redundancy in their lungs than athletic people. More aerobically fit athletes, especially endurance trained, utilize more of their lung structure than less fit athletes. The world’s best endurance athletes have little if any excess lung structure because they’ve undergone huge functional adaptations to “max out” their lung’s structural capacity.

All in all this information can simply allow us to appreciate the changing aspects of the respiratory cascade that result from training. Hope you enjoyed it!



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  1. Good read Sam!  The downside that they never tell you is that once Ethel lifts the car off junior, she is normally in the hospital for soft tissue and muscle damage!! 
    People who suffer electrocution, many times have broken bones—the electricity caused such a huge contraction of muscle, that it literally broke their bones it is rumored.
    I think the only other case of lung anatomical changes was in competitive, very young swimmers who exhaled out under water.   The theory was that this high "load" was placed on their body at time when it was more plastic.  I have not seen this confirmed in the literature.   Some very interesting work by Dempsey on respiratory muscle training too.  
    I would suspect there to be anatomical changes in a positive direction with training since we know there are changes in disease  processes like COPD (just going in the wrong direction).  I will save you a lecture on lung mechanics regarding FRC, TV and all the other fun things I know you learned.   if you look at it from an efficiency stand point, anatomical changes are the LAST to happen.  This is true in a disease process so I would suspect this is true in high end performance then too.
    Is there a part 2 or your practical conclusions for training?  I would love to see it!
    My thoughts are that the safety mechanisms are there for a very good reason and trying to "out smart" them is not a good idea long term.    Work the athletes just inside their current abilities and those abilities get better.   
    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  2. Sam Leahey says:

    I agree. I literature seems to support that the principle of symmorphosis hold true for the respiratory cascade, except, the lungs where most structural redundancy is found in the least trained. I don’t really think there is a take away from this message per say. I simply view it as a way to understand the mechanisms of our training. We can impact the rest of oxygen delivery pathways for sure, while lets letting the “limit strength” adapt on its own. Also, I hope I didn’t imply that “hysterical strength” training was a good idea. On the contrary! Just another concept to help better understand the mechanisms of training.

    All the best,

  3. Lance Goyke says:

    This post is simply about structurally using the lungs more (in my mind, I envision this as filling the lungs to a greater capacity), not about optimizing oxygen uptake from the alveoli, am I correct?

  4. Sam Leahey says:

    A bit of both my man. It’s simply meant for us to appreciate the respiratory cascade and the changing parts that come from training.

    All the best,

  5. Thanks Sam.  You may find this study interesting….
    Impaired response to deep inspiration in obesity

    Gwen Skloot1
    Clyde Schechter2
    Alpa Desai1, and 
    Alkis Togias

    June 2011, doi:10.​1152/​japplphysiol.​01155.​2010Journal of Applied PhysiologySeptember 2011 vol. 111no. 3 726-734
    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

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