Geek Alert

Want to know what happens went we complete functional movements and have to concentrate on the movement of one part of the body while we move another? Then this post is for you.

Now bear with me as I explain this extremely complex process as simply as I can.
Basically is all comes down to Neuroplasticity. This is the ability of different parts of our brain to connect with each other. Think of newborn baby. Their brain is a blank canvas and over time it begins to learn movements like staying upright, bringing hands into the midline of their body and co-ordination of reaching and grabbing, while allowing their core muscles to contract while other muscles lengthen.  Neuroplasticity of reaching would mean connecting the neurons (nerves that control firing of muscles in the brain) between their abdominal muscles and their arm muscles. Both sets of muscles fire (communicate together) but one fires consistently, maintaining balance while the other fires by lengthening the bicep and contracting the triceps resulting in the completion of the task of reaching. Muscles that fire together wire together.

Now for the Science Part

Anatomy of a Neuron

The brain is a web of neurons that are connected together by dendrites (long wires structures). The neurons end in axons where they connect of other axons via synapses. The electrical impulses, that cross over from axon to axon via neurotranmitters (there are many neurotransmitters but we will concentrate on the major ones used for mood and emotional wellbeing – serotonin and dopamine) released in the synapses, fire up these neurons and allow the imlpuses to cross over to each other. All this results in a web of connections that allows our brain to move multiple parts of our body in different manners.

List of Neurotransmitters

Neural connections are increased between parts of the brain when we fire them at the same time.  When you learn a new skill like writing, which is completely unique to every individual, we fire multiple neurons from the shoulder elbow wrist and fingers for control of the pen. When we first learn to write, the outcome is a squiggles in the forms of letters. This is because the neuronal connection between shoulder elbow wrist and fingers are low. Practicing writing refines the movements and thus the skill of writing increases the neuronal connections in our brain. Hey presto our writing becomes faster and legible (for some people). Increased use of this neural network leads to an imprint in your brain of this skill know as long term potentiation or ‘LTP”. (Skill learning/acquisition)

What does this mean?

This is the basis of learning any skill. Establish a connection in various parts of the brain. Have we all heard of dopamine? The neurotransmitter than lights up our brain and increases our mood and gives us a feeling of achievement and euphoria. Think when you hit a really good golf shot or score a goal or hit a personal best. You feel good and feel achieved because the correct sequence of muscle contractions release an increased amount of neurotransmitters combined with feeling of complishment releases more dopamine.

So what regulates these neurotransmitters?

Brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. This encourages connections between neurons and is important in brain plasticity (ability of brain to learn). Dopamine release increases the release of BDNF. When we feel a sense of achievement- Like the great golf shot you hit- dopamine is released, this releases BDNF which encourages new connections to form and when we repeatedly feel good and repeat more and more great golf shots we gain confidence. In neuroscience world this is known as a cemented neural pathway. Confident people have been shown to have higher levels of dopamine and serotonin than people who suffer from depression or low self esteem. This is because they have more neurons firing, which in turn means more synapses firing, which in turn means more dopamine and serotonin.

Are you still with me?

Lastly the cementation of these neural pathways encourages nerve growth factor and a positive circle of neurotransmitter release occurs and continues. Think of nerve growth factor as a chemical released to encourage new neurons to form and BDNF encourages those nerves to hold hands ultimately leading to more neurotransitters being released and the feeling of euphoria or happiness.


In summary, to learn a skill you need to establish connections in different parts of the brain.  Neurons branch out to connect to other neurons as your learn the skill. As we get better at the skill more dopamine and serotonin are releases as more neurons are firing together. As more neurons fire more Neurotorphic growth factors are released which grow more neurons. These neurons reach out to each other to “hold Hands” via the release of BDNF.

How does this tie in with functional exercises?

Take for example a bicep curl in seated position. The only real muscles that are firing on a high level are the biceps. Your core is being supported by the seat and the back of the seat is encouraging you to isolate your bicep. Now change this to standing bicep curl. Your neuronal connection increases, as you have to contend with shift in weight due to the movement of the dumbbell or barbell in your hand (more muscle shave to fire to complete the task in standing than in sitting).
Now change that to a bicep curl in a lung position with knee on the ground. More neurons must fire in order compensate for the elongated stance position. Here your Vestibular system (balance system) must pipe up to contend with the elongated stance, narrow base of support, weight shift and momentum of the dumbbell or barbell. You see the picture how different positions fire more and more neurons depending on how functional and challenging you make the exercise

3 systems of balance

So how do I incorporate this in my exercises routine?

Unless you have an extremely well designed program that you run 7 days a week you will struggle to stimulate the majority of your neuronal connections doing isolation exercises such as the seated bicep curl or seated dumbbell press or shoulder press. Change it up, do standing exercises to stimulate your core neuronal connections.  Do functional movements. (insertion examples of functional movements)

<4>Break down Bar facing burpee

Lets break down over the bar facing burpees. See link https://youtu.be/KR65vNxss-4

1.) Your drop to the ground stimulating your chest shoulder core and gluteal neurons.

2.) Chest to floor maintaining form, forces these neuronal connections to fire simultaneously (dopamine and serotonin production)_

3.) You draw your knees in to place your feet outside your hand in a deep squat position. Here your fire your abdominals glutes quads and calf muscles – more dopamine and serotonin release.

4.) Now you jump over the bare and turning around 180 degrees. This forces your vestibular system to work harder to compensate for the momentum jumping and adjusts your muscle contraction to compensate for the turning motion, this fires more neurons thus more dopamine and serotonin. It also increases your spatial awareness (Where your body is in space).

And the process repeats itself with the more reps your do.


So the take home points for your exercise plan are as follows:


• Learn a new movement each week

• Incorporate whole body jumping rotations into your program such as bar facing burpees to stimulate your vestibular system.  Or inverted exercises such as the handstand or wall walk if you are still learning.

• Do isolation exercises in standing. You wont be able to lift as much weight but you will increase the connection between your lower limbs and core into your upper limb exercises while increasing your balance.

• Challenge your body. Routine is a brain killer, stimulate your brain by learning.

• Your body is a system of neuronal connections. Train the entire system by challenging the entire system