CNS Training: 4 Ways To Activate Your Central Nervous System Prior To Working Out

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An often-overlooked component of working out, particularly when you are going to be hitting the weights for a heavy strength training workout, is the central nervous system, or CNS.

CNS activation prior to a workout and CNS training within your training program can help you get the most out of your workouts to maximize your gains and achieve your fitness goals.

But, what is CNS activation? What is CNS training or a CNS workout? How can central nervous system training improve your workout performance?

In this article, we will discuss the role of the central nervous system in exercise and then provide examples of some of the best CNS activation exercises and CNS training protocols to add to your workout program.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Is the Central Nervous System (CNS)?
  • Benefits of Doing a CNS Training Activation Warm-Up
  • What Are the Best CNS Primers Before a Workout?

Let’s jump in! 

A person in a gym doing a plyometric box jump.

What Is the Central Nervous System (CNS)? 

Before we dive into central nervous system activation exercises prior to a workout, let’s do a quick review of anatomy and physiology, refreshing what the central nervous system is and what it does in the body.

The central nervous system, commonly referred to by its shortened acronym—the CNS— is one of the two primary parts of the nervous system, the other being the peripheral nervous system.

The central nervous system is composed of the brain and spinal cord.

As a whole, the nervous system is responsible for relaying all sensory and motor information to and from the brain and body via the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.

The peripheral nervous system sends sensory information from receptors on the periphery of the body (in the appendages or anywhere other than the brain and spinal cord) back to the central nervous system.

A person doing an agility ladder drill.

This information, such as temperature, pain, pressure, and stretch, is then processed by the central nervous system.

The central nervous system then relays different signals back to the body to respond to the stimuli.

For example, if you touch a hot stove, thermoreceptors, which are temperature receptors, and nociceptors, which are pain receptors in the hand, will send sensory information to the brain about the painful, burning stimuli.

The central nervous system will then relay motor (movement) information down the arm that will cause the muscles to contract and move the elbow and wrist to pull the hand away from the burning stove.

Benefits of Doing a CNS Training Activation Warm-Up

While the central nervous system will interpret and respond to lots of different stimuli, one of the chief functions of the central nervous system is to initiate muscle contractions during your workouts.

For this reason, activating the central nervous system through targeted CNS activation exercises or CNS workouts prior to exercise can help “wake up” or prime the CNS to be at the ready for your workout.

Two people doing lunges.

This, in turn, can help facilitate more coordinated, efficient, and responsive muscle firing and movement patterns during your workout.

Because CNS activation exercises help prime your central nervous system and motor units to fire for a workout, central nervous system activation workouts can be called CNS primers.

Essentially, the central nervous system functions as the control center or command center for moving your body.

While action potentials (nervous system electrical signals that are transmitted from the brain or spinal cord down motor neurons to the muscle fibers) usually only take a fraction of a second to conduct, CNS activation warm-ups help key up the neuromuscular system to help your motor units get ready for exercise.

Much in the same way that a cardio warm-up helps gradually guide heart rate up from resting levels to the high heart rates during an intense workout, CNS activation exercises or a CNS activation workout helps get the brain and spinal cord ready to fire action potentials.

This results in more rapid, efficient, and coordinated muscle contractions to help you get the move out of your body for maximal squats, deadlifts, plyometrics, bench presses, or other heavy lifts or strength training workouts.

A person doing a band pull apart.

How to Activate Your CNS Before a Workout

So, what are the best CNS primers or CNS activation exercises to improve performance before a workout?

The good news is that CNS primer warm ups don’t have to be super specific to be effective.

When you think about warming up before a workout, certain aspects of the warm-up should be more or less specific versus generalized, depending on the workout on deck and the portion of the workout.

For example, a cardio warm-up can be any type of aerobic exercise that helps increase your heart rate, so it is rather non-specific, especially when warming up for weight lifting.

However, you may also do activation exercises as part of your weightlifting warm up

For example, you might do a lunge matrix prior to a squat workout, or you might do a warm up set of squats with 50% of your target load for your top heavy set.

A person doing walking lunges on a track.

These activation exercises are specific and tailored to the strength training workout you are going to be doing. 

In other words, you wouldn’t do a lunge matrix prior to an upper-body pull or push routine, but you might do inchworms or walkouts, overhead reaches with a resistance band, shoulder clocks, or bodyweight push-ups, for example.

CNS primer warmups fall somewhere in the middle of being very general, like the cardio portion of a workout, and very precise such as the activation exercises you select in your weightlifting warm-up.

Depending on the type of workout on deck and how long you have to do a CNS warm up routine, you might just do a few general CNS primers and then one or two more specific CNS activation exercises based on the lifts or exercises in your strength training workout.

What Are the Best CNS Primers Before a Workout?

So, what makes for a good CNS primer exercise or CNS activation exercise?

A person using visualization in the gym to warm uo.

In general, any movement that requires rapid, explosive contractions will get your CNS firing and ready for optimal performance.

Moreover, even just using your mind to visualize the exercises and movement patterns you are going to be doing can be a great way to start turning on the central nervous system and preparing your body to perform well.

Here are a few examples of some of the best CNS activation exercises for strength training workouts:

#1: Visualization

As mentioned, even just visualizing success with the specific lifts on your training plan for the day can be a great way to begin your CNS primer warm up routine.

In fact, studies have found that athletes who visualize themselves performing a movement pattern successfully prior to actually doing the movement have better coordination, faster reaction times, and improved performance.

Take a minute or two to close your eyes, envision yourself dominating your target exercises in your workout, and think about the sticking points or hard parts for you and how you will overcome them.

A person running through an agility ladder.

#2: Agility Ladders

Agility exercises require rapid changes in direction, which involve precise, coordinated neuromuscular activation.

Agility ladder drills, agility zig-zag drills with cones, single-leg jumping rope, single-leg side-to-side hops, and other such agility exercises are one of the most effective CNS activation exercises to include in your CNS priming warm-ups.

#3: Plyometrics

Plyometric exercises require rapid, explosive force development by activating the stretch-shortening cycle of musculotendinous units prior to creating force.

The best CNS workouts prepare the central nervous system for the rapid firing of motor units, so explosive exercises like jump squats, burpees, jumping rope, jumping lunges, mountain climbers, wall ball slams, skaters, clapping push-ups for upper body strength training workouts, and low box jumps can be a great way to prime the CNS.

Research has found that these types of movements can be a highly-effective component of a well-rounded athletic warm up.

Just make sure that you have already done a thorough cardio warm-up and some dynamic stretches prior to engaging in explosive plyometrics to make sure that your muscles are warm.

The skater, a plyometric exercise.

#4: Light Weight Warm-Up Sets

Studies have found that using a little bit of weight, as little as 50% of your 1RM, can be an effective way to activate the CNS to stimulate better power output.

Consider adding exercises like kettlebell swings, walking lunges with light dumbbells, medicine ball squats, and assisted pull-ups to your CNS training warm-up routines.

You can also do bodyweight exercises and calisthenics like bodyweight squats, push-ups, walking lunges, squat holds, step-ups, calf raises, toe walks, heel walks, and dips.

For more ideas about how to effectively prep your body for a workout, check out our guide to how to warm up before weightlifting here.

Two people doing the windmill exercise to warm up.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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