HEAD OVER HEELS: UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS RESEARCHER IMPROVES ATHLETIC POWER BY TRAINING MIND AND MUSCLES
SYDNEY, Australia — A University of Arkansas researcher is training athletes around the world to increase their explosive power and performance not by bodybuilding or cross training but by tapping into the most powerful part of the human body — the brain.
For more than 20 years, Dr. Barry Brown has dedicated his work to the development of athletic power. His research has produced a revolutionary training system for explosive power conditioning, provided a tool to assess athletes’ risks of injury, and proven that pure physical might is often a case of mind over matter.
On Monday, Nov. 1, Brown and colleague Lori Turner will present a portion of this research to the Fifth Olympic World Congress on Sport Sciences in Sydney, Australia. Brown has presented various aspects of his work at three previous Olympic conferences. This year he will address many of the world’s elite sports scientists, trainers, physicians and coaches.
"It all began with rats," Brown said.
In the late 1960s, Brown and a colleague at Michigan State University were involved in research to assess and improve anaerobic performance in rodents.
"We developed a special high-jump system and were able to train rats to leap as high as two and a half feet," said Brown. "That’s comparable to a human jumping 100 feet."
Several years later, Brown applied the same concepts to see if they could improve vertical jump in human athletes. Through the early 1980s, Brown’s concept evolved from a theoretical approach to a sophisticated training apparatus that melds the physiological and psychological elements of athletic power into a system of sports-related exercise drills.
He named his system The Exploder, and since it’s introduction to the market a decade ago, more than140 teams around the nation have adopted the system to train their athletes. Among these teams are the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia '76ers.
Brown focused his research on vertical jump because it provides the most accurate and commonly-used measure of explosive physical power. Prior to the Exploder, only two methods existed to assess vertical jump — the Sargent wall jump, in which athletes leap and slap their hand at the highest possible point on a wall, and the Vertec machine, in which athletes jump to displace a horizontal bar.
"The problem with these systems is that they have nothing to do with sports — athletes can’t relate them to what they do on the field," said Brown. "The Exploder tests and trains explosive power with a sport-specific, goal-oriented system that engages both mind and body in the training process."
Brown’s system consists of an adjustable arm that can be raised in increments as the athlete improves his or her jump. At the end of the arm, a basketball, football, soccerball or volleyball is suspended on a retractable cord. From a flatfooted stance, the athlete leaps and grasps the ball, pulling it down and toward the body.
This process precisely simulates the action that an athlete would execute during play. It
creates a mental link between training and performance that enables the athlete to transfer skills easily from machine to field. Further, it can be used as a tool to teach proper jumping form.
However, the Exploder does not just coordinate mental and muscular processes. Its real innovation is that it enables athletes to consciously and physically change the way their brains respond to certain stimuli.
To an extent, a normal person’s strength is monitored and controlled by the brain. When an individual recruits muscles to lift or leap, the brain and central nervous system release two neurotransmitters — or messenger chemicals — called glycine and gamma amino buteric acid (GABA).
These chemicals weaken the signal that travels from nerve cells to muscle cells, thereby limiting the person from lifting an object so heavy that it causes injury. However in times of great stress, the brain refrains from releasing these neurotransmitters, enabling people to perform acts of great strength that may help to ensure their survival.
Brown theorized that if athletes could condition their brains either to release smaller amounts of glycine and GABA or to release stimulating chemicals such as acetylcholine and norepinephrine, then their muscles would react by performing at a higher capacity.
He found that the combination of visualization, mental focus, motivation, goal-setting and physical training strongly correlated with peak muscle performance, and he designed his machine to incorporate all of these elements.
The results are rapid and significant. In just five weeks, a 240-pound college football player increased his vertical leap by six inches, from 32 to 38. And after one year of training on the Exploder system, a University of Arkansas basketball player added 9 inches to his jump shot.
In addition to improving sports performance, the Exploder system has opened opportunities for risk-assessment at both the professional and amateur level.
For the past three and a half years, Brown and his research team have traveled the nation,
using the Exploder to collect data from more than 6,600 men and women between the ages of 6 and 79. His dataset represents the most comprehensive look at explosive power ever taken.
"Very little research has been done on the benefits of anaerobic exercise — activities that require a great deal of power and strength," said Brown. "More and more people are staying active as they get older. By assessing their capacity for explosive power, we can predict how likely they are to suffer sports-related injuries, and we can develop training programs that keep them in peak condition without overtaxing their bodies.
"We’re only just beginning to realize all the applications of this training system."
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