T Nation

'Central Govenor Theory' Applicable to Strength Training?


The central governor theory is well known in running circles, but less so in the world of strength training I think.

To sumarize, the theory is that when your muscles tire and you're no longer able to keep up your work rate (so strength declines as you progress with your sets) it's not because of anything physical. Rather it's the mind choosing to 'shut you down' by, for example, making fewer muscle fibers available to you. The reason it does this is to stop you from damaging yourself through over-exertion. It's not a conscious thing, and it can't be overcome through will power. You can however trick it.

Now of course the body has real limits, and training will increase what the body is capable of. But as well as the physical gains through training there are massive gains to be made simply by 'reassuring' the central governor and tricking it into freeing up more resources.

The central governor is always stingy with resources because it's evolved to hold something back for real emergencies. So for example, stone age man might think his life depends upon catching the antelope for his dinner and worthy of 100% effort, but something has to be held back for a more pressing emergency - an attacking lion for example!

I'm a big believer that something like this is at play in all aspects of physical activity and training. To me I think this (or something like it) is THE most important consideration in training. And the reason why armed forces/martial arts training etc often gets better results than methods based upon sports science.

Just wondered what other peoples thoughts/experiences are in relation to this. It was CT's latest article that got me thinking about it (I think his article is spot on re the pros and cons of going all out - the key is finding the right balance....and learning to trick the central govenor).


When in the history of the world has this EVER happened? Has someone ever beaten a world record in any athletic endeavor training like that? Running? Lifting? Professional sports? Anything?


when i was in college we read an article about a mountain climber got his foot stuck between 2 boulders,,basically the article read that he lifted 1 of the boulders or rolled it off his foot,,i think he tore his biceps and some shoulder muscles doing it basically he would have died on the mountain and between adrenalin/muscle fibers 100% he moved it ..they went back after and it weighed 2 tonnes or something...there are other examples of this allot with mothers saving there children and things like that..


World records largely come down to genetics. Only the toughest - mentally and physically - get through to high level competition. You don't hear about the majority that are failed by the popular training methods of the day. The army don't train people to excel in sports - but the training gives them something very valuable that would equip them to excel in sports. Mental toughness.

I remember a TV program several years ago here in the UK. They took two teams of people at random off the street and trained them up to compete in a series of challenges. One group was trained by a team of sports scientists and the other by the army. The challenges included things like cycling, swimming, running and so on - with a final tough endurance challenge at the end. The sports science team were way ahead by the time it came to the final challenge. They'd won pretty much everything and on top of that the army trained team were carrying a few injuries. On paper they didn't stand a chance of winning - yet win they did! When it came to the tough challenge the mental strength that the army emphasis paid off. Despite their injuries they won the challenge with a big enough margin to win the whole thing.

This was just one TV program - it could have been a fluke. But it's what I see in people that have either armed forces or martial arts training. Not just the odd one, but all of them that have seriously gone through that kind of training. A mental toughness that often trumps skill, strength, endurance, speed and so on. Of course, the ideal is to have both - to find the perfect blend.


Yes - finding the super-human strength to lift a car off someone for example.

The Central Govenor theory gets really interesting when you look at ways to trick it into freeing up these extra resources on demand. Consider identical twins with the same physical potential. If one learns to 'control' the central govenor he could potentially outperform his twin by a huge margin. Not only by being able to deliver more in a contest, but also by being able to train harder all year round.

How much of what we perceive to be physical limitation are in fact just in our minds?


Great subject! I think there's two governers at play. There's the 7 minute mile type, sort of the "I never believed I could do it so I didn't, " governer, then the body screaming "Don't get broken!" Governer.

The first is easier to overcome with visualization and basic progressive loading. The second, I'm running against training for strongman events. Hugging an atlas stone invariably rounds your back so I've had stones I missed becuase I'm mentally conditioned to stop a lift if my back isn't DL perfect. With farmers and yokes I can feel my body rejecting heavy loads and I feel like its harder fighting that urge to drop than it is to physically lift and move the weight. The first couple of weeks were gaining mental fortitude before I think I started getting physically stronger. I've found thaf my psyched-up sweet spot has shifted becuase of this. I'm less agressive but more focused and centered--almost mentally distant during the actual lift.


I think the human body may have some type of safety mechanisms built in in regard to self presevation that possibly this theory addresses - the overriding of such mechanisms. Still, at the end of the day, I thoroughly believe that the human body is only capable of so much (even if we assume optimal training, nutrition, genetics, PEDs..) and all the wishful thinking in the world won't allow you to run a 2 minute mile, or benchpress 10x your bodyweight.



This and even in the fact he moved the boulder the body was broken after. Have fun trying to do anything after that.

But the fact remains why is this in the bigger stronger leaner? In what way is this harnessed to make the body bigger stronger and leaner? Haven't seen anyone train themselves into oblivion and have a body that personally I would want. They can do amazing things that I respect no doubt


Dang missed this. But yes


What is it with the "Bigger stronger leaner" police?? LOL

Because understanding the role of the mind in training and using tricks or techniques to get it to free up more resources allows you to increase your 1RM, run faster, increase your max reps. All of these things can contribute to getting bigger, stronger and leaner.

The central govenor theory doesn't assume that it's ALL in the mind. Rather that resources are made available depending upon a mix of physical, mental and environmental factors.

So for example, the govenor might monitor humidity, temperature, emotional state, current fitness levels and determine what effort level can be maintained for the time needed to reach your goal. It will free up the appropriate resources to allow you to function at the level deemed safe - but no more. So it's not physical fitness stopping you from pushing harder - your central govenor has simply restricted recruitment of muscle fibers and so on to keep you within a limit that it deems appropriate to the task in hand.

I don't know if anyone has noticed that if they're about to do 3 reps at a given weight it can often be easier if you convince yourself you're only doing 1 rep. That's how we always trained in martial arts - many reps, but perform each one as if it's the ONLY one you're doing that day. It makes a difference - suddenly you have more strength - more muscle fibers firing. That's just a simple example though.

If you learn to trick the central govenor you have the power to free up more resources and get more work done. So for example, in competition (oly lifting, powerlifting, strongman) you don't want to be holding something back 'just in case'. You want to be capable of giving your all when it counts.

But also in training. It's not a question of taking your body beyond safe limits every time you train. More about having the power to take control and make informed decisions as to what's an appropriate level to train at given your knowledge of your body and of your long term training strategy.


Sure if you want to name it that but if you want to talk martial arts combat and military training there is a combat forum seems like that type of stuff would be better suited there?

I certainly agree with learning how to train hard just don't see it like you do I guess. But it seems like our training is about as different as it can get considering your goals are not even close to something I'd ever want. Yet I have a great amount of respect for it. Just don't strive for it