Intent to Move: The secret of explosive athletes

When people think of power, they tend to think of Olympic lifting or plyometrics. This means a lot of people miss an important trick: you can train power while performing strength lifts by capitalising on the concept of intent to move.

Have you every tried to pick up something you thought would be heavy, and then were surprised by how violently you lifted it? This is your brain using past experience to predict how much effort it should use to perform a task. Speed, strength, and power are ultimately outputs of your brain.

When training for improved athleticism, how you approach the work can be just as important as the execution. By thinking about moving fast, it is possible to get faster, whether or not your lifting was fast or not.

The theory of intent to move suggests that by focusing on the intention to move as fast as possible (despite not actually moving fast) we can improve the nervous system's 'power pathways'. This leads to quicker activation of our biggest most explosive muscle fibers, faster rate coding of action potentials, and increased motor unit synchronisation. It's like a Jedi mind trick!

So how does this work?

Henneman's size principle

Motor units are made up of the muscle cells and neural fibre that innervates them. Our body is full of small, medium, and large motor units, with their size determined by position in the body, our genetics, and training background. No matter the task, the nervous system recruits them from smallest to biggest, which makes sense, as it is trying to conserve energy; the big units will only kick in if the small ones aren't getting it done. 

By trying to lift explosively, you can effectively trick the nervous system into over recruiting the biggest most explosive units for every rep, training them to be more effective in sports situations where they can really help.

Accelerated rate coding

Rate coding is the speed at which the brain sends action potentials (the electro-chemical signals that initiate movement). The goal of strength, speed, and power training is to send as many signals as quickly as possible. By focusing on the speed of the movement when lifting heavy loads, the brain learns to rate code faster, and this can help you break through the sticking point and lifting heavier weights and generating more force.

Improved synchronisation

Synchronisation occurs when multiple action potentials reach the motor unit at the same time (or very close together). Although only a small factor in terms of the amount of load you can lift, it has significant influence on both the speed of movements, and the elastic ability of the muscles.

By using intent to move in your training, you can improve strength at the same time as working on power development, despite the velocity of the movement staying the same. It is the mindset and intention to move as fast as possible that improves transfer into your sport.

Tips for using intent to move

Use big compound lifts

Squats, deadlifts, (corelifts with a hex-bar are best), and bench press have the greatest carry-over into sporting movements such as sprinting, jumping, and throwing.

Avoid fatigue

If you are tired, there is zero chance of this being effective. We like at least 3-4 minutes of rest between sets to replenish the ATP-PC stores, and also for calcium re-sequestering in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. This is crucial to get the most out of each and every action potential from the nervous system.

External cues & internal self-talk

Instead of thinking about positions, or joints, let the mind think about what it needs to do, and let it create fluid forceful movements. Here are some of our favourites:

  • 'Tear the ground apart' - This really gets you engaging the external hip rotators improving glute activation.
  • 'Crush the bar' - as we squeeze harder on the bar, the muscles of the arm, shoulders, and ultimately the core are activated. This improves shoulder stability, and also gets the core working to protect the spine and keep a neutral position throughout the movement.
  • 'Drive the floor away' - Instead of thinking about the bar moving up, think about pushing the earth away from you. It is incredibly powerful image that improves posterior chain activation. 

Check out the video below for more details, and comment below if you've got any questions or let us know about your own experience of using intent to move in your training.