Athlete Readiness 101: How To Monitor The Central Nervous System


Regardless of the sport an athlete is training for, the possibility of training beyond their means via under-recovering or increased volume and intensity is almost guaranteed.

With this in mind many coaches and athletes are looking for ways to measure their daily training capacity so they can make adjustments to programs to optimize performance. The goal is always to maximize the return on investment and work smarter not just harder.

But this is easier said then done. How can a coach or athlete distinguish between emotion and physical readiness?

Many times an athlete might be willing but the body is not, and vice versa.

To understand this we have to take a look at the central nervous system and all the sub-systems that make up the complex of nerve tissues that control the activities of the body.

Understanding The Nervous System

The Central Nervous System (CNS) is the processing center of the body with the brain being the center of the CNS; this is where everything happens. The spinal cord sends signals to and from the brain and body in a continuous loop that allows the body and brain to make adjustments and calculations in real time.

The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) connects the central nervous system to the limbs and organs. The peripheral nervous system has two parts, the somatic and autonomic. The somatic controls voluntary activates like skeletal muscles and anything that you can voluntarily control, while the autonomic controls involuntary actions like heart rate, breathing and body functions.


The autonomic nervous system has two subdivisions; the sympathetic and parasympathetic:

  • The sympathetic nervous system is involved in the fight or flight response you feel during a big game or in a stressful situation.
  • The para-sympathetic nervous system comes into play during rest. This system takes over when a person starts slowing things down to calm the world.

All of these systems work together to assist you in your daily activities, but problems arise when we start to favor or cheat one system to advance our own needs.

For example, athletes, and most people on the planet, don’t sleep and calm things down nearly enough. So the para-sympathetic nervous system never gets a chance to take over. Stimulants like coffee, ephedrine and energy drinks allow us to tap into our sympathetic nervous system and stay in a constant fight or flight state. The result is an over-taxed sympathetic nervous system and under utilized para-sympathetic nervous system which can lead to fatigue and poor training.


The balancing of the autonomic nervous system becomes vital for athletic performance as an athlete has to “get up” for competition to do their best but then return to a state of relaxation once away from the competition to begin the recovery process.

A Dead Simple Way To Measure Athlete Readiness

Today there are many methods available to measure these systems like BioForce HRV and Omegawave.  These programs take measurements via different methods to assess an athlete’s recovery to recommend appropriate training volumes and intensities.

Unfortunately, these methods have only come into play in recent years and were not the methods my coaches used to measure readiness at certain points in training.

The most useful tool I have used to gauge readiness is a dynamometer.

A hand held unit, the dynamometer is a device that allows you to measure your grip strength. The device has a grip for your fingers and a small display that when you apply force and squeeze the grip, the amount of force being applied will register and show on the screen. There is a direct correlation between grip strength and the "readiness" of the central nervous system.

Here is how we did it back in my playing days:

  • We would measure our grip strength first thing in the morning when we were recovered and had a good nights sleep in order to get a baseline. This number would become our recovery threshold.
  • Before each training session we would use the dynamometer to test our readiness before training to see how recovered our central nervous system was going into the training session.

Now there might be other factors that are affecting your grip, like a bruise in your arm from football practice, but for the most part it was a useful tool assuming your athlete is trying his hardest on each squeeze of the dynamometer.

The problem we ran into was if we waited for when we were fully recovered to train, we would not be able to do the volume of work needed to be successful in a team environment.

The other thing I found was the days I felt the worst and had less then optimal scores on the dynamometer turned out to be some of my best training days.

New Call-to-action

How To Adjust The Athletes Training

I believe a coach should have a plan for each training day but be flexible enough to make changes if he sees his athlete is struggling. This works the other way where if an athlete is having a great day, you should have enough flexibility to allows them to push their training.

I have never been a fan of classic periodization as I never understood how the person writing the program would guarantee that on that given day you would be prepared to make your best progress.

I am a believer in what I call inherent periodization where an athlete has flexibility to make changes to volume and intensity based on how they are feeling on that given day.

This is where we find what I have dubbed “gambler sets” where I ask athletes to set rep max PRs in relation to previous lifts.

For example, if my athlete works to up a heavy 3 rep max for the day, I will ask them to do a max rep set with 80% of that 3 rep max. I can gauge their progress and readiness based off the rep max and the number of reps in the subsequent set. This allows me to make changes to that workout and subsequent workouts to allow for either more recovery or more work.

About The Author

John Welbourn is the founder of CrossFit Football and Power Athlete. He's a 10-year NFL vet turned strength and conditioning expert.