Neuro-Muscular Development (NMD) for Legs

As an athlete, there are two different types of training. First is a bodybuilding style where your focus is primarily on the muscles. Performance doesn’t really matter in terms of building your speed, reactive ability, etc. What matters is that your muscles are getting bigger through high tension exercises.

Then there’s performance development. With this style of training the primary goal isn’t bigger muscles. Sure, you can enlarge your muscles with performance training if the parameters are right. However, when you’re training for performance you’re basically training your nerves. In other words, simply making your muscles bigger won’t make you explode off the line faster or jump higher.

Both types of training have their place whether or not you’re an athlete. For athletes, rate of force development (RFD) reigns king, as I mentioned in my previous post. RFD is your ability to quickly reach peak levels of force. This requires “nerve training.”

Now, gaining mass through a bodybuilding style of training won’t make you reach your peak force faster, but it can help you develop higher levels of force. There’s a positive correlation between cross sectional area (muscle mass) and force production if you hypertrophy the right muscle fibers. This requires “muscle training.”

So through science and my own data with athletes I’ve developed a system of training that takes advantage of muscle and nerve training. Enlarging the muscles enables you to reach higher levels of force, while enhancing the nerve transmission helps you reach those higher levels of force faster.

I took the three ways science demonstrates that you can improve RFD and manipulated the parameters enough to grow your largest muscle fibers. This training will be known from here on as my NMD system, which stands for Neuro-Muscular Development.

I want to continue with the leg training example I gave in my previous post. Why the emphasis on the legs at first? Because that’s where most of your full body explosive power comes from.

The NMD system consists of three different types of training in a specific order for each workout. You’ll start with a sensorimotor (balance) exercise, followed by a ballistic or plyometric exercise, and finish up with a maximal strength exercise.

Balance Strength
For the legs, there are many ways to challenge your balance. For some, standing on one leg without shoes on a padded surface for 20-30 seconds is enough. Better conditioned athletes can stand on one leg and move their opposite leg around in a 180 degree motion from front to back with their eyes closed.

I have my athletes make the single leg balance more difficult by using a balance beam. They stand on one leg and perform a 1/4 squat in order to make the exercise more dynamic. Not so dynamic that it loses sight of the focus of developing balance, but dynamic enough to increase the challenge of the exercise.

Importantly, the balance portion of the NMD system isn’t supposed to make you tired. The purpose is to enhance sensory feedback between the muscles and spinal cord which sets you up for more powerful contractions in the ballistic exercise that follows.

Here’s a sample of me doing the single leg balance squat. You’ll start with three reps for the right, then three reps for the left. Next is two reps for each leg, followed by one rep with each leg.

The sequence in the video takes most people around 40 seconds to complete (20 seconds of total time under tension for each leg). Perform three sets of the sequence with one minute of rest between each.

Ballistic/Plyometric Strength
Ballistic and plyometric training are similar in the sense that they both use submaximal loads for fast, explosive muscle contractions. The difference, however, is that plyometric exercises always rely on the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). For example, jumping up to a high box and then stepping off is a ballistic exercise. On the other hand, quickly jumping up and down with minimal ground contact time is a plyometric exercise.

I always start my athletes, or anyone who is new to the NMD system, with a ballistic exercise because it consists of lower impact forces and it’s less fatiguing. Remember, this part of the workout is followed by a maximal strength exercise with enough volume to hypertrophy the targeted muscles so fatigue must be managed. The goal of this part of the workout is to potentiate the nervous system, not fatigue it.

Here’s a video of me demonstrating the high box jump. Since I don’t immediately jump down and quickly reverse the movement, it’s a ballistic exercise.

You’ll notice in the video that the box I’m jumping on is padded. This helps reduce the impact forces even more. I know virtually none of you will have access to such a large, padded box, but don’t sweat it. I use it because I have access to it. Any elevated, solid surface will work.

Perform 3 reps in a row (step down between each rep), then rest for one minute. Perform 5 sets of 3 reps with one minute rest between each set.

Maximal Strength
This is the most straightforward part of the workout so it needs little explanation. You’ll use any lower body strength exercise and perform 3-8 sets of 3 reps. If the athlete is weak and needs plenty more maximal strength I’ll do 3 sets of 3 reps in order to keep the load as high as possible. If hypertrophy with a secondary emphasis on strength is the greater goal, I might do 8 sets.

For 3×3 I’ll use one exercise such as the front squat. Rest three minutes between each set. If hypertrophy is what I’m after I’ll use 8 sets and often alternate between two exercises such as the front squat and glute/ham raise (4 sets of each). Rest 90 seconds between each set when alternating between two different exercises.

Here are two examples of the NMD for Legs workout:

NMD Strength Emphasis
Single leg balance squat for 3/2/1 rep sequence for 3 sets with one minute rest between sets
High box jump for 5 sets of 3 reps with one minute rest between sets
Front squat for 3 sets of 3 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets

NMD Hypertrophy with Strength Emphasis
Single leg balance squat for 3/2/1 rep sequence for 3 sets with one minute rest between sets
High box jump for 5 sets of 3 reps with one minute rest between sets
Front squat/GHR pairing for 8 sets of 3 reps with 90 seconds rest between sets

This should give you enough information to experiment with my new NMD system. Start with the legs and we’ll build from there!

Stay Focused,

18 thoughts on “Neuro-Muscular Development (NMD) for Legs

  1. Very interesting post…..Just curious if this new method will be part of your next book…of course I hope so!…:-)

  2. Chad are then any different warm up requirements or anything i should leave out before starting this type of training?. If i have the time i’ll full body foam roll, stretch my hip flexors, go through a series of activation and mobility exercises rope jump for 60s and hang for 15s. Is this enough or to much?

    CW: No other warm ups required. The balance exercise serves as a perfect warm up.

  3. Very interesting stuff, thank you. I really liked the idea of not counting reps, just using a weight I could lift 4-6 time for the first set and then let the reps and set take care of themselves, stopping when lifting speed declined noticeably. Would you still recommend it here, as I see the maximal strength part of the workout uses sets of 3 reps? Also, 45s rest between front squats and ghr is just too short for maximal strength training, I’m guessing, right? Finally, would 8 sets of front squats alternated with 8 sets of GHR be way too much?

    CW: With maximal loads, you can use a total number of reps but it’s not as important since the amount of possible reps per set doesn’t vary much. 45s might be enough. Try it and see if you can maintain your strength. 16 sets is too much. 8 is plenty with a heavy load.

  4. This looks really cool, hopefully part of your next big product release 🙂 How many warmup sets would you recommend for the maximal strenght lift, if strenght was the main goal? Enough to get to max weight without going over 8 sets?

    CW: You don’t need any warm-up sets because the balance and ballistic exercises already “warmed” you up.

  5. Hey Chad,

    You always put out awesome information. Thanks for always giving it away to us.

    I had one question that is more of a clarification. In your spill over at T-nation a few weeks ago, you wrote about putting explosive movements second. After the heavy strength movement in order to potentiate the explosive movements and get higher readings on your Tendo unit. I read that here:

    It would seem to me, and this is where I’m probably confused, that box jumps and other ballistic/plyo movements would fit in with the area of speed development. Have you tried reversing the order of this and doing maximal/ballistic/balance instead?

    Basically, if speed training should go second, wouldn’t that hold true to the ballistic/plyo as well?

    Thanks for your information and response. It is much appreciated.

    CW: Yep, you caught it. In my blog post on here a few weeks ago I said that I found two different ways to do these workouts. You hit the nail on the head. I’ll cover that version soon.

  6. Hi, Chad. First of all, thanks for the information in the post. I really need it.

    Secondly, would a pairing such as:
    1a) broad jump 3-8×3
    1b) pistols for 3-8×3
    do as good a job? The element of balance and strength for someone who is not that proficient at pistols would allow for strength and balance development to a certain degree, wouldn’t it?

    Of course, the ideal scenario would be doing maximal strength work with the front squats, but I do have certain equipment limitations at my gym and I’m planning to do the plyo work outside.

    CW: That covers the ballistic and max strength components, but it doesn’t hit on balance. Do a few sets of a single leg balance on an unstable surface before the broad jump (a ballistic exercise).

  7. Hi Chad,

    Interesting stuff and nice height on the box jump!

    I might be jumping the gun and a follow up article is no doubt on the way but……

    Would you still suggest programming this in a whole body routine (Pull, Push, Lower Body)? It seems like there would be a lot of work if the upper body also gets broken into 3 exercises (balance, explosive, max strength) with similar volume. Also, does the explosive and then high load training impact the frequency a routine like this should be performed (e.g. less frequently than 3x week)?


    CW: Yes, I still recommend full body training when possible. The current issue of Men’s Health (October) covers the full body routine.

  8. Hi, thanks for the great articles. What do you think about doing strength with plyometric exercise together(superset them).Like set of weighted squat followed immediately with some plyo jumps.

    CW: That can work, but I feel that some max strength exercises (deadlift) probably shouldn’t be alternated with box jumps due to stress on the spine.

  9. Great concepts Chad! If you didn’t have a balance beam would 1/4 rep pistol squats work as the balance portion? I guess you could do those on a block of wood or slightly elevated 2×4 for the garage lifter.

    CW: Yes, any elevated surface that challenges your balance will work.

  10. my triceps are very underdeveloped and my chest and front/mid delts need attention to hypertrophy/ strength… is there anyway to incorporate this style, to upper body pressing movements in order to build mass/ strength fast?

    CW: Yes, it’s covered in the workout that’s published in the current (October) issue of Men’s Health. Also, check out the triceps push-up video

  11. Fantastic article, I’ve used a similar set up of exercises from coordination to power to strength in my training with great success.

    Chad, recently you’ve been posting spills on Tnation about bodyweight training combined with limited weight training that hints at a overall program that I’d be very interested in, since I train primarily for increased athletic ability. Are you going to put out a product based on this concept?

    CW: Yes, that’s my next project.

  12. Chad, what do you mean by thick padded surface? You mentioned it here and in your previouse article. How thick do you mean? And i dont have a wobble board 🙁 how about trying to balanceon a football, although thats really hard….

    CW: Balance on a football? Ha, now that’s tough! Just fold up a large towel so it’s about 4-6″ thick and it’ll do the trick.

  13. In the your most recent magazine article, the lower body balance exercise is a bosu ball 1/4 squat, and a jump lunge for ballistic. Is the balance beam and box jump better or just here for more variety?

    CW: Both will work. I’m just giving you options if you have the beam and large box available.

  14. Hey Chad would you recommend doing this as a workout unto itself or would you add anything? e.g. Upper body work or unilateral leg work.

    CW: Yes, I recommend a full body workout, if you have the time. Men’s Health October issue has the full body routine.

  15. Hi Chad,

    Following on from what Mauricio and Carl discussed above, i’m thinking its possible to set up a total body (legs, push, pull) session, using bodyweight exercises with changes in leverage for the maximal strength part.

    So for legs, like what clement suggested, with your input:

    1a) Balance drill (e.g single leg balance squat, or 180 degree leg rotation with eyes closed, etc.)
    1b) broad jump, or box jump 3-8×3
    1c) pistols for 3-8×3

    For push:

    2a) Hand over Hand drill (similar rep / set scheme to single leg balance squat)
    2b) Ballistic push ups onto elevated surface (i.e weight plates, boxes, etc.), or medicine ball push pass 3-8×3
    2c) 1-arm push ups, or handstand pushups 3-8×3

    For pull:

    3a) 1-leg balance RDL (similar rep / set scheme to single leg balance squat) or wall-walk bridge
    3b) Kip-up, or medicine ball backwards overhead toss 3-8×3
    3c) 1-leg Skaters squat (AKA King Deadlift) 3-8×3

    Forgive me if you already posted something similar in Mens Health because i havent had a chance to read it yet.

    CW: That’s a well-thought out plan, Rob. Good work.

  16. Was wondering if you can answer a few questions im looking at the get even bigger prorgram and im confused I do not understand in how many sets we are suppose to do those exercises example workout A1 load heavy it says 20 total reps with 60 sec break in between but how many sets do we do for those 20 reps? as many as it takes ? thanks for that mate

    CW: The amount of sets doesn’t matter. Start with the recommended load and do as many reps as you can for each set until you reach the target number. That’s the point of the book: replace typical set/rep plans with a target number of reps per exercise. Yes, as many sets as it takes.

  17. then you have chin up and dips each with 20 reps ….I assume that includes the usage of additional weight if yes why doesnt it say so? I feel there’s quiet a lot of basic info missing or maybe im just not getting it!

    CW: Yes, if you can do more than the recommended number of reps for the first set you should add additional weight. There’s no info missing if you read the entire book.

  18. Very interesting article! I love your stuff. My main goal (and I have several) is increasing my vertical. I’m currently at about 38″ with hopes of getting to the mid-40s. I’m already fairly strong (BW 185 with a 380 deadlift) and have practiced jumping enough to use my strength pretty efficiently. Do you think this protocol would work well for me? I appreciate the help. Thanks!

    CW: Yes, it’s great for your VJ since the focus is on improving RFD.

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