Charlie Francis and the CNS: Implications for Weightlifting
By David Woodhouse
The importance and role of the central nervous system (CNS) was first brought to my attention through reading
Charlie Francis' (semi) autobiography, Speed Trap. On reflection this is a worrying statement given that I had at
that point completed a BSc in Sports Science and two gym instructor courses, but that's another story...! Due to
its frank discussion of drugs, Speed Trap has been dismissed by many conservative scholars but for many
people it is remains the best book about elite level athletics ever written. Francis is revealed to be a highly
intelligent, analytical and 'athlete focused' coach, and the passing of time has only given more credence to his
more controversial claims.
Francis was himself an Olympic sprinter but is best known as the long time coach of Canadian sprinter, Ben
Johnson. Johnson's performance in winning the Seoul Olympics was widely regarded as the fastest run in
history until Usain Bolt broke the world record in 2008 (Johnson ran 9.79s on a softer slower track and whilst
slowing to celebrate in the last 10 metres). Other notable athletes Francis worked with were Commonwealth
Champions Mark McKoy and Angella Issajenko.
Charlie based much of his training philosophy around carefully managing the demands on the CNS. More
specifically, his training week was modelled on the idea that the CNS requires at least 48 hours to recover from
high intensity training such as sprinting, plyometrics or heavy lifting. Charlie learned of this through discussion
with top (Eastern) European coaches from the early 70s. Before this most elite sprinters (including himself) in
the West performed speed work on a daily basis and therefore in a constant state of CNS fatigue.
Most modern sprint coaches now prescribe speed work only on alternate days. Between speed sessions lower
intensity 'tempo' running is performed as a form of active recovery. Anecdotal evidence suggests that moderate
exercise can increase rate of recovery faster than rest alone. Weightlifting coaches have for years alternated
heavy and light workouts and this perhaps provides a logical reason why. As an aside, in my experience, most
lifters don't distinguish enough between their heavy and light sessions. They go too heavy on the light days and,
due to fatigue, not heavy enough on the other days! What results is a string of moderate workouts that achieve
The tempo or light sessions also serve to raise general work capacity, manage body composition and can be an
opportunity to address technical errors. Clearly all these benefits are equally important to the weightlifter. In my
experience however, for the novice and intermediate lifter, rest actually IS better than light lifting for promoting
recovery. Perhaps until the athlete has developed sufficient work capacity, general exercise such as swimming,
walking or cycling may be more effective than specific lifting on 'off days'.
For elite (full time) athletes, Francis favours the following weekly template:
Monday, Wednesday & Friday: Speed & Weights
Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday: Tempo and Calisthenics
The specific track work is always given priority over strength work in the gym in the same way the competition
lifts are generally given priority over squatting and pure strength exercises in weightlifting. Observant readers
may notice the similarities between this program and the 'Americanised Bulgarian' program that I outlined in my
Less advanced athletes generally follow the following program:
Monday & Thursday: Speed
Tuesday & Friday: Weights (strength)
Wednesday & Saturday: Tempo
This ensures that the CNS is fully recharged for the speed sessions but cuts total work by a third (one less speed
and strength workout per week). Weightlifters could apply these templates by substituting the competition lifts
for speed work and squats for strength.
Why is CNS fatigue so important?.. A fatigued CNS cannot generate the frequency of nerve impulses required
to activate the highest threshold motor units. As a result, the most powerful 'fast twitch' muscle fibres are not
recruited and subsequently will not be trained. It is intuitive therefore that training performed in a state of CNS
fatigue will be at best inefficient. If high intensity training is repeated for prolonged periods then performance
will likely stagnate or decline. This state is typically described as overtraining, and causes symptoms of
insomnia, irritability and involuntary muscle contractions.
Additionally, a fatigued CNS has a compromised ability to coordinate muscle action which is also detrimental to
performance in any multi joint sport. Interestingly, Francis interpreted his athletes' inability to learn new skills
as a sign of CNS fatigue and would, in those situations, conclude training early. If a weightlifter is making
technical errors and missing warm up lifts, the coach might conclude that he has CNS fatigue and should stop or
have a lighter workout.
Francis insisted that all speed work be done at maximum intensity, but that total volume per week should be less
than 1600m. By the mid 80s his athletes would run over 100 metres only once per week. By training at
maximum the athlete's neural adaptations were maximised and his risk of injury in competition were reduced.
Clearly Francis believes intensity to be a more important, a more powerful variable than volume! He also states
that a mature elite level athlete may have to reduce volume to allow further progression and also to reduce injury
risk. The idea of lifting at maximum intensity was covered extensively in my last article, 'Ivan Abadjiev and
the Bulgarian System'.
Francis also controversially states that CNS adaptation can be both specific and general. The former includes
inter and intra muscular coordination and is specific to the exercise being performed. The latter involves a
higher output (rate coding) by the CNS and leads to improvement across all exercises. So in the same way that
bench press can improve sprint performance, sprinting can improve bench performance. When considering this
the reader should be careful to distinguish strength improvements via neural mechanisms from those due to
increases in contractile protein.
I hope this has been a thought provoking article. For further reading I suggest readers visit
www.charliefrancis.com/forum for direct insight from the man himself or track down a copy of Speed Trap on