Ask The Trainer #33 – CNS Fatigue


I see that you’ve competed in some powerlifting meets, so maybe you know of a remedy to my problem. Last weekend I competed in a powerlifting meet. I was pretty tired the next couple of days, almost to the point of feeling ill. My meet was on Saturday, so I took Sunday and Monday off to recover, then went back to the gym on Tuesday and had a terrible workout. I swear my strength went down by about 10-15% on every single exercise. It was very depressing. I had absolutely no fire. Even after taking my pre-workout drink that usually jacks me up. When I did my exercises, I dug down deep and there was nothing there. I returned to the gym on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and my workouts were just as awful as my workout on Tuesday. I lost so much strength on everything. Overall I feel like crap. Almost like I have the flu, but I know I’m not sick. Is it normal to go through this after a powerlifting meet? What can I do to get out of this slump? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks much.



Hi, Aaron. What you’re experiencing is nothing unusual in light of your circumstances. I’m speaking from personal experience here.

Almost 3 years ago, I competed in my first powerlifting meet. I recall attempting to go back into the gym 3 days following the meet to resume my usual training routine. I was completely unprepared for how lousy my body performed! My heart was in the right place, but my body was saying “NO WAY!”

Now, I always take at least a 2-week break following a powerlifting meet before I ever think about picking up a weight again.

Central Nervous System Fatigue

You’ve mentioned flu-like symptoms? Let’s just say you’re not the first powerlifter to complain about this following a met. Fact is, Central Nervous System (CNS) fatigue is notorious for causing these types of symptoms in strength athletes.

Attempting to generate and maintain an optimal central nervous system drive only days after a powerlifting meet (where your physiology has been overloaded to its limits) is pretty much a losing battle.

According to research, there are several possible biological mechanisms that may explain CNS fatigue. Theories have been developed for several key neurotransmitters, including serotonin (5-HT; 5-hydroxytryptamine), dopamine, and acetylcholine.


The most significant ones include 5-HT (serotonin receptors) and dopamine activity within various parts of the brain. Scientists have determined the serotonergic system is associated with numerous brain functions that can positively or negatively affect energy and performance.

Chad ShawStudies have demonstrated that fatigue during prolonged exercise in rats is associated with increased 5-HT and reduced dopamine concentrations in the brain. Other evidence has shown an inverse relationship between 5-HT and dopamine in certain brain areas.

On the basis of these findings, the evidence demonstrates that a low ratio of brain 5-HT to dopamine favors improved performance (i.e., increased arousal, motivation, and optimal neuromuscular coordination).

Conversely, a high ratio of 5-HT to dopamine favors decreased performance (i.e., decreased motivation, lethargy, tiredness, and loss of motor coordination). The latter would represent central nervous system fatigue.

It takes lots of research to understand all of the mechanisms contributing to central nervous system fatigue. Even so, I think it’s safe to say the CSN fatigue we experience after a powerlifting meet does have a lot to do with the onset of a neurotransmitter imbalance involving 5-HT and dopamine.

Now the question is what can you do to remedy this neurotransmitter imbalance? While the localized muscular system can recover relatively quickly, fatigue of the central nervous system can take much longer. It can take weeks… and even upwards of a month or more in some cases!

Neural Factors

Neural factors inhibit your training performance, as opposed to muscular factors, the majority of the time. My thinking is that if your ability to perform in the weight room is hindered in this sort of way, why train at all?

In other words, training before complete recovery takes place will only delay the recovery process of both the muscular system and central nervous system.

This isn’t to say you should just sit on the couch, drinking a case of beer while watching sports on TV. Not even by a long shot!

Rather, it simply means you should refrain from performing any taxing form of exercise. For example, going for a walk or a leisurely bicycle ride would be fine.

Some light exercise in place of your usual training routine will increase blood circulation to help accelerate the recovery process. Outside of light exercise and stretching, you shouldn’t be doing much in the way of lifting for at least 2 weeks.

Other research has shown certain supplements may be beneficial for central nervous system fatigue. For example, supplementing with the herb Mucuna Pruriens increases both dopamine and HGH levels.


Scientists believe the amino acid tyrosine increases certain neurotransmitters and is a precursor of noradrenaline and dopamine. It’s relatively cheap to buy in supplement form. High-protein foods have significant amounts of this amino acid. Examples are eggs, salmon, buffalo, and shrimp.


Additionally, Acetylcholine (ACh) formation requires choline. Muscular force creation involves this essential neurotransmitter. Choline supplements are widely available. However, if you eat lots of eggs like I do, you already get a hefty dose of choline in the yolks.

One more nutritional factor worth mentioning is the role carbohydrates play in restoring brain serotonin. This is one reason why it’s good to include some form of QUALITY carbohydrate in each of your main meals.

If you bombard your system with the wrong types of carbohydrates (cookies, donuts, and pizza), it WILL wreak havoc on your insulin and blood sugar levels.

The result will eventually be some major physique, performance, and health debacles you’re NOT going to like!

Prove ‘Em Wrong,
Chad Shaw

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