How To Assess Your Neuromuscular Efficiency (NME) And Adjust Your Training For Better Results
Neuromuscular efficiency (NME) refers to the percentage of muscle fibers that you can recruit for one massive effort. Let's say someone can recruit 95% of their muscle fiber in a 1RM squat, and another person can only recruit 80%. Even if they both have the exact same squat, we'd say that the 95% person has higher 'NME' than the 80% person.
[NOTE: this is related to why 1-Rep Max Calculators are not very useful to more advanced trainees. I wrote an article about it here.]
This isn't good or bad, but it does affect how you should train, and potentially which sports and fitness activities you'll be best at.
This trait seems to be, for the most part, innate. It's part of our essence. In my experience, you can't change it very much. But you can understand how to use it to your advantage. That's what we're going to explore in this post.
TESTING FOR NEUROMUSCULAR EFFICIENCY
Here's how NME works. A frequent test would be to build to a back squat 1RM, then after 10-mins of rest, to do as many reps as possible at 85%. Typically we'll use a  tempo to keep this standardized, since taking a 5sec rest at the top of each squat can change performance significantly.
If you get 1-3 reps, you're considered to have very high NME. If you have high NME, you can recruit more muscle fibers for each rep, so you fatigue faster. Although this doesn't always hold true, chances are you have good speed and a good vertical jump.
If you get 4-7 reps, you've got roughly average NME.
If you get 8+ reps, you've got low NME. If you have low NME, you recruit less muscle fibers for each rep, giving you an ability to endure and continue working.
Neither is good or bad. Some activities favour low NME individuals (generally things that involve more endurance) and other sports favour high NME athletes.
In the context of a lifting program, we can immediately see a problem with NME and our training strategies.
If athlete A can do 3 reps at 85%, and athlete B can do 8 reps @ 85%, they'll have a completely different training effect from the same workout, for example: 4x4@85%
Athlete A won't be able to complete the first set. Athlete B will have a relatively moderate session. Coaches should have awareness of this when designing programs. Repetition ranges (i.e. do 4-6 reps) and Rate of Perceived Exhaustion (RPE... i.e. go to a weight that feels like you have 2 more left in the tank) are some methods of dealing with this. The other is working with an experienced coach who knows what each individual client is capable of.
For more about what affects your NME, read a previous post I've done here.
Training Based on Your Neuromuscular Efficiency
Think of each trainee as a battery powered light. High NME individuals can tap into all of their power immediately. They're like a super bright light that burns hot, draws tons of power and drains the battery very quickly.
On the other end of the spectrum, low NME people are like a less bright but more energy efficient bulk. Their batteries won't drain as quickly and they can keep the light on for longer.
Even if a high and low NME individual have the same battery charge to start with, how they use it is quite different.
In training, this corresponds to their central nervous systems. High NME trainees can put all of their energy into one all-out set and then they're drained. Essentially they're able to recruit a very high percentage of their muscles fibers to complete the task. Explosive sprinters are a prime example of this kind of athlete.
Lower NME folks simply can't put that much energy into a set. Even if they go to failure, they've used a lower percentage of their total muscle fibers to accomplish the task. Picture an athlete who's more enduring.
High NME individuals respond well to higher intensities in training, but have to be very careful with how much volume (how many sets and reps) they perform. If you gave them six sets: set 1: 6-reps; set 2: 4-reps; set 3: 2-reps; set 4: 6-reps; set 5: 4-reps; set 6: 2-reps; chances are they won't be able to hit their target load on the second set of 6. A lower NME person will be able to hit their target on that final load, and may even be able to increase the load on the second set of 6 compared to the first.
Low NME athletes tend to respond to medium to high repetitions. If a high NME person does 1-3reps, a low NME lifter might do 4-6reps. They tend to be able to handle shorter rest periods between sets, and don't do as well if they train for too long at very high intensities (90%+) or max out too often. They can do more volume and things like extended sets or clusters work well, so do drop sets, and super sets hitting the same muscle groups.
An example of an intermediate workout for high NME trainees would be 5 sets of 3-4 reps, while an advanced NME trainee might do 4-8 sets of 2 reps with tons of rest between sets, calling the workout when they hit a critical performance drop-off. And if you're not sure what that means, a critical drop-off is when your performance drops a certain amount, for example 5-7% in the context of max effort strength training, due to accumulated fatigue. At that point, we end the workout because the system has grown too tired.
An intermediate workout for a Lower NMEs might be set 1: 10reps; set 2: 8 reps; set 3: 6 reps, and an advanced trainee might do cluster sets: 3x3.2.1. In this case, the lifter does 3 tough reps, rests 15-20sec, then does 2 reps at the same weight. Rests another 15-20sec, and then does another rep at the same weight. That is one set. They'd then rest appropriately and repeat.
What About Those in the Middle?
If you get 4-6 reps then you're an all-arounder. You want to find balance somewhere between the extremes of high and low NME trainees.
An intermediate workout for an moderate NME might be: set 1: 8-reps; set 2: 5-reps; set 3: 2-reps. An advanced workout might be: set 1: 5-reps; set 2: 3-reps; set 3: 1-rep.
Food for Thought
With that mind, I challenge you to look at different popular strength programs you've seen and to think about who they'd be a great fit for based on NME and who they wouldn't.