While playing sports growing up, one of the most common cues I heard from my coaches was, “Get out of your head MK.” Or, “Stop thinking you know better.” Admittedly, I was the one who liked to experiment…always changing methods or adjusting my form to create a little more power or speed. Yes, I often had success, but it frustrated my coaches that I deviated from ‘the plan'. Well, flash forward 30 years, and once again I was scolded by a strength coach for not following the program. He even warned me that my pursuit of modification would one day get me into trouble. I complied as I didn’t want to get hurt. But the more I toned it down and blended in, the more I hated working out…until eventually I quit. And although that particular coach didn’t stop me from pursuing strength, he did make me questionwhat was it about my psychology that needed variety?
Well, it turns out that nearly every person is wired to follow some sort of routine (even if it involves intervals of randomness), and in fact, some experts like author and strength coach Christian Thibaudeau say knowing your dominant psychological nature is critical to finding a strength program that works for you. What do I mean? Just as each person has a genetic tendency to develop more slow or fast muscle fibers, we’re also born with a predisposition toward certain neurotransmitters – the chemicals that carry messages between neurons. And while each of us make some combination of dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA and serotonin, a person’s neurotransmitter dominance plays a huge role not just in how we learn, memorize and reason but how we move and respond to training. In short, depending on your unique neurotransmitter profile, some respond better to slow, steady and uniform strength programming while others need intense, varied routines.To understand how this works, here is a brief description of the 5 neurotransmitter types:
- The Dopamine Dominant Person (Responds to INTENSITY) –These exercisebeasts are the guys and gals you can’t miss on the field or in the gym. They’re always upbeat, excited, strong-willed, driven, highly rational…pushing harder and longer than anyone else. And regardless of whatever fitness goal they’ve set for themselves, they’re usually able to accomplish it thanks to a very efficient nervous system. As a result, they respond best to intensity. Any kind of activity works as long as the challenge leaves them in a pool of physical mush and sweat on the floor. Take away their intensity, and you take away their motivation to exercise.What Kind of Strength Program Works Best? According to Charles Poliquin, with these types, 8 reps is considered volume. But because of their efficient nervous systems, they adapt quickly (within 1 day) and need a different stimulus at every workout. Hence, regardless of the physical challenge, the key is to always keep the intensity high.
- The Acetylcholine Dominant Person (Responds to VARIETY) –Acetyl choline helps the brain process information and is related to memory and attention. These folks are witty, highly creative, quick thinkers and tend to be pioneers in their sport...coming up with creative goals and methods. They build muscle easily, but their nervous systems aren’t as efficient as Dopamine types. Hence these types respond best to variety in methods, volume and intensity. Having said that, these men and women have a propensity to push themselves to the point of overtraining. So they need planned rest days and need to stick to them to avoid overtaxing their nervous system.What Kind of Strength Program Works Best? Typically, these people do better with a mix of exercises with varied volume and intensity. You can play around with set/reps within a macro cycle (e.g., 4-8-12 for hypertrophy or 6-12-25 for fat loss) or adjust stress by increasing/decreasing exercises and load. But don’t change too many variables at the same time as that can overtire them.
- The Balanced Profile Person(Responds to VOLUME)– People with a balance of all four neurotransmitters tend to be stable and grounded. They like structure and consistency and can stay with the same program for a long time. Typically, they also have mixed muscle fiber types and are highly adaptable…able to handle short ‘balls-to-walls’ metabolic conditioning work as well as longer, moderately paced endurance activities such as running and road biking. Having said that, they are highly sensitive to variations in routine. Meaning, if they drink too much or don’t sleep well the night before, their performance suffers the next day.What Kind of Strength Program Works Best? Again, according to Coach Poliquin, these types handle volume better than dopamine and acetyl choline types but burn out with a lot of maximal load lifting (aka lifting to failure). Subsequently, they do better with lower intensity and higher volume (e.g., 10 x 10 rep schemes or pro-longed time under tension as such as with drop and giant sets).
- The GABA Dominant Person(Needs Some CONTROL) – These men and women are considered the ‘free thinkers’ of the group and generally spend a lot of time discussing gear, proper nutrition and researching methods then actually ‘doing the work’. They like to understand the "why" of something so they tend to be avid readers and follow many experts in social media in an effort to find the latest methods, lost tricks of the trade or the brand new food or supplement cocktail that will induce some desirable trait for their sport or desired body type. Not surprising, these folks tend to complain that they’ve burnt out or that their program isn’t working even before they’ve reached their goals. That’s when they stop giving it their all or seek out new protocols.What Kind of Strength Program Works Best? GABA's tend to feel they know what’s best for their body, and quite frankly they do. In fact, they often resolve movement or mechanical problems that others can’t. The problem is they get impatient, and they think they’re not improving because changes are slow and often invisible to the eye. Hence, these types do better when they’re given some semblance of control over their programming. Journaling is a good way for them to plot and see their strength progress over time. Likewise, during the in-between periods, they need planned ‘sandbox’ time to experiment along with ‘guard rails’ for appropriate method substitutions. In short, as long as the GABA feels he/she has control over his/her body, the better the results.
- The Serotonin Dominant Person– Truthfully, there’s a good chance this type of individual doesn’t exercise and probably never considered him/herself an athlete. That’s because they don’t gravitate toward any sport, and they steer clear of activities that require work. Yes, they’re fascinated by the physical feats of others, but they honestly can’t relate to the work capacity that’s required. It’s just not how they think or how they use their bodies. Hence, these folks are the ones who opt to do yoga or walk once or twice a week as they have no desire for much more work than that.
Determining Your Type
It’s rare that a person fits perfectly into one neurotransmitter category. In fact, it’s far more likely that an individual has some combination of each type. That’s where testing is useful. There are a number of available methods: urine, saliva, blood…even written tests.Likewise, a good clinician can help interrupt your results and provide insights on how to play to your individual strengths. For example, while an acetyl choline person may be built to perform a variety of sports, if he/she is deficient in serotonin and is not taking time to recover and have fun, their ability to perform their best is going to suffer.
Interestingly, when I was tested, I learned I have an equally acetyl choline and gaba dominant composition. In other words, I’m your typical ADD-exerciser, and it completely makes sense. I thrive on variety…methods, volume, even intensity, but I have to be careful as too many back-to-back days of super stressful work wears my body out. Likewise, I am a bit of a rebel and like to have control. Even if I’m following a program that’s been created for me, occasionally I’ll deviate from it by alternating methods or scratching out a new workout that feels better for my body.
But here’s the really interesting thing. In the past, I’ve had bouts of depression, and depression is characterized by a depletion of glutamine and what? GABA. At first, I tried anti-depressants, but many years later my doctor told me that what I really needed was to eat more healthy fat (e.g., avocado, raw nuts and seeds, raw coconut oil, etc.). As he explained it, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess. Why? It’s not just that it’s directing the body’s movements, it’s also making more neurotransmittersat the same time. He told me that while many believe the reason athletes ‘hit the wall’ or suddenly get fatigued when exercising is because the muscles have been depleted of oxygen and energy (which is true), he believed another reason is that the brain reaches its limit…that it doesn’t have enough fuel to direct the show and keep the body moving. Hence, his recommendation was to eat more healthy fat throughout the day and right before an intense workout. Voila…more energy and no more depression.
So, what’s the takeaway? Three things:
- If something is disrupting your motivation to workout, consider the possibility that either a) you’re exercising in a way that’s not aligned to your psychological profile or b) you may be deficient in some key neurotransmitters. In either case, testing (aka blood, urine or saliva) is the best way to determine your levels.
- Once you know your neurotransmitter profile, seek the help of a trained clinician as he/she will tell you how to play to your individual strengths as well as help root cause any imbalances. Like hormones, neurotransmitter production declines with age. Hence, it’s important to look at the body holistically so that all physical and nutritional protocols work together synergistically.
- Trust your “inner” strength seeker. You know better than any expert. Even Coach Thibaudeau says when he gives advice about training and nutrition, it only roughly applies 70% of the time because it doesn’t account for the outliers. Knowing what to do in that 30% of the time is what separates a good from great strength coach. And frankly, knowing when you (yourself) fall outside the norm and need a different approach is what defines accomplished from average strength seekers.
So, make sure you’re giving your brain everything it needs to help you be your best! And always seek strength!