Everybody knows that training should be tailored to each individual as much as possible. Yet, there are scenarios where you're working with a team of athletes and can't have them all run different programs simultaneously.
However, if you're lucky enough to work with smaller groups or an athlete one-on-one, making sure their programming is best suited for them is vital.
Typically, muscle imbalances are needed to be addressed, physical limitations or biomechanical deficiencies, and lifestyle factors such as stress levels and nutrition.
What I think is sometimes overlooked in determining what might be optimal for a specific individual is the aspect of psychology, personality, and the relationship between exercise and the brain.
Neurotransmitters and Performance
Note: This section is a condensed summary of my master's thesis literature review, so bear with me for the next couple of minutes as I briefly review some aspects of brain chemistry and its connection to our temperament and personality types. You can jump to the next section if the science doesn't intrigue you, but it will help you understand the practical portion later.
In our nervous system, our neurons release what are called neurotransmitters. They are essentially chemical messengers that relay information from neuron to neuron.
A pre-synaptic neuron will release these neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft (gap) upon receiving a signal from a post-synaptic neuron. They then bind to their respective receptors on the next post-synaptic neuron, and this process continues as a means of communication.
Five primary neurotransmitters are, in my opinion, the most critical when it comes to exercise performance: Norepinephrine (NE), dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and GABA.
NE is the precursor to adrenaline (epinephrine) and exerts similar effects, such as increasing the contractile force of skeletal muscle and increasing the usage of stored energy as fuel during exercise. Another primary effect of NE is to increase arousal (excitability) levels, which are greatly affected by stress and cortisol levels.
A study concluded that there was an association with locus coeruleus (LC), the main site of NE release, neuron firing, and arousal (Howells, Stein et al. 2012). Basically, there were lower arousal levels when the LC neurons were less active and greater NE activity in an elevated arousal state.
Dopamine is another excitatory neurotransmitter that is heavily involved with arousal and motivation. More importantly, though, dopamine feeds our ability to persist through difficult conditions to achieve a goal. I've heard stories of athletes falling into depression while recovering and staying away from training after a competition.
The reason is that these athletes get "high" on the process of pushing further progress rather than the actual reward of competing because the dopaminergic system is very active during those times you keep pushing through discomfort on the road to success. Once the stimuli or pursuit of further progress is no longer there, such as after a competition, the lack of dopaminergic activity can result in very low levels of arousal, resulting in feelings of fatigue or even symptoms of depression.
Acetylcholine is primarily known for its role in muscle contraction. It's the neurotransmitter released into the neuromuscular junction by the pre-synaptic motoneuron to signal a muscle contraction.
Serotonin and GABA are both inhibitory neurotransmitters, inhibiting excitatory signals and producing opposite effects of the excitatory transmitters.
Serotonin differs slightly from GABA as it's more of a modulator of activity rather than a direct inhibitor. By that, I mean it regulates arousal by inhibiting the noradrenergic (NE) and the dopaminergic systems when they are highly active to prevent over-excitation and potential anxiety.
Serotonin is also associated with feelings of fatigue, especially during exercise, as the Central Fatigue Hypothesis describes how increases in serotonin result in decreased performance and increased fatigue. The primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, is involved in reducing anxiety and producing a sedative state.
Each of these neurotransmitters has been associated with specific personalities and temperaments. The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) by Dr. Claude Robert Cloninger is an assessment of an individual's level of different temperaments and character.
For the purpose of this article, the focus is primarily placed on three temperaments: Novelty Seeking (NS), Reward Dependence (RD), and Harm Avoidance (HA). There is a fourth, persistence, but it is not relevant for the article.
NS refers to an individual's tendency to seek excitement, new experiences, and novel stimuli that may lead to reward. RD is an indication of someone's response to reward and their ability to continue the behavior that resulted in the reward. HA is the tendency for someone to avoid punishment by inhibiting potentially aversive behavior. The assessment determines if someone has high or low levels of each of these temperaments. Cloninger associated each of the temperaments with specific neurotransmitters (Cloninger 1986).
|Novelty Seeking||Dopaminergic System|
|Reward Dependence||Noradrenergic System|
|Harm Avoidance||Serotoninergic System|
For example, a very high serotonin level results in someone showing inhibited behavior such as avoidance, caution, and apprehension. NE and dopamine differ as their effects are dependent on their sensitivity rather than their basal levels in the brain, meaning lower levels are an indication of greater sensitivity/effect.
In the case of the TCI, high NS is an indication of low dopamine levels and high RD signifies low NE levels.
The NEO-FFI is another psychometric test based on the Big Five personality traits and examines someone's level of neuroticism (N), extraversion (E), and openness (O). Conscientiousness and agreeableness are also included but not necessary for this article.
Neuroticism refers to a person's emotional stability to situations (high – unstable; low – stable). The extraversion score reveals how outgoing a person is (high – extraverted; low – introverted). It was later seen that a person's level of extraversion is associated with their dopaminergic activity (high dopamine sensitivity – extraverted). Openness is a representation of how willing a person is to undergo new experiences or be in different environments (high – open to new experiences; low – prefer stability/comfort).
Finally, I first learned about the Braverman Nature Assessment from an interview with Charles Poliquin where he talked about how he uses the test to determine an athlete's optimal style of training.
The Braverman Test estimates a person's neurotransmitter dominance (dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and GABA) and any deficiencies in the four neurotransmitter systems based on a true or false questionnaire of how you feel.
The dopamine type is considered the "powerful" type, shown to be very motivated, driven, extroverted, and impulsive.
The acetylcholine type is classified as "creative." These individuals tend to be very intuitive and use their sensory systems to experience their environments.
The serotonin type is seen as "playful" and seeks out excitement or fun.
People considered to be of type GABA are "stable." They are very reliable and prefer everything to be in order and organized.
Note: Braverman Serotonin Type is characterized differently than that seen in the TCI because it represents a healthy level of serotonin. Very high (unbalanced) level of serotonin results in the traits seen in someone with high levels of harm avoidance (cautious, apprehensive).
You might be thinking, "Okay, great. Everything is linked to personality, but how does it relate to performance?"
The study by Howells, Stein et al. (2012) looked at the Yerkes and Dodson Theory (1908) on the relationship between arousal (specifically NE activity) and performance. They indirectly showed an association between personality traits/types and their theoretical location on the arousal curve.
To summarize, those on the left side of the optimal range of arousal were seen as extraverted, easily distracted, and relaxed (low arousal levels). In contrast, those on the right side of the optimal range showed signs of introversion, high harm avoidance (apprehensive, tense), and low novelty seeking (rigid, orderly).
Many of the characteristics of both types of individuals led me to hypothesize that dopamine and norepinephrine dominant people are generally on the left side of the range, and serotonin/GABA types are on the right side.
Although the effect of acetylcholine isn't directly inferred from the study, I would speculate that the acetylcholine dominant type is naturally situated in the optimal range because of their intuitive nature and their ability to subjectively read how they feel to self-adjust their arousal level.
For example, someone classified as acetylcholine dominant may sense that they are overly aroused and consciously focus on bringing their excitation down.
These types may move to either side of the curve depending on the balance between the excitatory (dopamine and NE) and inhibitory (serotonin, GABA) activity.
Personality Types in Real Life
Now let's relate these concepts to real life.
I'm a BIG fan of learning and observing how other people train (thank GOD for YouTube and Instagram for that) because I love learning about different styles.
From what I learn, I take little bits here and there and apply them to my training philosophy, hoping to develop the Holy Grail of training philosophies. I'm sure I'm not the only one in that pursuit! What's funny, though, is that there is no ONE training program or philosophy. We are chasing after something that does NOT exist! All the top guys in the field train in their own way and swear by their methods or style because it works for THEM. Ultimately what this means is that EVERYTHING works, just not for everybody.
I believe that a style works for someone because 1) it motivates them (which is KEY) and 2) they can recover from it. I'm going to give a couple examples to clarify what I mean.
Note: I don't know these two guys personally. These are just from online observations.
Jordan Peters (@trainedbyjp) is an absolute savage. You've got big problems if you can't get motivated to train after watching him lift or speak about training.
He is one of the main guys in the field promoting very high-intensity (low volume) training. If you watch him train, he is extremely focused, almost to the point of rage, and chasing PRs for every set he does.
If you listen to him talk about his mentality, he talks about going into very dark places in his head during those working sets. However, I've also heard him mention that he listens to classical music or even the music from The Lion King during his sets—I don't know about you, but that's not typically the kind of music I listen to as I'm about to do a set of squats I know will hurt. He says his choice of music brings him down slightly to achieve that optimal level. If he listened to hardcore music, he would be TOO amped-up and perform poorly (and potentially get injured).
Besides his choice of music, the very high intensity training requires him to take more rest days compared to other people who may train farther from failure. The higher number of rest days enables him to progress because he knows his nervous system needs more time to recover. He intuitively knows he can't perform at that high level every day. All signs point to a "Serotonin" or "GABA" type, someone that doesn't need any further excitation but in fact needs to decrease their arousal levels to reach that optimal performance range. (I would guess that he is GABA dominant based on other factors I've seen).
On the other side, we have Dave Tate. One of my favorite training videos is Dave's Speed Bench Training video because it is both motivational and funny at the same time.
When people think of Dynamic Effort Day, they think of lighter weight, so naturally, people may not be too excited for those submaximal sessions and may not be as emotionally intense.
Not Dave, though.
I have never seen someone do speed work with as much intensity as Dave.
In the video, he's so amped up that it looks like he's convulsing, trying to get set up (Zippy Tate?)and take hits of smelling salts before the last couple of sets.
From an outsider looking in, I'm guessing he is the type that needs a boost of arousal to reach peak performance (dopamine or NE dominant), and it may have been one of the reasons he progressed so well at Westside Barbell.
The atmosphere at Westside Barbell is regarded as not being for everyone because of the competitive aspect and the intensity. Those with high levels of arousal or stress would crumble under that pressure. For Dave, I'm guessing it fed his system, and he thrived in that environment.
How to Use the Information
Based on the different personality types, there may be a relationship between a neurotransmitter dominance and training style.
Higher Intensity: Training style that gets the person amped up
- They also have lower levels of baseline arousal, meaning their sympathetic drive isn't as high at rest, and they can recover more quickly from higher-intensity work.
- Training Variety: Changing of stimulus (exercise, training method or style, equipment) can motivate them and feed their personality type. One thing I like to do with my training is give myself some freedom to choose the last 1-2 pump/isolation exercises depending on how I feel on that specific day. This way, I can try different exercises, adding more excitement to the sessions.
- Progressive Overload: Thrive on making progress and being rewarded for their efforts. Higher training variety to switch the exercise and constantly hit PRs will motivate them greatly. For example, rotate through the same 3-4 variations of main lifts weekly and progress each one, rather than staying with the same exercise for a long period of time or coming back to an exercise once every couple of months.
- A lot of training variety and changing of stimulus. Training needs to be exciting and fun for them. Again, adding 10 to 15 minutes of "free" work for your athletes at the end of a couple of sessions during the week to allow them to do what they want will motivate them even further.
- 5/3/1 or Starting Strength programs may be good for these types, with emphasis on a few exercises (3-4) to build. The progression is slow, the plan is set, and the athlete gets accustomed to the style, allowing them to feel comfortable and not too stressed from changing variables.
Deficiency from Braverman Test
- The ability to recover from high-intensity/neurological work may be compromised by staying in a sympathetic state for longer. This may result in training less frequently or with reduced training intensity. For example, max effort work can be done once every week or ten days, with the emphasis of the rest of the training placed on the use of submaximal weights.
Many of these principles are seen in Christian Thibaudeau's Neurotyping system and course (Thibarmy). His course inspired me to do my masters thesis on neurotransmitters, personality types, and sports performance.
However, his system is more complete. His classification of types looks at both excitatory dominance and inhibitory transmitter dominance. You may be skeptical of these principles and guidelines as they are still "theories." There hasn't been much scientific evidence of the relationship between neurotransmitter dominance and optimal training styles.
The concept, I believe, is still relatively new (probably some past Soviet sports scientist already figured this out), but based on the research I have done, it is very promising. It may be yet another concept science proves years after it is true in practice.
The whole goal of this article was to provide you with a different view of training individualization for athletes and get you thinking a little out of the box regarding your and your athlete's training. It's not a new view, as I've heard other people talk about personalities and training style, but now there is some science potentially explaining the why.
Find what clicks or motivates your athletes, possibly through assessments like the Neurotyping Test or the Braverman Test. Use the information to help you create a more individualized plan for your athletes to make the most progress.
- Cloninger, C. R. (1986). "A unified biosocial theory of personality and its role in the development of anxiety states." Psychiatr Dev 4(3): 167-226.
- Howells, F. M., D. J. Stein and V. A. Russell (2012). "Synergistic tonic and phasic activity of the locus coeruleus norepinephrine (LC-NE) arousal system is required for optimal attentional performance." Metab Brain Dis 27(3): 267-274.
- Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.
Max Daigle is currently finishing his undergrad at McGill University in BSc. Physiology, with a Minor in Kinesiology. He played NCAA Division 1 hockey at the University of Vermont before transferring to McGill, where he played two seasons. Max is the assistant strength coach at Axxeleration Performance Center, under the mentorship of Mark Lambert (Head Strength Coach Tampa Bay Lightning NHL) and Sebastien Lagrange. Axxeleration Performance Center is a private gym just outside Montreal, Quebec, that works primarily with hockey players.