Last year I was talking with Brad Kearns and Dave Dolle when Dave said something really interesting: he was using neurotransmitter analysis to build personalized training programs for his athletes. By giving a short written T/F test called the Braverman test, he could determine whether a client was dominant in dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA, or serotonin—and then use the results to determine their ideal training regimen. It was one of those instances where you hear something you know you’ll be chewing on for the next few months.
These neurotransmitters exist. They each have different effects on our personality and our physiology, which can alter our response to different types of training. Though we’re most familiar with the effects of neurotransmitters on brain function, they also have peripheral effects throughout the rest of the body.
Dopamine is the motivating chemical, promoting drive and ambition and a winning attitude. It’s also the moving chemical, interacting with the areas of the brain responsible for conscious movement. Parkinson’s disease, whose sufferers have great difficulty making basic movements, is characterized by low dopamine levels and activity.
Acetylcholine promotes focus, memory, and cognitive prowess. It’s also necessary for motor neurons to fire and make muscles move.
GABA relaxes us, calms us, and counters excitability in the brain. Without it, we’re tense. Our muscles tense up with low GABA levels, too, as the neurotransmitter is responsible for muscle relaxation.
Serotonin is the “feel-good” chemical, and deficits play a big role in depression. In the gut, it’s the “good bowel movement” chemical, regulating gut motility.
Even if it’s not measuring body levels of neurotransmitters directly, the results of the Braverman test do indicate general trends in personality and neurotransmitter levels which can affect how you should train. As someone who’s been marinating in the fitness world in a professional capacity for most of my life, I’ve seen how personality affects and even determines optimal training. The Braverman test lines up pretty well.
I’m also well aware of just how important neurotransmitters are to the physical side of training. Take dopamine, for example, the best-studied:
It’s especially helpful for performance in uncomfortable environments, like extreme heat. Endurance athletes benefit from higher dopamine levels due to increased heat tolerance and better thermoregulation; they can go harder and longer without their body telling them to stop.
First, take the Braverman test. It takes 15-20 minutes. Don’t fret too much over getting every answer perfect. Choose what feels more true or more false before your brain starts trying to justify this or that answer.
The point of all this isn’t to get a specific reading of your neurotransmitter balance. It may well serve as a rough or even precise barometer of whether you’re dopamine-, acetylcholine-, GABA-, or serotonin-dominant, but it’s unverifiable. What you can use it for is to get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses, then apply them to your training.
If You Have Dopamine Dominance…
You’re always on. Motivation isn’t an issue. Mental energy isn’t a limitation. “Psyching yourself up” before a heavy set is often unnecessary.
You thrive on high intensity. Without sufficient intensity, you’re likely to get bored.
You don’t do high volume. Higher reps don’t allow for sufficient intensity, so you prefer lower reps.
You like variety. You get bored doing the same program.
You like explosive movements and heavy weights. You live to conquer them.
You can go too hard. Your brain can handle it, your nervous system can handle it, but your body has its limitations. Joints and muscles can still fail without adequate rest.
If you’re an endurance junkie, your ability to push through discomfort and ignore the body’s signals can win the race but land you in chronic cardio hell.
If you’re a strength junkie, you’ll feel like you can handle yet another heavy day of squats and deadlifts, but your physical tissues may suffer.
If You’re Acetylcholine-Dominant…
You can handle intensity and volume, but you need rest. You need your sleep.
You can stick to the same program for longer. You’re good at focusing, at honing in on and really sinking your teeth into a routine.
If You’re Serotonin-Dominant or GABA-Dominant…
You may have difficulties pushing yourself to train.
A major benefit of exercise is that it prioritizes the delivery of tryptophan into the brain for conversion into serotonin. If you’re already swimming in serotonin, that’s one less reason to exercise. You don’t need the increased brain tryptophan uptake it provides, and I suspect that this partially explains some people’s aversion to exercise.
Another benefit is stress reduction. If you’re so relaxed from an abundance of GABA, you don’t need that effect.
Play is probably more your style. The benefits of exercise still apply to you, so you may have better luck training through play.
As you can tell, this isn’t an exact science. I’d call it an intriguing concept and a worthwhile tool, but it’s not something you’re going to submit to a peer-reviewed journal for acceptance and publication. That doesn’t matter for our purposes, of course. For us, it offers some useful feedback that can shed light on our training preferences and strengths.
The big lesson here is to do what feels right. I’ve spoken in the past about the importance of heeding your intuition and how failing to do so rarely goes well. Every time I ignore the little voice inside my head or down in my gut telling me to hold back, to cut the workout short, to try something different—things go wrong.
When I pushed past that voice to attempt a PR on the bench, I tweaked my shoulder and was out of commission for weeks.
When I lived a lie for decades, logging insane amounts of miles on the track, road, bike, and pool because it was “what I was good at” and “the harder I worked, the healthier I was” despite having no time for family or friends and my actual health suffering, I was a mess. In the end, it turned out well because it led me to the Primal Blueprint, to doing what I love and leading a life full of meaning. But, man, if it didn’t have some major downsides….
“Feels right” doesn’t mean easy. It just means “don’t fight your nature.”
The exercises we do should be difficult, challenging, and engaging. But they shouldn’t cause existential dread that we just can’t shake.
Training shouldn’t tank our sleep, ruin our quality of life, and make us crave junk food. Impending workouts should give us butterflies in our stomachs when we think of them, but not enough to prevent us from doing them. Our training should improve our quality of life, help us sleep better, and make eating healthy easier. Knowing ourselves—strengths and preferences—is part of that picture.
That’s it for today, folks.
So, let me know… how’d you score? What are your thoughts? How will the feedback inform your training?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.