January 18 2018

Do “Dominant” Neurotransmitters Impact Training? (and a Giveaway)

By Mark Sisson

Inline_Dominant NeurotransmittersLast 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 excitibility 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:

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 doesn’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.

Now For the Giveaway…

Today I’m giving away a $50 gift certificate to PrimalBlueprint.com. Use it for Primal Kitchen products, supplements, books, a course—whatever floats your boat.

Just share your comments about today’s post topic and/or what future book  or publication offerings you’d like to see from Primal Publishing. Something on a certain area of health? More cookbooks? Calendars? What would you be interested in reading and recommending?

*Be sure to comment before midnight tonight (1/18/18 PST) to be eligible.

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?


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57 thoughts on “Do “Dominant” Neurotransmitters Impact Training? (and a Giveaway)”

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  1. Thanks for the link to the Braverman test; it was interesting and insightful. I love the advice to exercise in a way that “feels right”. I spent way too many years of my life breaking down my body with chronic cardio. With the primal lifestyle I learned to listen to my body and exercise in ways that feel good: lots of hiking, yoga, walking and occasionally sprints and heavy lifting.

    In terms of future publications, I would love to see a cookbook involving foods that are hunted and gathered. Okay, I realize this wouldn’t serve a very large population, but you asked! 😉

  2. Hi Mark – I’d like to see a ‘Primal Kids Cookbook’ with easy recipes for parents and kids (or kids by themselves) to make together. Ya know, kid friendly but primal certified fare. Thanks for all you do!

  3. The Braverman test was interesting and provides food for thought. What are the numbers on a scale of? 1 to what?
    As far as Primal Publishing- a cookbook featuring simple recipes with ingredients that are sort of every-day items.


  4. Still waiting on the Primal Woman book, from teen years/start of menses through menopause. I’m in perio-menopause hell and would like some solid, research backed suggestions on how to move through this with grace and ease.

  5. Interesting. I’m GABA dominant which, I suppose, explains my aversion to the gym. I would just sit in the car and want to cry because I couldn’t bear another day of treadmill and weight training. I talked to my husband about it and he agreed to let me quit the gym but said I had to do “something”. Figuring out what that “something” should be has been difficult to figure out. Perhaps it is some sort of play.

    1. Perhaps just a daily walk, along with some assertiveness training?

  6. I would love to see more recipes involving mexican food! Since going Primal, that is the food I miss the most…enchiladas, tacos, burritos, etc…

  7. I think a quarterly or bimonthly MDA magazine with highlights from your daily posts/research/recipes would be awesome!

  8. Interesting quiz – Now to explore the findings a bit more. Thanks for sharing!

  9. This was interesting…according to the test, I am Acetylcholine dominant, with Dopamine a close second. Not sure if I agree with everything but was still worthwhile. And completely agree with the advice to do what feels right. Not just with our workouts…it makes sense for pretty much everything.

  10. Very interesting read, lot to chew over with this one. As far as what I would like to see in future posts or books: what alternative exercises could you do for aerobic base-building efforts per Primal Endurance guidelines?

    Is running in place better than jumping jacks? Does the elliptical have a place? How often is too often for hiking with a weight vest? And how much lower can you go under your 180-age before you need to worry about *not* getting an adequate training effect.

  11. Hello Mark, thanks for another interesting article. I haven’t taken the Braverman test yet, but I’m looking forward to trying it out personally and with my health coaching clients. I’d love to read an updated version of The Primal Blueprint!

  12. Completing the Braverman test was so interesting. Thanks for providing the link!

    I appreciate the supplement suggestions at the end of the assessment. My results show that I’m Acetylcholine-Dominant and this seems accurate for me.

  13. I’ve always been laid back/easygoing, and wondered why the drive to push myself didn’t seem as high as other people’s. I still think some of it is learned, but believe it’s neurotransmitter related too.

  14. I’d like to see street guides to cities, that tell us where we can get Primal-Blueprint aligned meals

  15. Great article! The intuitive training approach makes so much sense and is so contrary to conventional wisdom. As I begin to be a health coach to folks, I see so many of them really struggling to accept that exercise does not equal weight loss.

  16. I would love to see a new book titled “Primal Blueprint For Kids” or a kids/teenager book about ancestral health. It would include information on fitness, diet, play, etc. Grok on!

  17. Fascinating post, Mark. I’d love to see a book on living Primal for adults over 60.

    1. I agree with a book on living Primal for adults over 60; and maybe some blog articles about post-menopausal women and health? I found the Braverman test interesting, but I think some of my answers are more hormonal related than neurotransmitter. Although it’s all related…

  18. I second the Primal Woman book. Travelling through peri/post menopause has been a very difficult journey. A book geared towards girls/woman’s health would be great.

  19. GABA dominant with Dopamine as a very close second. I’d say the descriptions of these are pretty accurate in regards to me. Interesting article!

  20. Primal pregnancy is what I’m interested in. Nutrition, rest, exercise, mobility, strength, science and how pregnancy was handled in groks day.

    Also, breast feeding and infant and early childhood primal lifestyle info would be great too. Setting the family up for success 😉

  21. Insightful article. I would be interested in articles and/or books on brain health. I know a lot of friends who have family members with varying types of dementia be it genetic, stroke or simply from lifestyle. What steps can one take early on or later in life to keep our brains healthy? Whether it be exercise for the mind and/or diet. Thank you.

  22. Primal for pregnancy.

    Nutrition, exercise, rest of course. But also breast feeding and how to care for an infant in the primal lifestyle.

    Would also be interesting in the science of what’s beneficial, but also how pregnancy and infant care was in groks day.

  23. Crazy I had just listened to a Joe DeFranco podcast on my walk where they discussed this exact test, then I come in and open MDA and voila! Honestly, I’d love to read a practical book regarding the locavore movement. Break it up into 4 sections of hunting/gathering/gardening/farming. The hunting aspect intrigues me the most. I feel that recently the image of the hunter is changing from Elmer Fudd/bloodthirsty rednecks to health-minded conservationists like Joe Rogan, Steven Rinella, and Cameron Hanes who are speaking thoughtfully on a misunderstood topic. At age 30 I just took my hunter safety course and am excited to begin my own hunting practice. I think a deep primal exploration of our hunting roots would help bridge the gap for many who haven’t considered our ancestral connection to hunting and the outdoors. Basically, it’s a meaty topic that I’d deerly like to hear Mark and the gang’s opinion on.

  24. Looks like I’m acetylcholine-dominant. I’d love to see a Primal calendar.

  25. Just curious how taking certain medications, e.g. SSRIs, would effect the outcome of the Braverman test?

  26. This was really interesting. I’m acetylcholine dominant at a score of 31 with GABA at 30. Kind of a push/me pull/me attitude. I’ll see how this works in my life. It will make me more aware of what I’m doing or what I’m not doing, that’s for sure.
    Thank you for all your amazing posts.

    I would love to see an article about alternate ways to do pull/ups

  27. Super interesting, I bought his book last week and this is a great summary of the information. I’d love to see more work on the HPA axis and how imbalance from overtraining can cause poor health and lead to disease. Thanks for all your great material and products you’ve produced thus far!

  28. Interesting test. I am among the 50% that are Gaba dominant. I could have guessed that from description of Gaba dominant, but nice to get confirmation.

  29. Hmmm….I guess a cookbook on recipes with only a few ingredients.
    Since going primal a few years ago I’ve almost entirely stuck to almost solely salt and pepper on some veggies sautéed in a lots of a healthy and tasty fat along with the large piece of meat (just salt and pepper for usually) I’ll put in the roaster for the week.
    I am by no means tired of this. Quite content. So good that I don’t want to take the time with all the complicated recipes with lots of ingredients and time required.
    I’m just curious of others ideas on recipes and things they eat regularly with only a couple/few ingredients at most (and things that take very little time [doesn’t have to be ready quickly–I can wait for something to cook overnight–I just don’t want to spend a few hours in the kitchen]).

  30. I did not know it but I am “Acetylcholine-Dominant”
    Now just to wait for the $50 to arrive on the email to get stuff 🙂

  31. I’ve not had the chance to do the test yet but will be on it in the morning with my coffee. Where I think there is a gap for publication is a nutritional myth busting book with hardcore references to solid facts and studies. Greg Glassman is busy espousing this via CrossFit in seminars, but none of it ends up in a document that can be shoved under a doctor or legislator’s nose as well as the general public. I would go even further and expose the connections with doctors and legislators and Big Food and Big Pharma.

  32. I think I’ve got some unusual results… I’m a dopamine dominant, but I also got a very high serotonin level (40+), on the other hand both acetylcholine and GABA both had very low numbers (20-).

    Sounds very extreme, but with not to just one end of the espectrum!

  33. So interesting – I guessed my results from your descriptions, and the test confirmed me as Acetylcholine dominant. I wonder whether the genetics work similarly for all four neurotransmitters… and whether they vary with current health (and diet and stress and life circumstances and age and luck), and if so, whether adjusting the approach to exercise (and food and sleep and supplements) would be helpful beyond what many of us think to explore.

    Extra enjoyable topic and article, thanks!

    For so many of us, we sought out the Primal approach because what had been working no longer was. This is a cool piece of that puzzle.

  34. Love the Braveman test. I would really like to see more of these types of testing to help align the physical with the social/spiritual side of ourselves.

  35. I’d love a book on taking primal to the next level, especially in the context of one’s unique profile (genetic tests, lab results, etc). I think it would help one to adopt a more customized, personalized approach to an otherwise general and simplified primal lifestyle.

  36. I love geeking out on this kind of stuff. I ended up Acetylcholine dominant, but my other numbers weren’t too far away. Fascinating!

  37. That was very interesting. It turns out that I’m Acetylcholine-Dominant — but not by much…

  38. This is some pretty fun food for thought, but I don’t know that concluding that different personality types (as governed by neurotransmitters) may require different training methods is especially ground-breaking. But it could be interesting to see whether correcting neurochemical imbalances helps some folks find the motivation to train (It’s something I lack. I am apparently both GABA Dominant and severely GABA deficient according to the Braverman test. Either way, I should DEFINITELY play more).

    In terms of what I would like to see from Primal Publishing: I would love an app to help track macro- (and potentially micro-) nutrient consumption. I know there are food tracking apps out there, but so much of what I have seen has been geared towards SAD, or is not especially user friendly or reputable. With the wonderful information, recipes, supplements etc available through the Primal store, an app seems like a natural progression. A tool where a user could set goals, and log personal data to experiment to find what works best for them would be SO neat.

    Thank you so much for all the inspiration.

  39. Interesting concept. I wonder if PED users look for ways to increase dopamine to give them an edge? As for future books, I’d love to see something on brain health and all the ways one can help an aging brain regain and stay healthy – through diet, exercise, sleep, cold exposure, heat exposure, sunlight, social engagement, new experiences, learning a new language or musical instrument, even using low dose psychedelics.

  40. Thanks for the tip. Howver, I am confused…I am a GABA type, that ok, with deficiencies in Dopamin, Serotonin and GABA. How can you be GABA type and have deficiencies? AND…Iam taking all the recommended amino acids/substances like glutamin, thyrosin, tryptophan, 5HTP and/or eat the foods (little carbs though). ow can I have such deficiencies? Maybe the test should be taken with a pinch of salt?

  41. I found the Braverman test and correlated training modalities a year or so ago. I think its an interesting tool for self analysis, but have had trouble actually putting results into practice. I have always preferred heavy weights and high intensity (recovering crossfitter), but as a natural ectomorph and not someone with outstanding recovery capacity I performed very well at endurance events. But never really enjoyed longer duration activities. In the end I didn’t change anything after the test, since I am very consistent with what I do.

  42. I’d love to see a book/program on training/eating for power sports like Rugby or basketball!

  43. Mark, this is fascinating stuff, thank you for sharing. I have three follow-up questions, one specific to Braverman interpretation, one related to chronotype, and one purely speculative.

    1. My Braverman scores are D 26, A 38, G 30, S 28, which would seem to indicate Acetylcholine dominance, the profile of which does indeed dovetail very well with my self-conception. I know you mentioned not getting hung up on the numbers, but I’m curious whether my overall profile does indicate Acetylcholine dominance or is better interpreted as a “balanced” profile. I checked out other online forums where people reported dominant values in the 30s but other values in the teens, far below my other readings. They did also report scoring as deficient in those neurotransmitters on the second part of the test.

    2. Are you familiar with Dr. Michael Breus’ chronotype model? It includes 4 types instead of the conventional 2 or 3. He recognizes lions (early rise, early to bed), bears (the 9-5ers of the world, 50% of population), wolves (late risers, late to bed), and dolphins (the insomniacs of the world, whose cortisol rises at night unlike the other types). Breus also uses personality assessment as a major tool for identifying his chronotypes. I wonder if there is a correspondence between chronotype and neurotransmitter profile, as manifested by common personality traits. My pet theory: lions = dopamine (motivated, domineering); wolves = acetylcholine (quick-witted, creative); bears = GABA (practical, responsible, devoted); dolphins = serotonin (though this seems to have the least correspondence, based on Braverman’s and Breus’ descriptions of the types).

    I’m a Wolf and Acetylcholine-dominant, so maybe I’m just confirmation-biasing my way to a pet theory.

    3. It seems that scientists are increasingly finding biochemical justification for long-standing heuristics about “human nature” and personality types. I wonder if the next frontier will be the personality types associated with the Zodiac. Is it possible that the time of year in which people are borne interacts with their inborn genetics to affect personality? Has any research been done on this?

    Although I’m not a “believer” in astrology, I confess that I not only identify strongly with my Wolf chronotype and my apparent acetylcholine-dominance, but also with my supposed Aquarius personality type. It’s starting to feel a little uncanny how it all lines up.

  44. So what does it say when you have basically the same numbers for every category in the test, both dominant and deficient? While I think it is interesting it reminds me too much of a Myers-Briggs type assessment which has been shown to be almost completely scientifically invalid.

  45. Mark, do you have any neuroscientist friends who can explain the brain to us chemically and then explain how a primal lifestyle supports balance of neurotransmitters and personality?
    An aside: I see in the above four major personality groups and I’ve seen in life no good reason to restrict oneself to just one.

  46. Now browsing the post I see that many say they are “Acetylcholine-Dominant” (me included).
    Question: What are the proportions between the different types?

  47. I’ve done the Braverman test and came back Acetylcholine dominant which was pretty accurate for me.

    I’m a foodie, I’d love to see more cookbooks.

  48. Interesting article, but is one typically dominant than the others? After taking the Braverman test, I ended up with similar results in three areas with neither truly higher than the others. Except, physiologically, that can’t always be the case. Any further insight?