Thursday, March 8, 2012

Train the Brain and the Muscles Will Follow - Part 1

Yesterday, I attended my first-ever non-fitness seminar. It was titled "How the Brain Forms New Habits: Why Willpower Is Not Enough". It was put on by the Institute for Brain Potential and the speaker was a very funny and articulate professor from Dartmouth College, Bill Kelley, Ph.D.

I was pretty psyched for this presentation because it dealt with something I have very little knowledge about, but have massive amounts of interest in. I love learning how people think and how they create perspectives and conclusions. My blog posts are heavily influenced by interaction with fitness clients and the psychology behind helping them change their bodies and lifestyle. That's why there is not many "exercise videos" by me in this blog. With over 350+ posts, I would suffice to say there is roughly 20% or less containing exercises videos by me. And just for your viewing pleasure, here is one of me last summer pounding 440 pounds on the deadlift (no shirt, no shoes, no belt):

In a conference room filled with psychologists, social workers, nurses, and counselors, I was the only personal trainer in attendance. I was a little stunned by this because trainers work with helping clients change their way of thinking. We just use exercise as the tool. We don't set out to change someone's way of thinking directly, but we indirectly facilitate lifestyle changes beginning with changing what one sees in the mirror. This workshop was beyond amazing to me because I was fascinated by the information I heard regarding how the brain functions. Here are quick take home key points:

1.) Bottom Up Vs. Top Down Thinkers. Some people live their lives on "auto-pilot"...meaning they automate everything---like working on an assembly line. Let's pretend that you have a job that you simply put stickers on packs of gum all day. 

Your brain is wired to continuously do the same task day after day after day. It's a habit. That is a Bottom-Up Thinker. A Top Down Thinker has a "volume control knob", and can regulate their thinking to involve doing other tasks. That knob can be turned up or down depending on the person. They have control over their regulation. Unlike a Bottom-Up Thinker, the assembly line tasks take control of their thought-process which turns it into an automation. 

How does this work for you,  the personal trainer? First off, if you work with the general population,  this is more evident than working with a young athlete. Automation thinkers don't think critically. They want to be told what to do and simply do it. This relates to Bootcampers. They want to come in at 5:00pm and be told what to do. Crossfitters enter the facility and check their WOD on the board. There is no guarantee that they understand what they are doing; they just know that it must get done. Not a bad thing if you are a trainer that doesn't like confrontation or doesn't want to teach. Top Down Thinkers tend to ask questions and may be more attentive in a training session. You can figure out what type of client you have simply by engaging in a rapport and look for repetitiveness in their history (ie, "same place to eat", "same beach", "same job for 15+ years, etc). This one takes investigation, it is not so black and white. 

2.) Declarative Vs. Procedural Memory. How do most of your clients or bootcampers learn exercises? Doing them over and over? I will pick on bootcamps right now for a moment. In large class bootcamps, most people don't recieve adequate instruction. They watch the coach and watch those around to perform the movements. If the classes are large, it is very difficult for 1 instructor to oversee 20+ students. Therefore, most bootcampers watch their neighbor to learn how to perform a unique exercise like a Spiderman Push-ups. Now the keyword is "Spiderman". Fitness coaches and strength coaches can call this a push up with lateral hip rotation and knee flexion. But for the lay-person, we label them "Spiderman" push-ups because they kinda resemble our favorite comic book hero:

Associating Spiderman with those push-ups is Declarative Memory. And it works for generally everyone--especially large group bootcamps. And unfortunately, there are personal trainers and coaches that have to associate cartoon characters and animals to certain exercises to make them distinguishable for themselves. This is a sign of a "new trainer". Just like the bootcamper that is "rushed" into learning a new exercise and needs a comic book character to remember it, the same short time lapse is used by the instructor. This is a sign of low experience. Procedural Memory is demonstrated by those that have conducted the action repeatedly over a long period of time. Like riding a bike,  the brain has wired the function and "stored it" into its database. 

How does this work for you,  the personal trainer?  Repetitions are not only meant to be counted. They are meant to be repeated over and over. Physical adaptation is part of the program--physically and mentally. Making clients repeatedly perform and practice certain movements or exercises ensures that they will remember it better. Using the same coaching cues--same words and same tone--will ensure that their brain stores the information. How do you want to separate yourself from the competition? Begin with coaching your client's brain.

3.) Dopamine and Rewards. The brain reacts to a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is released into a part of the brain that reinforces rewards such as food, sex, drugs or alcohol. Not all rewards have to pleasurable. Some can be negative. Rewards are anything that will cause repetition. Dopamine is a motivator which causes your brain to make you "want" to repeat an act. This is reinforcement. Drugs work in the sense that they make one feel good or forget a negative feeling (shame, guilt, anger, etc). People repeatedly take drugs because the brain is constantly reacting to the dopamine and reward association. If one can change the reward system---meaning the perceived reward for an action--than you can influence others in a positive (or negative) way. 

How does this work for you,  the personal trainer?
This is what I love about my training programs. They are short, intense, and the client feels exhilarated afterwards. I'm not doing anything different from the next guy...or am I? When I walk into a gym and watch the personal trainer working with his client; I see them talking and resting alot. In an hour session, I would guess there is only about 25 minutes of ACTUAL training being performed. The client is not being stimulated--mentally or physically. The client simply has a "hourly paid friend". Because the exercise lacks any intensity and stimuli, there is little to no dopamine released into the brain. My sessions are 30 minutes long and the entire session involves little talk--only my coaching cues--and the constant flow of the workout. What is happening? The client is physically challenged in a controlled environment to a near-state of discomfort. At the end of the workout, they are elated and feel good. This prompts a release of dopamine that reinforces a trigger: "Finish John's workout and you will feel good". Good feeling = reward. 

Sounds ridiculous....but my client retention rates are high. It can be a double-edged sword for some if they are progressed too early or have low pain tolerance. But as long as the reward system is created with my client's best interest and safety in mind,  the rest is up to me. Every client is a silly-puddy. It is up to each trainer to create and mold the reward system for their client. Everyone knows that diet and exercise is good for them because they have it hammered into their brain by marketing and society. But if you can attach a positive emotional response to it,  it will re-structure the reward system in the brain to reinforce consistency and adherence. And those two things are what make any exercise program work.

There is so much I can get into with this topic, so I will have to make a part 2. Stick around!


  1. Great post, John!! Thanks for sharing and being such a great resource in our field. I'm looking forward to part 2.
    You mentioned that your client sessions are 30 minutes, I think I LOVE that idea! And obviously clients like it?
    Are there any challenges to "selling" that (since most of society seems to think training HAS to be an hour)? Do you have them do any stretching/foam work before they see you?

    Thanks! I'm a long time reader, first time commenter. :)

  2. I market the 30 minute sessions easily because most clients don't want to spend an hour training. They want to go back to their lives. Exercise is viewed as "another thing to do". So, if kept short, intense, and effective, clients keep coming back. It is the equivalent of going to the doctors and expecting to wait 45 minutes, but instead you are called right in and out the door in 15 minutes!
    Stretching and SMR is performed at the end of the session. Makes my clients leaving feeling good. SO that "reward" keeps them from remembering the "strenuous" workout.

  3. Hey John, great post the brain and behavior. If you are interested in learning more about this stuff, you must check out Z-Health. They talk about neurology and how it affects training and our client's lives overall. I have taken 2 of their courses so far and I am amazed with the things I learned from them so far.

    ~ Anna D.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, John!!
    Great advice!

  5. John, just completed my first certification courses at the YMCA. I still have a long way to go, but I feel good knowing I have you online to help me stay on course. When I grow up, I wanna be just like you!

  6. Thanks for the feedback. Make sure you check out the Institute for Brain Potential.


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