Consistency, routine, and ritual… these are requirements for being a great athlete, right? The thought that all it takes is showing up everyday — rain, shine, sleet, snow, or volcanic ash — has in theory always sounded like best practice. And in a lot of ways, this is probably correct. After all, we now know that grit is a better predictor of success than IQ or raw talent. But within grit, there is much nuance.
While nearly every great artist or athlete has some sort of routine (even if it is a routine of randomness), it turns out that variety is more than just the spice of life, it may actually be the main course. According to Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin, trainer of Olympic Gold Medalists in 18 different sports, there is no generic, apply-all solution when it comes to training for your sport. Poliquin realizes that there are athletes who respond better to slow, steady, uniform progress, while others need intense and varied routines to be the best athlete they can be.
The Five Chinese Elements: It’s All About Neurotransmitters
While studying Chinese Medicine three decades ago, Poliquin realized there was something to the concept of the five Chinese elements (earth, water, fire, metal, and wood) and how they are applied to recognizing individual imbalances, dominances, and deficiencies. The strength coach saw similarities between the Eastern approach and the Western one, determining that the five elements seemed to correspond to the more familiar neurotransmitters: strong fire presence reflecting dopamine dominance; then wood being the equivalent of acetylcholine; metal, gaba; water, serotonin; with earth representative of a balanced neurotransmitter profile.
With this approach, Poliquin gives seemingly identical athletes in the same sport and, in many cases, on the same teams dramatically different training protocols based on their results from the Braverman test, the most widely accepted method of determining neurotransmitter dominance and deficiency. The test asks a series of true or false questions based on personality traits, general attitude, and mood. The test can only be taken once because once the questions are known, it is highly likely that biases will interfere with the results. The first section measures neurotransmitter dominance and the second neurotransmitter deficiency. While there are other methods for testing neurotransmitter though urine, saliva, or blood samples, these are widely considered unreliable relative to the written Braverman Test.
Therefore, Poliquin essentially designs his training programs for athletes based on their tendency to run on dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and/or gaba. And while it might seem obvious that how we thrive on the hill or ocean has much to do with our personal chemical and biological composition, in a culture that loves to provide a one-size-fits-all solutions, protocols that recognize our individuality are difficult to come by.
Many of us choose to get our exercise in the saddle, on the board, or on the end of a rope rather than from under barbell or between the arms of a squat rack. But this assessment still applies; knowing your element type and neurotransmitter profile and combination are the next step in mastering your performance and reaching new heights… literally.
The Fire Type Athlete
These dopamine dominate shredders are the guys you can’t miss on the hill. They are always excited and tend to have an infectious, inspiring nature and a vibrant personality. They’re capable of realizing their potential thanks to their confidence and a high performance nervous system. Fire Types will never second guess a cliff drop or hairy line because they require the highest level of excitement to really perform their best. But their explosive nature does not just refer to their pop off the lip — when they get angry, it’s best to steer clear.
For a dopamine dominant athlete, a more varied and higher volume approach to sport will yield the greatest benefits. Getting on the bike for a few days, on the board for the weekend, and going for a sport climb on the first half of next week will be best for these types. They go all out with each activity as the fire type nervous system demands variation and high volume. These athletes have an incredible capacity to adapt to movements, but if they don’t switch it up frequently, they will burn out.
The Wood Type
These acetylcholine dominant athletes tend to be pioneers in their sport, coming up with creative and extravagant plans and goals. Wood types go all-in every time they drop; they love pushing their personal limits as well as the limits of the sport. The wood type is quick-witted and creative, seeking out lines that may not be the gnarliest but probably weren’t even noticed by the rest of the crew.
These athletes will do better with more consistency at lower volume than the dopamine dominate athlete. Rather than switching it up every few days, the acetylcholine dominate shredder will do better to stay on the bike for a couple weeks, then maybe switch it up with a surf trip and or some exploratory backpacking, maintaining a similar level of variation across all seasons with a consistent volume that will leave something in the tank after each work out. As a wood type, going to the extreme end with high intensity workouts every time you strap-in could lead to burnout and a sense of overtraining. These athletes have propensity to overdo it and need to plan down days and stick to them if they want to be their best.
The Earth Type
The earth-type athlete has a balanced neurotransmitter profile — they are stable and consistent. These are the guys and gals that show up to the hill every day ready to go. They are well-rounded athletes and thrive on stability, consistency, and routine. They are very sensitive to variations in routine; and if they partied too hard the night prior, you will hear about it and their performance will suffer.
While earth types can stay on the bike or board for a full season without needing to switch things up, they need to vary intensity and volume in their approach. This means going on longer, mellower rides for a couple weeks and then going on shorter, balls-to-the-wall ventures for a little while, striking a balance that won’t lead them to burn out. Too much intensity and volume at the same time will lead to straight exhaustion.
The Metal Type
The metal type athlete will probably spend more time discussing and obsessing over gear or proper nutrition or coming up with crazy theories about their approach to their sport. They will generally be more interested in different philosophies of the sport rather than actually going out and getting dirty. They will tend to try and come up with hacks or tricks to beat the system and may even come to rely on chemical cocktails to induce some of the more desirable traits for sport.
The metal type will complain that they are burnt out before they have even reached mid-season on hill. As Poliquin describes these athletes, “they are the iconoclasts of the sport… most of their calorie expenditure comes from talking.”
The Water Type
There is a good chance that a water type individual would not fall into the category of “an athlete.” They are typically associated more with serotonin dominance and tend to not gravitate towards sport, particularly those sports that have any type of high intensity or require a substantial amount of volume.
These types will be fascinated by the feats of the fire, wood, and earth types but will have a fleeting attention span for such unrelatable acts. They will hit up that yoga studio once or maybe even twice a month and not really have a capacity for much more volume than that.
Applying Your Type
It is very rare that any athlete fits perfectly into one element type or neurotransmitter category. It is far more likely that athletes have some combination each type that makes up their composition. That is where the Braverman test results are most useful. Your results will provide a great deal of insight as to the type of athlete you are and how you should play to your individual strengths. While a dopamine dominant athlete may have a nervous system built for intense, explosive sports, if they are deficient in serotonin and are not taking the time to kick back, relax, and have fun, their performance is going to suffer.
At the end of the Braverman test, there are lists of explanations and personality traits associated with that neurotransmitter as well as a list of potential remedies and ways to balance the neurotransmitters you may be deficient in — these are useful guidelines, but don’t take them at face value. This is just one piece to the puzzle, albeit a big useful piece, but one piece nonetheless. If you find that you are very unbalanced, it is best to continue your research and seek professional to help you apply the practices and regimens that are best for you.