By Stefan Ianev
Since as far back as 2005 I learned from one of my great mentors Charles Poliquin that some people respond best to volume, some people respond best to intensity, and others respond best to variety.
This is something that has continued to intrigue me since, because as I coach I want to know both from a physiological and psychological stand point why some people can handle more volume, why others can handle higher intensity, and why some people can handle both pretty well. There are even those individuals that don’t handle either very well.
In the last several years as we have made some great advancements in the fields of genetics, epigenetics, and neuroscience, and after some discussions with my colleague and friend Christian Thibaudeau, who has built on the work of Charles Poliquin, I feel as though we have started to piece some of the pieces of the puzzle together.
In order to understand how your psychological profile affects your response to training we need to first understand the relationship between arousal and performance. Ultimately your psychology drives your physiology hence why this is of utmost importance.
Whether we are participating in a competition, performing a mental or cognitive task, or working out in the gym, for every individual there is an optimal amount of stress or arousal where we perform at our best. It is important to realise that not all stress is bad, and we need some stress or arousal to perform.
When faced with a challenge or stressful situation, we release neurotransmitters and stress hormones involved in the ‘fight and flight’ response such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. These chemicals increase attention and alertness, raise blood pressure and heart rate, and increase muscle force production.
However, if we have too much stress or arousal and we a have an exceedingly high level of stress chemicals flooding our body, that will increase tension and anxiety and lead to diminished performance. That is why some athletes choke under pressure in a big event and some people choke in a big exam.
That’s because these chemicals operate on a “bell” or “inverted U” curve. We call this the Goldilocks principle. We need just the right amount of these chemicals, too much or too little will impair performance and cognitive function.
Figure 1 The inverted U curve illustrates that as a person’s stress or arousal increases, performance also increases, up to a point, then it begins to decline.
Now, one of the reasons we all have different tolerance to stress can handle different amounts of stress in the gym is because we all sit at different points on the bell curve at baseline. That means some people are naturally more laid back and sit at the lower end of the bell curve, while others are naturally more anxious and tense and sit at the higher end of the bell curve.
This is largely due to our ability to clear stress hormones from our system. One of the most well studies genes is the COMT gene which encodes for the COMT enzyme. The COMT enzyme is responsible for degrading our catecholamines including dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
If someone has slowed down COMT activity which can be genetic or epigenetic in nature, they will have a reduced ability to clear catecholamines from their system. That means if they are exposed to too many stressors such as high-volume or high intensity training, they will have a harder time turning off the stress response.
If you remain in fight or flight mode for too long with elevated catecholamines it starts to become very catabolic and destructive to the body and can cause desensitization of the beta-adrenergic receptors. When the beta-adrenergic receptors become desensitized, they become less responsive to adrenaline and noradrenaline leading to symptoms of overtraining and adrenal fatigue.
When people talk about adrenal fatigue, which is not actually a recognised condition in the medical community, this is what’s actually occurring. It is not so much that the adrenals become depleted and stop producing adrenaline and noradrenaline, but the receptors become desensitized from being over stimulated.
That’s important to know because if someone is already sitting at the peak or higher end of the bell curve, and you try to push them too much in the gym you can tip them over, their performance and ability to adapt to the training stress will suffer.
This is true for both volume and intensity as both jack up stress hormones. The issue is further compounded when in a caloric deficit which is an additional stressor. That is why these individuals tend to do better on moderate volume and intensity because it helps manage the stress response.
On the other end of the spectrum we have individuals that deactivate their catecholamines very rapidly because of increased COMT activity and/or higher levels calming neurotransmitters such as GABA and serotonin.
These individuals don’t do too well on high volume marathon workouts either because they tend to get bored very easily and they are also more prone to dopamine depletion. Adrenaline and adrenaline are both made from dopamine, and if you are degrading these chemicals very rapidly you can burn up through your dopamine reverses. If dopamine drops too low, you will experience symptoms of depressions and lethargy.
However, these types usually do quite well with heavy or explosive lifting because it brings their low baseline dopamine levels within the optimal range. That is why these types of individuals are usually attracted to exercises or sports that gives them a thrill such as combat sports, heavy or explosive lifting, and cross fit.
So to recap, if someone is naturally sitting at the low end of the bell curve they will generally respond well to high intensity training because it pushes them up to the optimal point on the bell curve and they will feel better. They don’t tend to do very well on a lot of volume because they can burn up their dopamine very quickly and crash.
On the other hand, individuals that naturally sit at the peak or higher end of the bell curve can tip over if you push up their volume or intensity too much and crash. These individuals generally respond better to moderate volume and intensity and gradual progression in the gym.
Lastly, individuals that sit in between the low end and peak of the bell curve, which makes up majority of the population can handle both volume and intensity fairly well, provided they are both not emphasised at the same time. These individuals are less at risk of dopamine depletion or beta-adrenergic than either end of the extremes.
Hopefully you can appreciate now at least on a surface level how your psychological profile affects your physiology and stress response and why certain people are more suited to certain training styles.
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