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Fitness Training For Introverts - What You Need To Know

Updated: Mar 13

Exactly how to exercise correctly for your introvert neurotype. Essential reading for introverts of all fitness levels wanting to get in shape safely and enjoyably.

If you have read my previous blog post you will know introverts by nature prefer (a) to use the parasympathetic side of our nervous system (rest and digest), and (b) the calming effect of acetylcholine production over the excitement generated by dopamine stimulation. (As a side bonus, I even taught you how to pronounce acetylcholine!)

Does this mean that introverts wanting to get in shape are limited to placid activities like restorative yoga, tai chi and long distance swimming? Not at all. You can successfully participate in high intensity pursuits and receive tremendous benefit as long as you incorporate a number of key factors into your programming.

As a starting point, it is important to acknowledge that your nervous system is the control centre of motivation. It plays a huge role in your response to stress (all physical training is considered a stressor by the body) and in how much energy, focus and work capacity you have at your disposal.

Now, the key to success following any program is simply to train hard and stay consistent. You can't/won't do that for long if you're not motivated by your program. And to be motivated by your program it has to fit your neurological profile. Otherwise you will end up with subpar results or possibly (even worse) depleted, listless and/or injured.

Canadian strength coach Christian Thibaudeau has identified three main personality types based on their relative levels of certain neurotransmitters: chiefly dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA and norepinephrine (AKA adrenaline). As introverts, the majority of us will fall into the third camp called (logically enough) Type 3 and named "The Harm Avoider". This neurotype is characterised by low serotonin, acetylcholine and GABA levels, which leads to a low baseline of energy and a minimal stress threshold with a corresponding tendency toward anxiety.

Interestingly, Thibaudeau makes no mention of endorphins (the hormone responsible for the well-known ‘runner’s high’). For our purposes, the roles of serotonin, acetylcholine and GABA are similar enough to be grouped together as ‘calming hormones’ while endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine will be referred to as the ‘arousal hormones’ (get your mind out of the gutter!).

I’m not gonna lie...the moniker “Harm Avoider” didn’t sit well with me at first. I’ve gutted out some pretty tough workouts in my day! What he means by this is that we avoid situations with a high potential for injury and/or feeling out of control. It’s a preference rather than necessarily a limitation. When I set myself under a 400lb squat bar, I had spent years perfecting my technique, a long time warming up and carefully set up inside the safety rack.

In other words, I had minimised the possibility for injury and/or failure. In terms of programming, I always place the ‘money lifts’ (i.e. squat, deadlift, bench press) at the end of a workout when I am thoroughly warmed up and feel the exercises in my muscles rather than my joints. I also never went below 6 reps on these lifts. Surprisingly, my rep counts on these exercises varied little between programming them first or third in the routine. I did all of this instinctively but after reading Thibaudeau’s neurotyping now realise that I am a classic Type 3 – and so are the majority of introverts.

Other typical Type 3 attributes are:

  • Careful planning – hate unexpected changes of plan

  • A love of repetitive activities

  • Relentless pursuit of technical perfection (“technique geeks”)

  • Unparalleled ability to focus

  • Tightness in the flexor muscles (i.e. front delts, pecs, hip flexors, hamstrings, biceps and abs)

  • Low tolerance to high volume and/or high frequency workouts

  • Great stamina and fondness for steady state cardio

  • Internalising stress leading to anxiety and overthinking

Thibaudeau actually has the least to say about Type 3’s compared to the other neurotypes because he has the least experience working with clients in this group as they are the least likely to undertake strength training. The simple explanation is that most Type 3’s have attempted to follow a routine devised for (and by) Type 1 or 2’s. Let’s change all that with some basic Type 3 exercise guidelines:

  • Don’t spend too long on warming up – you will deplete your valuable energy

  • Emphasise mobility work/foam rolling with a focus on loosening up the flexor muscles (see above) to minimise injury risk

  • Minimise activation exercises - too much will ramp up your cortisol levels before you even get to the good stuff

  • Only train intensely for a maximum of four days per week – low intensity exercise like walking or swimming is fine and even beneficial on other days

  • Train using a properly designed program with planned progression - don't attempt to wing it and always write things down for reference

  • Stay away from max lifts or anything under 6 reps per set and/or high volume programs

  • Avoid explosive movements and perform most sets with a smooth, even tempo

  • Don’t train to failure every set and limit intensity techniques like drop sets, rest/pause, giant sets, pre-exhaust, etc

  • Include a cooldown phase incorporating static stretching and parasympathetic breathing to ensure a gradual return to the resting state – this is critical for Type 3’s and the most overlooked component of their programming

  • Take advantage of restorative measures between sessions such as massage, foam rolling, feeder workouts and gentle exercise such as walking

The essence of these strategies is to enjoy the benefits of stimulating the arousal hormones to boost both mood and performance and then cool them back down to let the calming hormone return to the driver’s seat. This approach will make for successful, sustainable workouts that you will come to love rather than dread and improve rather than detract from your life outside the gym.

It’s a simple yet powerful formula:

More consistency=better results=higher motivation=more consistency=better results=higher motivation...

Once you adjust your program to train correctly for your neurotype you can undo years of frustration and subpar results to enjoy activities you previously avoided or performed out of duty to your health. Apply what you have learned here and start boldly on the path to a happier, healthier you.

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