Movement & the Development of Your Brain

New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds writes, "It's widely accepted among scientists that regular exercise transforms the brain, improving the ability to remember and think." Reynolds goes further pointing to a promising body of research supporting the idea that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. The National Academy of Sciences published a new study showing how testosterone increases in the brain after training could be fueling neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

It turns out your brain likely produces a significant amount of the hormone dihydrotestosterone or DHT (as you might have guessed by the name, a derivative of testosterone). Researchers found that the hippocampus - critical for memory formation and spacial navigation - in particular was bathed in this hormone after training and that new neuron growth likely resulted from DHT's uptake in the brain. Reynolds summarizes this stating, "In essence, exercise prompts the production of more DHT. And more DHT helps to create more new brain cells."

Turning our attention to brain-derived neuro-tropic factor or BDNF we find yet another body of research supporting brain development and training. BDNF is a protein that promotes tissue growth and health throughout your body, including that brain of yours taking in these words. Training increases your levels of BDNF. It is vital in the learning, memory and higher thinking regions of the brain (not to mention it is well established as an important part of the regulation of body weight, in particular fat oxidation in muscle tissue, and energy homeostasis). Of all the chemicals that help stimulate and control neurogenesis, BDNF is perhaps one of the most active. Harvard's clinical professor of psychiatry Dr. John Ratey calls it the "Miracle-Gro" of the brain.

So, if you happen to be interested in enriching your neurons with the right "nutrients" to fire more quickly, grow faster and develop stronger connections then get into your training, NOW!

Furthermore, I can't think of a more rich neurological climate to pick up meditative or contemplative exercises with the power to yield multifaceted transformations throughout your life. Get training and while you're at it you might as well make strength training your new spiritual practice as Strength To Awaken illustrates.

 Enjoy,
~Rob McNamara


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The Weakness of Conventional Goals

To begin, there's nothing inherently wrong with your conventional goals to get stronger, leaner, faster, more powerful and so on. Conventional goals are needed, helpful and in many cases necessary ... AND they are inadequate and insufficient for most people. Conventional goals fail us more often than any of us would like to admit.

Furthermore, if you are interested in your greater abilities as a human being, conventional goals almost always fail to yield post-conventional capacities. Occasionally I see conventional goals creating a training or "practice" environment for eliciting post-conventional capabilities; however, these are what I call a form of "accidental progress." These certainly happen but they are rare (my suggestion is not to wait around for a miracle).


So, conventional goals are good in many ways. The more specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and defined in clear timelines the better, or so the researchers tell us again and again. However, they continue to be ineffective for most of us and they are largely impotent at eliciting integrated adaptations to the complex demands of your life.

We will briefly unpack inefficiency but we will save post-conventional integrated adaptations for another blog. I will que you into some important tips for how you can move forward.

1. First, conventional goals tend to be focused on outcomes. 


That means they happen in the future. Keeping your eye on the future is fine, but if this is the posture of your mind during your training it will take you ten times as long to get to where you want to go. Sometimes much longer. Depending on the specificity of the goal you may never get to your desired destination. There is no short supply of drives for future change that yield negligible results.

2. Conventional goals often obscure the path to getting to your future destination. 


The more your attention goes toward getting to your future destination the less you pay attention to what you're doing right now and how you're doing it. Having a future aim and direction is important; however, these outcome goals only find their pragmatic strength when held in a larger context that focuses your mind upon the specific actions most essential to getting there. This brings into focus how you are engaging in the required activities. Getting the right steps is essential. What you do is paramount, but how you execute and engage the "whats" often differentiates those who achieve more and those who fail to. So once you have your outcome and you know the necessary steps to get there, focusing on the outcome more will often hold you back.

I often use the analogy of a tire making contact with the road to explain this. The broader or wider the tire, the more contact you have with the road. In contrast, skinny narrow tires slip easily because they have very little surface area in contact with the road. Future oriented goals are like narrow tires aimed at getting down the road but they don't do a great job of bringing your attention into the immediacy of activity.

3. Conventional goals require lots of motivation and energy. 


Perhaps you have too much energy and motivation, in which case have at it. But most people lack these often seemingly scarce resources. It takes quite a bit of self-generated mental, emotional and physical energy to get you from today to your goal that may be 6 weeks away or worse yet, 3 or 6 months out. How do you sustain it? This is inevitably what we all end up asking ourselves unless we fear our survival depends upon attaining our goal. Get big enough goals with enough fear and anxiety around failure and sure you'll be "motivated," however we now have a nice recipe for adrenal fatigue, burn out and a life that is stamped with the "you're miserable" stamp across your forehead.

So what's an alternative? 


My recommendation is goals that take aim at the immediacy of your life. Elite athletes call these "process goals" as these are the cues they must focus upon, moment-to-moment, if they are to be successful, in some cases safe. For example, a downhill skier thinking about future goals at 80 miles an hour down a mountain often results in an 80 mile an hour barrel roll down the mountain, hitting snow fencing at 60 mph, a knee surgery and 18 months of rehab.

While this becomes plainly obvious in elite competitions, it is fairly easy to "check out" mentally during strength training and start thinking about your goals - or worse yet, something entirely unrelated. Your mind and body split, and in this separation goes any chance at progressing with greater efficiency. Just like the elite athlete, if you are interested in your higher capabilities it can be found in the integration of body and mind. This means your mind is focused upon the specific cues you need to execute on right here and now.

My book Strength to Awaken gives you what is perhaps the most nuanced set of post-conventional process goals found in any training manual, so if you're interested in diving deeper, don't hesitate. This book can save you decades of wasted effort. For now, I want to challenge you to differentiate between your outcome goals and your process goals.

Outcome goals are established, preferably with an expert, outside of the gym, before your training begins. Process goals are clarified again and again moment-to-moment in your training. Know what you're going to do before you even start. Then, once you begin focus your mind exclusively upon the quality of engagement you have with your training.

Mind and body come together and then the fun begins.

Enjoy
~Rob McNamara

PS: If you're looking for some process goals that might evolve your training, sign up for my free 12 training tips - you'll learn some within these short tips. You can find it in the sidebar at the top of my home page.
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Caution: Don't Train This Way!


Last week at the Integral Center I was fortunate enough to sit down with my Strength To Awaken small group plus a handful of people from around the world visiting Boulder for the Whats Next Conference. Again, motivation was a big topic. I think it is the major challenge for most people when it comes to training.

I'm going to share with you part of what we explored together because it is essential. If you don't get this there's a very good chance you are digging yourself into a ditch that quite honestly you probably don't want to dive into.

Whenever I speak about motivation I end up talking about discipline. They are interwoven in complex and important ways. For those of you who are already receiving my free 12 Training Tips, you'll hear more about this topic there and for those of you with my book Strength to Awaken in your hands already please see Chapter Nine for a deeper dive. Right now though, we are going to cut right to the heart of the problem.

Conventional discipline divides your mind.

Conventional approaches to training divide your mind.

Got those?
Good.

The common element I'd like you to que into is the divided mind.

Is your mind divided now?

Chances are it is. This is a problem. It is actually a very big one although it's probably familiar so you likely aren't that concerned. Having a mind that is divided is kind of like having your kitchen roaring in flames. Go on, picture that. You're in the living room going on as usual simply because you're used to that fire.

A divided mind is in many ways similar to your kitchen engulfed in flames because:
- both block you from nourishment you need.
and …
- both keep you out of places in your life you need to go.

The divided mind can be defined as two or more oppositional drives inside of you with divergent agendas. Part of you is going this way and part is headed that way. Most of the time these discordant drives are in a struggle with precisely what is happening in the present moment.

Strength training, or any kind of training, from this divided mind is a tremendous waste of energy. It is inefficient. It wastes time. It steals your enjoyment and pleasure.

The divided mind is what most adults live in. They haven't grown their mind to become strong enough to unify and cohere a drive that brings the mind into a synergy. Don't get all hard on yourself here, research suggests that less than 1% of adults do… this is our potential not where you "should be already."

So, training with divisions in your mind is the common climate of most people in the gym. And it also shows up in bed, in the office and in cars on the drive home. The problem is that training is supposed to be an activity that you do for a short period of time that carries you forward. Do this and it will take you FORWARD. Training a divided mind may give you some relative physical benefit when compared to a sedentary lifestyle; however, it often fails to draw you forward in any legitimate fashion. Instead, conventional training results in more division within yourself. Mentally you are not training, you're simply rehearsing or repeating. You're getting better at something that you already know how to do.

If you're like most adults you are not in any need on developing the ability to waste time and energy, be inefficient and erode your own joy and pleasure in or out of the gym. I think these come built in, they are not our future but our current predicament.

Stop repeating the habit of dividing your mind when you train. See what happens when you draw your mind into a greater coherence. Divide your mind and will likely find yourself saying that you are "struggling with not having enough motivation" as I hear often. Bring your mind into its larger resonance and direct it completely into the activity of your training and you will discover the heart of discipline. Become your mind's larger coherence and you will save time and energy, you will become more efficient and proficient. You will discover more joy and pleasure. And if you do this in your training you'll be shocked at how simply a unified and coherent mind shows up in other facets of your life.
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