Sharpening the Brain

At the end of last year I made the decision to make a major change in my life.

God opened some doors for me to start a brand new weightlifting program at Lenoir-Rhyne University. This in turn gave me the opportunity to go back to school. My desire to further my education is like a small flame inside me that has grown with each and every year.

I met Dr. Andy Galpin a few years ago in Memphis while we were both attending the wake of Chris Moore. Within about 30 seconds of meeting him, I was completely fascinated by everything he was saying. Here was a guy who loved the barbell, and he had taken his love an entirely different direction than mine. I was in the practical world of coaching, and he was in the theoretical world of research and academia.

As we sat there talking I realized we had placed ourselves in a perfect scenario. I could bounce my ideas off of the current research, and he could ask me what was really happening in the weightlifting world. In some ways the research is just now catching up and confirming what the guys and gals in the trenches have known for years, such as going to failure is a great way to elicit hypertrophy. No kidding! But in some ways the research is showing us just how dumb certain things have been, such as the so-called dangers of the knees going past the toes on squats.

However there is an aspect that really intrigues me, and that’s the research that is light years ahead of what’s happening in the “real world.” For example, Dr. Galpin was going on and on about the muscle fiber type IIx, or what some people might call the super fast fiber type. It’s only found in a small percent of the population like world-class sprinters. I am guessing that Usain Bolt is filled with this type of muscle fiber.

It was during this conversation with Dr. Galpin that I realized I wanted to end up in this side of the industry. Why? That’s a great question I am dying to answer.

The Full Story

Our industry is filled with great athletes giving advice. You will also find lots of content with high-level coaches giving advice, teaching biomechanics, and debating programming. The web is also filled with research gurus sharing the latest research as if it’s the gospel. However I find if I spend too much time in any one camp, I will be missing a major part of the equation.

Most athletes only know what has worked for them and a few of their teammates. Most of the time they are missing the why. However they can inform other athletes about what to expect. If they have competed at the World Championships, then they know what it’s like to walk out on the platform while judges from three other countries are staring at them. If they have been to the Olympics, they know what’s it’s like to represent their country during that remarkable moment in time. Unless a coach has competed at that level as an athlete, they have no idea. There is no way to empathize because they haven’t experienced those moments.

A great coach can tell you the why. They can formulate a macrocycle that leads right up to an Olympics four years away. They know how to extrapolate from the data what’s going well and what needs to change. But if he or she hasn’t ever been a high level athlete, it’s hard to prepare athletes mentally for something they have never experienced. The biggest negative I see in some coaches is an unwillingness to continue learning. They refuse to look at new research coming down the pipe, or they refuse to learn from other coaches who are being successful. This is an unforgivable quality, and one that all athletes should run from. I have watched great coaches with little or no athletic ability coach athletes all the way to the Olympics, but I have never witnessed a close-minded coach succeed.

At the time of my conversation with Dr. Galpin, I had been a high-level athlete and coach. I had already coached multiple weightlifters all the way to the world championships, powerlifters to the world championships, and field athletes to the pros. I realized that the only thing I was missing was my PhD. It was in that moment I decided I would someday pursue my doctorate.


This doesn’t mean I am going to stop coaching. Quite the contrary! I am taking all of my incredible athletes with me. I will be able to collect data and perform research on some of the best athletes in America, which will also give our program a fairly big advantage. The facilities and the tools at my disposal make the opportunity ideal for athletes and for me. We will have daily access to velocity based training units from GymAware, athlete testing devices from Omegawave, force plates, DEXA monitors for determining body composition, all the benefits of athletic training, cold and hot tubs, and so much more.

When Dr. Alex Koch presented this opportunity to me, I was all in almost immediately. Between Dr. Koch and Dr. Keith Leiting, the Exercise Science department at Lenoir-Rhyne University is one of the most progressive and forward thinking programs in the country. Not to mention, it’s a program centered on strength training, or at least it gives you a choice to focus on that route. If you are an aspiring strength and conditioning coach, there’s no better choice. As far as I am concerned, I have found my home.

So what does the future look like for me, and Mash Elite Performance? I will still coach the weightlifting team at LRU, I will still handle my top athletes from around the world, and I will still coach my amazing athletes from our online team.

I hope to help Coach Caldwell, the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at LRU, with some of the amazing athletes at LRU – so that I can keep progressing my skills as an athletic performance coach. But more and more I will transition into more of a research and professor role where I hope to bridge the gap between researcher/coach/athlete. Most of you have probably picked up on the fact that I am intrigued by athlete testing and data collection – especially where velocity based training, brain waves, HRV, and ECG are involved. I am sure that Dr. Koch and Dr. Leiting will get involved and help me take this thing even further.

Let me be clear: the future of athletic performance lies in the individualization of programming (and coaching because programming is only as good as the coach implementing the program). Some of you are going to fight this and debate the matter until your face turns red. That’s fine by me. Change is hard for everyone. The only constant is that some will adapt and thrive, and some will get left behind. I guess that is natural selection at its finest.


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Falling in Love

Now I want to get to the heart of this article. I really wrote this article to give you all some insight into my findings so far as a 47-year-old graduate student. First I want to say this has been the hardest year of my life as far as work load is concerned. I decided to take a ramp-up anatomy and physiology course that covered all 11 organ systems in one semester to get me back in the swing of things. I took the course at the local community college thinking it would be easy. Boy, did I have a rude awakening.

Evidently this course was a prerequisite for nurse practitioners, future physician’s assistants, and some looking to become RN’s. Our professor was Chris Sowers, who actually started his work at the University of North Carolina. He had no intention of letting a student slip through his class without understanding the material. He was incredibly firm but fair. In my four years at Appalachian State University, I never read and studied so much for one class.

You know what Professor Sowers taught me? He taught me to fall in love with anatomy and physiology, and he taught me to fall in love with learning. I was always the athlete. That was my identity. I was a pretty good student, but that wasn’t what people thought of first. He was the first professor who noticed my potential as an academi, and he pointed it out. At 47 years old I felt like a kid again with a second chance, and this time I was going to focus on exactly what I wanted to accomplish versus what I thought everyone else expected of me.

I think I stayed late after class 90% of the time discussing what I was learning. I started looking at the body as a puzzle – one big puzzle. When you realize the cardiovascular system is nothing without the respiratory system, the nervous system is nothing without the cardiovascular system, and so on, you stop looking at the organ systems separately and start piecing them together. However, once again this is not a lesson on anatomy and physiology. This is a lesson on learning.

At 47 years old I was scared I wouldn’t learn as fast as I used to. I thought I would be the old guy in the class not getting it. But I found out that wasn’t true at all. There were like four or five of us in the class who loved A&P and loved the process of learning. When I realized I was at the top of the class, I realized that I have morphed as a person. Like I said, I have made good grades my whole life – but I have never been the top of any class. As a matter of fact, I am pretty sure I was more of the class clown who interrupted the flow of the classroom and flustered the teacher. I was finally allowing myself to become the person I really wanted to be all along.

As a teenager and college student there was a part of me that didn’t believe I was good enough. I always assumed there would be someone smarter than me, so I didn’t see the point in trying. Looking back it was a fear of failure. That is where sports helped to change my mindset. I have written about my transformation as an athlete in several articles in the past. From being ok with just being on the team to deciding that I could be the best in the world was a shift that has related to everything in my life from coaching to business and now school.

My professor, and he will always be my professor, taught all of us about the skill of learning. He was the first person to talk about learning as a skill. I have never really thought about my study skills or analyzed them to look for improvement. The truth is that I have never really thought about it at all until this semester. Professor Sowers changed all of that. My goal with this article is to pass some of these lessons on to all of you, and let you in on the science behind the methods.

Tips to Learn

First I want to explain some of things I discovered on my own that worked for me, and then I will tell you what I have discovered after combing through the research. I want to give a disclaimer right up front that I have battled ADHD my entire life. My good friend Gabriel Villarreal is the first to actually diagnose me. I have known my entire life, but I grew up in a family that didn’t believe in psychology. Luckily learning came pretty easy to me even though paying attention did not. ADHD isn’t a death sentence at all for young students. There are plenty of incredible entrepreneurs, emergency room doctors, and CEOs who have ADHD. They simply learned to use it to their advantage. However, they still probably need to deal with it to maintain solid relationships and to avoid self-destruction. However this article isn’t about that, and I am not qualified to teach you about that… so go talk to Gabriel.

1. Study in small increments (30-50 minutes). The best thing to do is reward yourself for a job well done, so dangle the carrot of a cup of coffee or a 10-15 minute walk as your reward. The 10-15 minute walk will make the process easier anyways, but more on that later.

Short bouts of studying allows the prefrontal cortex (CEO of the brain), the hippocampus (cartographer of the brain), the amygdala (stores impactful memories), and the cerebellum (top assistant to the CEO) to process the information, recover, adapt, and get ready for the next session. I will go over each of these a bit later. This reward system keeps the dopamine flowing, which is also associated with learning.

2. Teach someone what I am learning. This is the best way to learn that I have found. I will take my break, grab a coffee, and tell my wife all about it. Learning is totally tied to all the senses. It won’t take long to find out if you learn from hearing, studying on your own, or a little of both. Personally I found that using as many senses as possible seemed to really help me grasp things.

3. Use a Coloring Book and/or App. I always thought an anatomy and physiology coloring book was silly until I used one. There is something about working with the system you’re learning about with the different colors. It makes it so much easier to distinguish the different organs and tissues from one another.

4. Get 7-9 Hours of Sleep per Night. This one might be a tough one for some, but the fact is the hippocampus works with the neocortex at night to store the information one learns the day before. REM sleep appears to be the stage of sleep associated with memory and learning whereas deep sleep is the stage where new movement patterns are stored.

5. Eat Healthy and Don’t Skip Meals. Glucose is the only energy source for the brain. If you don’t eat, it’s going to be harder for the brain to fire the neurons required for memory and learning. The body will actually start to inhibit glucose to conserve energy. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, skipped breakfast, and rushed right in to take a test at 8am, you probably remember feeling dumb. I did this once in college, and it was the worst feeling of my life. It was as if everything decided to run together, and I simply couldn’t remember anything.

6. The Olfactory System is Crucial (Sense of Smell). This was one of Professor Sower’s first lessons in learning for the whole class. I recommend using an intense smell such as cinnamon while you are studying. Then bring that same scent to class on test day, and you will have a much easier time recalling the information. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the hippocampus and the amygdala of the limbic system. The hippocampus is the place in the brain that memories are formed, and the amygdala determines the intensity of which to respond to certain stimuli especially like something scary or dangerous. When something scares you, that memory is etched in your memory forever. When you use smell while studying, you are using the same part of the brain to etch those memories into the brain forever.

Those are just a few of the techniques I learned from Professor Sowers and some that I picked up on my own. Oh yeah – and by the way I made a 95 in that class, which the last I checked was the top in the class. For a while there were a couple of students near me, but this was their second semester taking Professor Sowers’ A&P class because they made a C and their major required a B or higher. About 60% of the class failed it completely. My professor has no intention of giving anyone a pass. He wanted us to do the work, participate in class, and absorb the material. What he did was make me fall in love with school, and he helped me embrace my new role as a student, coach, and future professor.



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There’s one more thing I want to mention before I wrap this article up. A year or so ago, my friend Gabriel Villarreal gave me the book “Spark” by John Ratey. It sat on my shelf this entire time until one day my wife picked it up and started reading it. She started telling me all about it, and the next thing I know I am reading it, buying the audio version to listen to it while I am driving, and researching the material down rabbit holes that have no end. I am totally intrigued, if not obsessed.

I don’t want to ruin the book, but I want to give some highlights you can apply to get smarter, more focused, and overall happier. The book starts out telling the story of a high school in Naperville, FL that added a fitness class into their school where PE had been taken out. I don’t want to ruin the book, but the school started crushing their testing. The author goes on the explain the science behind the findings. The big thing the author keeps coming back to in the book is the creation of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor caused by exercise. BDNF is created in the hippocampus, and it is basically miracle grow for neurons in the brain. Neurons are created during exercise, and then BDNF helps the neurons grow, creates more dendrites on the neurons (which is where neurons connect to other neurons), and helps to create long term potentiation at the synapses. LTP is persistent strengthening at the synapses creating a long lasting signal transmission between two neurons. All of this is creating synaptic plasticity or a constant strengthening of synapse, making learning and memory easier as you go.

Based on the book, I recommend some cardiovascular work in the morning to get the hippocampus producing BDNF, and I recommend performing complex athletic movements like Olympic weightlifting or gymnastics. This will strengthen the neurons in the cerebellum, and the cerebellum is for a lot more than just motor patterns. In the same way the brain uses the cerebellum to coordinate complex movements like riding a bike or performing a snatch in Olympic weightlifting, the brain uses the cerebellum to subconsciously store information you’ve been working on as unconscious thought that might resurface as innovation or working memory sent to the prefrontal cortex as sudden insight or intuition. Besides this the cerebellum seems to coordinates thoughts, attention, emotions, and even social skills.

I am going to write an article all about the book and the research I am doing that’s inspired by the book, but I wanted to give you guys some insight. The bottom line is that all of you should perform a little cardiovascular exercise to strengthen the body’s ability to learn. Cardiovascular work will also help you focus, put you in a good mood, get you motivated, and get the brain firing. Cardiovascular activity has been shown to increase the flow of serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate, which are neurotransmitters responsible for brain activity, focus, mood, self-worth, and learning.

Working out in general gets the brain fired up, not to mention it gets the prefrontal cortex going. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision making and deciding which memories to keep. Exercise will keep the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and the cerebellum working efficiently together. There’s a lot more to the book, but I will need an entire article just for that book.

I hope this article has inspired all of you to get out there and start learning. It’s never too late to change your path. For me I am not really changing the path or mission. I am simply going in a bit deeper and helping athletes around the world in a different way. I hope all of you will come along for the journey.

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