Train Your Brain

Written by Andrew Read

The brain’s chemistry changes for the worse in your mid-30s, but activities like martial arts and kettlebell lifting can keep this change at bay, explains Andrew Read


In humans, after the age of 35, brain chemistry does indeed change, making it harder to learn new things. This applies across the board, from learning a language to a musical instrument, a martial art or any physical skill. So, to a point, it is true that older people will struggle to learn new skills. But that's not the whole story.

Researchers have found that if a person has kept an open mind about things during their life span, their brain chemistry doesn't go through the same change. This allows them to continue learning new skills and evolving. One of the side benefits of a life engaged in pursuit of physical excellence, be it in the fitness world or in martial arts, is that you are forced to remain a lifelong student. The combination of a life of study and physical activity, as well as constant emphasis on mobility and flexibility, will keep you younger than your non-training peers. But if you're over 40 and into martial arts, you can probably see that just by looking around at your friends.

The choice of physical activity is important too, because some sports require more learning than others. Traditional endurance sports - running, swimming and cycling, for instance - are not such good choices. These sports require only a few motor patterns to be learnt and then repeated over and over ad nauseam. A better activity is one requiring a wide variety of skills to be used during the course of play. Sports such as beach volleyball, martial arts, gymnastics/circus training, mountain biking, trail running and soccer are all good choices.

So you really are (chemically) only as old as you feel. It may also help to explain how people who have lived the most amazing lives filled with adventure seem to live the longest and keep their marbles too. I've long said that your body can only go where the mind leads it. If you act and think young, always trying new things and keeping an open mind - being willing to empty your cup to taste a different type of tea, as they say - you will indeed stay young.

Now this is where I get to talk about me for a bit. I'm 40 years old, have done martial arts since I was 10 and have played a variety of sports, from field hockey to swimming to volleyball, but these days the majority of my training is martial/combat related and all about kettlebells.

So where does the kettlebell fit into this? Obviously, I'm in love with the kettlebell as a fitness tool. Apart from just recently, when I have been barbell-squatting for the first time in years as an experiment, I haven't trained in a normal gym or with anything other than kettlebells, chin-ups and push-ups for over six years. The kettlebell is a unique tool in that it teaches your body not just to move things up and down, as normal weights do, but also to absorb shock, stay balanced and to move the kettlebell around itself to properly and safely execute the lifts. In short, the exercises are motor-pattern rich.

In terms of training for longevity - that is, things that we should all be looking to do as we get older and can continue for a long time - I believe that kettlebells have a place right near the head of the table. I'll reserve the place at the head of the table, the most important piece of the training puzzle, for creating correct movement. This comes in the form of joint-health drills, activation drills and stretching.

[Note: Pavel Tsatsouline's Super Joints, available from, is an excellent guide to maintaining good joint function and movement - Ed] I know many will disagree with me but if you don't have a full range of motion, sooner or later you're going to end up looking and moving like a hunchback. Most of my time training people is spent trying to correct their posture, get their joints moving through a full, pain-free range and get their bodies balanced from front to back, left to right and top to bottom. I then build strength on top of that.

Gray Cook, one of the greatest minds in sports training, has a great saying: "Don't try to build fitness on top of dysfunction." In other words, get everything moving right first, then seek increases in performance. Don't worry about how hard you can hit, how fast you can run or how high you jump before you know your body is right. If you imagine the body is a car, in most people's cases the tyres are bald and the wheels may not even be pointing in the same direction! Imagine what happens when you drop a bigger engine in that car and go to the track. Boom! Something is going to let go. Now instead, imagine that we get new tyres on the car, get the wheels balanced and put new brakes in before we drop in the big engine. Is that car ready to go faster now? You bet.

The problem most people have is that the fine-tuning of the car - preparing the body to really work hard - isn't sexy at all. It's slow, tedious and won't generally lead to big changes in body composition. Most people want to lose weight and get stronger. So this is a hard place to be in as a trainer. To earn a living, basic business sense says we need to give clients what they want, even though we know they really need something else. But once we have effected these seemingly minor changes, all of a sudden people's progress can go through the roof.

If your posture is bad because you're tight through your upper back and shoulders, it will stop you working hard on overhead pressing. But imagine we fix your tightness so you can stand straight and press correctly. I'm not kidding when I say I have seen someone double their press in only a few weeks, all from gaining mobility, not strength. I've watched someone go from barely a quarter-squat to a full-depth squat over a few weeks. In both cases - using more weight, or using more range - more work is being done. More work done equals better results. So the time spent on these issues, while not seeming as if they will bring you closer to your goal, actually make it much faster to achieve it in the long run.

Not only that, but reclaiming fuller ranges of motion satisfies one of my training longevity goals - the learning of new skills - enabling the body to feel as though it were 10 years younger. Most of my clients are younger than me and don't have my injury history, yet I move better than all of them. While I'm in no hurry, I'm keen to see what difference another 10 years makes.

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