Huberman Lab - Dr. Duncan French: How to Exercise for Strength Gains & Hormone Optimization

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,

where we discuss science

and science-based tools for everyday life.

I’m Andrew Huberman,

and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology

at Stanford School of Medicine.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Dr. Duncan French

as my guest on the Huberman Lab Podcast.

Dr. French is the vice president of performance

at the UFC Performance Institute,

and he has over 20 years of experience

working with elite professional and Olympic athletes.

Prior to joining the UFC,

French was the director of performance science

at the University of Notre Dame.

And he has many, many quality peer-reviewed studies

to his name, exploring, for instance,

how the particular order of exercise,

whether or not one performs endurance exercise

prior to resistance training or vice versa,

how that impacts performance of various movements

and endurance training protocols,

as well as the impact on hormones,

such as testosterone, estrogen,

and some of the stress hormones, such as cortisol.

He’s also done fascinating work exploring

how neurotransmitters, things like dopamine and epinephrine,

also called adrenaline, can impact hormones

and how hormones can impact neurotransmitter release.

What’s particularly unique about Dr. French’s work

is that he’s figured out specific training protocols

that can maximize, for instance, testosterone output

or reduce stress hormone output

in order to maximize the effects of training

in the short-term and in the long-term.

So today you’re going to learn a lot of protocols,

whether or not you’re into resistance training

or endurance training.

You will learn, for instance,

how to regulate the duration of your training

and the type of training that you do

in order to get the maximum benefit

from that training over time.

So whether or not you are somebody

who just exercises recreationally for your health,

whether or not you’re an amateur or professional athlete,

or whether or not you’re just trying to maximize your health

through the use of endurance and or resistance training,

today’s discussion will have a wealth of takeaways for you.

There are only a handful of people

working at the intersection of elite performance,

mechanistic science, and that can do so in a way

that leads to direct, immediately applicable protocols

that anybody can benefit from.

Dr. French also provides some incredibly important insights

about the direction that sport and exercise

are taking in the world today

and their applications towards performance and health.

Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize that this podcast

is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.

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And now, my conversation with Dr. Duncan French.

Duncan French, great to see you again.

Likewise, likewise, thank you.

I don’t often have many Stanford professors

in the Performance Institute, so I’m really excited.

Oh, well, this place is amazing,

and you have a huge role in making it what it is.

The reason I’m so excited to talk with you

is that you’re one of these rare beasts

that you have been involved in human performance

and athletic performance at the collegiate level.

You are obviously very involved in MMA now

and the UFC Performance Institute.

And you also had the fortunate experience,

I like to think, of doing a PhD in,

what exactly was the PhD in?

It was exercise physiology.

Exercise physiology.

So you’re familiar also with designing studies,

control groups, all the sorts of things that,

in my opinion anyway, are kind of lacking

from the internet social media version of exercise science,

which is that people throw out all sorts of ideas

about how people should be training,

what they should be doing,

and eating and not eating and doing.

And certainly, science doesn’t have all the answers,

but I just think it’s so rare to find somebody

that’s at the convergence of all those different fields.

And so I have a lot of questions for you today

that I’m sure the audience

are going to be really interested in.

Well, listen, I mean, I appreciate that.

It’s very humbling.

And yeah, I’ve worked hard to get to where I am,

but I’ve always tried to be authentic.

And I think authenticity comes alongside academic rigor

and objectivity and insight and knowledge base, right?

At the end of the day, it’s about having confidence,

having expertise, and being able to deliver that expertise

to, in my world, to athletes.

And I think that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

I’ve tried to have many strings to my bow

so that I can talk with many different hats on.

One day I’m talking to a coach,

the next day I’m talking to an athlete,

the next day I’m talking to a CEO,

the next day I’m talking to an academic professor.

So I think being able to wear those different hats

is certainly a skillset that I’ve tried

to build throughout my career.

And like I said, I’ve been blessed to work with,

I think it was 36 different professional Olympic sports

last time I counted.

So yeah, it’s been a wild ride.

It’s been great.

Which of those sports was the most unusual?

I’ve worked with crown green bowling,

which I don’t know, as an American guy,

I don’t know how well you know that.

I’ve never heard of it.

Basically imagine a 20 foot by 20 foot square of turf

with a small raise in the middle, i.e. the crown.

So it slopes to the edges.

And then you throw out a white jack, a smaller ball,

and then you roll out larger balls

to try and get closest to the jack.

It’s a very European thing, let’s say.

But yeah, sports performance at crown green bowling,

there you go.

All right.

Wow, and then to mixed martial arts fighters

and everything in between.

So along those lines,

could you give us a little bit of your background?

Where’d you start out?

Where are you from originally?

Yeah, I’m from the Northeast of England.

So I’m from a town called Harrogate, which is in Yorkshire,

which is a Northern kind of area of the UK.

Nice sunny weather all year long.

Yeah, you can imagine.

Yeah, with the two weeks of summer that we get.

But yeah, I mean, I did my undergraduate studies there

in sports science.

I did teacher training

to be a physical education teacher after that.

Like most people, I then worked

as a high school physical education teacher.

Great experience working with kids,

developing athletic qualities.

But something in the back of my mind,

I wanted more.

I wanted to be at the higher end of elite sport.

I was a failed athlete like many people.

I represented my country in different sports and things,

but I never made it professionally.

So that little seed was sown in as much

as I then started to reach out to different areas

to do a PhD, whether it was in the UK

or also chance my arm took a punt,

see if we could get over to the States.

All my buddies were going on gap years

after they finished university or whatever

and going to Bali and hanging out or whatever,

traveling through Thailand.

And I figured, well, I’ve always loved the States

and can I go and kill two birds with one stone

and do something academic, continue my studies,

but also do it in a different environment

and get some life experience.

And then many, many rejections,

as I’m sure you’re kind of aware

from different professors,

whether it was Roger Aranoka or William Cramer.

So you just wrote to these folks?

I just called, called, called

and sent out information and said, yeah,

so have you got any opportunities?

Pushed back from them all, but dogged and kept asking.

And yeah, Dr. William Cramer,

who was at Ball State University in Indiana at the time,

you know, a muscle neuroendocrinologist

and researcher in muscle physiology

using resistance training.

You know, he basically said, listen,

I can guarantee you funding

for the first year of your studies,

but not the next three.

Sounds like a typical academic response.

I can take care of you, but not that well necessarily.



So I spoke to my parents and said,

hey, can we take a punt?

And they, you know, they were great in supporting me.

And yeah, long story short,

came out to begin my PhD at Ball State.

After a year, Dr. Cramer transferred to UConn,

you know, Connecticut in stores in the Northeast there.

And I transferred to him and with him and yeah,

four great years with my PhD

and getting my PhD with a really prolific research group

that looked at, you know, neuroendocrinology,

hormonal work, but using resistance training

primarily as an exercise stressor as a major mechanism

and then looking at all the different physiologies

off the back of resistance training.

Yeah. You guys were enormously productive.

I found dozens of papers

on how weight training impacts hormones

and your name’s on all of them.

And it’s remarkable.

I have a question about this.

I’ll just inject a question about weight training

and hormones.

You hear this all the time

that doing these big heavy compound movements

or resistance training increases androgens,

things like testosterone, DHT, DHEA, and so forth.

Does anyone know how that actually happens?

Like what about, what is it about engaging motor neurons

under heavy loads sends a signal to the endocrine system?

Hey, release testosterone.

I’ve never actually been able to find that in a textbook.

Yeah. Well, I mean-

And how can I do more of that?

As much as I know, you know, and again,

I’m digging out into the annals

of Duncan French’s kind of brain now,

but yeah, I mean, I think it’s a stress response, right?

It’s mechanical stress and it’s metabolic stress.

And these are, you know, the downstream regulation

of testosterone release at the gonads

comes from many different areas.

My work primarily looked at, you know,

catecholamines and sympathetic arousal.

So things like epinephrine, adrenaline.

Correct, yeah.

Epinephrine, adrenaline, you know, noradrenaline.

How they were signaling,

that signaling cascade using, you know,

the HPA axis releasing cortisol,

and then, you know, looking at how that also influenced

the adrenal medulla to release, you know, androgens,

and then signaling that at the gonads.

That raises an interesting question.

So in presumably weight training in women,

people who don’t have testes,

also it increases testosterone.

And is that purely through the adrenals?

When women lift weights,

their adrenal glands release testosterone?

Absolutely, I mean, that is the only area

of testosterone release for females.

And yes, it’s the same downstream cascade.

Obviously the extent to which it happens

is significantly less in females,

but that’s how you, there’s good data out there

that shows, you know, females can increase

their anabolic environment,

their internal anabolic milieu,

using resistance training as a stressor.

And then they get the consequent muscle tissue growth,

you know, whether it’s tendon, ligament adaptations,

you know, the beneficial consequences of resistance training

which is driven by anabolic stimuli.

Yeah, I have two questions about that.

The first one is something that you mentioned,

which is that the androgens, the testosterone

comes from the adrenals under resistance loads in women.

Is the same true in men?

I mean, we hear that the testes produce testosterone

when we weight train for men that have testes,

but do we know whether or not it’s the adrenals

or the testes in men that are increasing testosterone?

More or both, a little bit from each?

The field is divided presently.

And as much as understanding the acute adrenergic response

in terms of, you know, anabolic response to exercise

in an acute phase and the exposure to, you know,

a stimulus that is stress-driven,

which might be partly from the adrenal glands,

partly from the gonads, versus a longitudinal exposure

to anabolic environments, which is primarily driven

by obviously the gonads and the release,

the endocrine environment from testosterone release

at the gonads.

So the field is split in terms of how exercise

is promoting hypertrophy, you know, muscle tissue growth,

and whether that is very much an adrenal stimuli

or if that’s significant enough in these acute responses

versus the longitudinal exposure,

just elevated basal levels of anabolic testosterone

at a virtual level.

So it sounds like with most things, it’s probably both.

It’s probably the adrenals and the gonads.

And then you mentioned that testosterone

can have enhancing effects or growth effects

on tendon and ligament also.

You don’t often hear about that.

People always think, you know, testosterone muscle,

but testosterone has a lot of effects on other tissues

that are important for performance, it sounds like.

What’s the story there?

Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, I think, you know, the testosterone hormone is,

I mean, listen, there’s androgen receptors

on neural tissue, on neural axons.

Pretty much everywhere.


So, you know, the binding capacity of testosterone

and influencing different tissues within the body,

I touched on, you know, muscle tissue,

but, you know, the ligaments, the tendons,

and even bone to some extent, you know,

testosterone has potential to influence that

in terms of removing osteopenic kind of characteristics,

et cetera.

So, yeah, it’s a magic hormone, let’s say,

with many end impacts in terms of adaptation.

I definitely want to get back to your trajectory,

but as long as we’re on the interactions

between androgens, testosterone,

and its derivatives and different tissues,

you know, from the work that you did as a PhD student

and throughout your career,

could you say that there’s some general principles

of training that favor testosterone production

in terms of, that somebody who’s not an elite athlete

could use, somebody who’s already adapted

to weight training somewhat,

like they know the difference between a dumbbell

and a barbell, and they know the various movements,

they’re not going to damage themselves,

but once they’re doing that, I mean,

I’ve heard shorter sessions are better than longer sessions,

but in rep loads, there’s a lot of parameter space,

but if you were going to throw out some of the parameters

that you think are most important to pay attention to

for the typical person who’s trying to use weight training

to build or maintain muscle, lose body fat,

so body recomposition, and or stay strong and healthy

for sport of a different kind.

Yeah, so the work that we obviously, you know,

I was exposed to back in my PhD,

it was a double-edged sword,

and as much as testosterone is really stimulated

by an intensity factor and also a volume factor.

Now, growth hormone is a little bit different.

That’s largely driven by an intensity factor alone.

Oh, really?

I just thought that growth hormone was driven by volume,

which just goes to show you-

Maybe I’ve got it wrong.

No, no, no, no, I think you’re probably right.

It just goes to show you that most of what’s out there

on the internet is completely,

not only is it wrong, it’s usually backwards.

So, no, trust your instinct,

because I think people just make this stuff up, right?

Because it’s very hard to measure growth hormone

and testosterone, and I can’t imagine most of the stuff

that I see out there, they’re taking drips

and measuring free versus bound

and all this kind of stuff,

but that’s what you do in laboratories.

Right, yeah, you look at total composition,

then you look at how much of that is free circulating

in the system, how much is bound,

and therefore biologically active,

bound to receptor creating adaptation.

But yeah, coming back to testosterone

in terms of the training strategies,

it’s largely driven by both an intensity

and a volume factor.

So, if you look at many of the exercise interventions

that we use to try and investigate

and interrogate testosterone,

it was usually a six by 10 protocol.

So, you’re touching at about-

Six by 10, meaning?

Yeah, six sets of 10 repetitions,

which is quite a large, you know, 60 repetitions

is quite a large volume for a single exercise,

and that was usually pitched at about 80%

of a one repetition max intensity.

Okay, so 80% of the one rep max,

six sets of 10 reps separated by rest of like-

Two minutes.

Two minutes, which is actually pretty fast,

at least to me.

Anytime you see these two to three minutes

when you’re actually watching the clock,

those two minute rest periods go by pretty fast.

By the third, fourth set, you’re dying for more.

And I think, you know, we formulated

that kind of exercise protocol to really target,

you know, the release of testosterone

and try and drive up these anabolic environments

to study the endocrine consequences.

But I think that’s the type of protocol

that is most advantageous for driving anabolic environment.

And that was it for the workout?

Yeah, I mean, we would do that in a back squat.

So, you know, multi-joint, you know, challenging exercise,

multi-muscle, multi-joint, 80% loads

of your one repetition max, and then six by 10.

We did play around with, you know,

your classic German volume type 10 by 10 kind of protocols,

but they were just unsustainable at that 80%.

The key to what we also did was we always adjusted

the loads to make sure that it was 10 repetitions

that were sustained.

So if the load was too high and an athlete

or a participant had to drop the weights

on the sixth repetition, we would unload the bar

and make sure they completed the 10 repetitions.

Bringing me back to the point of it’s an intensity

and a volume derivative that is going to be

most advantageous for testosterone release.

That’s really interesting.

And one thing that you mentioned there

is especially interesting to me, which is you said,

when you go from six sets of 10 repetitions

to 10 sets of 10 repetitions, it’s not as beneficial

and might even be counterproductive.

But to me, the difference between six and 10 sets

is only four sets.

It doesn’t even sound that much.

So that sort of hints at the possibility

that the thresholds for going from a workout

that increases testosterone to a workout

that diminishes testosterone

is actually a pretty narrow margin.

Yeah, and I think it comes back

to that intensity factor then.

What we saw, that 10 by 10 protocol

really sees pretty significant drop-offs in the load.

And again, we’re trying to stimulate with intensity,

with mechanical strain through intensity,

as well as metabolic strain through volume.

And I think that’s the paradigm that you’ve got to look at

is that the mechanical load has to come from

the actual weight on the bar

and the volume is the metabolic stimulus.

How much are we driving lactate?

How much are we driving glycogenolysis

in terms of that type of energy system

for executing a 10 by 10 protocol?

And what we often saw was just a significant reduction

in the intensity capabilities of an athlete to sustain that.

So we shortened the volume

to try and maintain the intensity.


And you could imagine just taking very long rest,

keeping the session, being a big lazy bear in training.

I sometimes do this.

I tell myself I’m going to work out for 45 minutes

and then two hours later, I’m done.

But not because I was huffing and puffing the whole time,

but because I was training really slowly.

Is there any evidence that training slowly

can offset some of the negative effects

of doing a lot of volume?

Well, it’s an old adage of, you know,

two responses to your question.

I mean, the first one I would say, you know,

there’s a difference between 10 sets of six

and six sets of 10.

And I think that comes back to the volume conversation.

You know, six sets of 10 is driving up metabolic stimulus.

If you’re doing 10 sets of six,

you can probably take it to a higher intensity,

but you’re not going to get the same metabolic load.

You’re not going to get the same

internal metabolic environment

that drives the lactate release

that they will then signal, you know,

further anabolic testosterone release

because of the lactate in your body.

That’s a key consideration.

The rest is often the consideration that’s overlooked

out there in general population

and in many sporting environments.

You know, that the rest is as important

a programming variable as the load

and the intensity of the load, the volume, et cetera.

And yes, if you extend the volume,

if you extend the duration of your rest periods,

what you’re ultimately doing

is influencing that metabolic stimulus.

Again, you’re allowing the flushing of the body,

the removal of waste products, you know,

lactate to be, you know, removed from the body

and then the metabolic environment is reduced.

So you want, so if I understand correctly,

you want to create a metabolic stress.


So the way that I’ve been training, slow and lazy,

is not necessarily the best way to go.

I could, in theory, do a 45 or 60 minute session

where I pack in more work per unit time.

I’m not going to be able to quote unquote perform as well.

I won’t be able to lift as much.

I’m going to have to unweight the bar between sets

or maybe even during sets

if I have someone who could do that.

But it sounds like that’s the way to go.

So it’s got to be,

so this, the old adage of high intensity, short duration

is probably the way to go.


And you know, in layman’s terms,

if the same objective, the same training goal

is just muscle tissue growth,

and we’re not talking about maximal strength

or any of those type of parameters,

we’re just talking about growing muscle.

If there’s an athlete A

and they do six sets of 10 with two minutes rest

and there’s athlete B that does six sets of 10

with three minutes rest,

athlete A will likely see the highest muscle gains,

muscle hypertrophy gains.

Because of the metabolic stimulus that they’re driving

with the shorter rest periods.


And for all the years that I’ve spent

exploring exercise science

and trying to get this information from the internet

and various places,

that this is the first time it’s ever been

told to me clearly.

So basically I need to put my ego aside

and I need to not focus so much on getting as many reps

with a given weight and keep the rest restricted

two minutes, about two minutes,

get the work in and then I’ll derive the benefits.

I mean, you’ve absolutely nailed it to be honest.

And again, if you think about human nature

and how we approach,

we’re inherently lazy, right?

As humans, we want to take that rest.

We want to take the time out to recover and feel refreshed,

but we’re trying to create a training stimulus.

We’re trying to create a very specific stimulus

internal to the body.

And that is often driven by the metabolic environment

at that moment in time.

Now, if we allow the metabolic environment to change

by extending the rest periods,

we’re not going to see as beneficial gains

at the end of it.

So it is very much a motivational and ego thing

rather than saying, okay,

I’m going to push my loads as high as I can

and really challenge maximal strength,

do fewer repetitions, take longer periods of time.

It’s a completely different approach to training.

It’s a different end goal.


And you mentioned lactate.

So it seems still a bit controversial

as to what actually triggers hypertrophy.

You hear about lactate buildup or people,

the common language is the muscle gets torn and then repairs,

but I don’t know, does the muscle actually tear?

I mean, microtrauma.

Okay, microtrauma.

Disruption of, you know, within the muscle tissue.


And we’re talking now about non-drug assisted people

who’s, let’s just say, let’s define our terms here,

whose testosterone levels are within the range

of somewhere between 300 and 1,500 or whatever, 1,200.

Because it does seem that athletes

who take high levels of exogenous androgens

can do more work and just get protein synthesis

from just doing work, you know?

I’ve seen these guys in the gym, right?

The telltale signs are not that hard to spot

where they’re just doing a ton of volume,

not necessarily moving that much weight.

They’re just bringing blood into the tissue.

And then they’re loading up on,

they’re eating a ton of protein,

presumably because they’re basically in puberty part 15.


They’re in their 15th round of puberty

where during puberty, you are a protein synthesis machine.

I mean, to me, that’s pretty clear about puberty.


So, and then in terms of,

because I know the audience likes to try protocols,

so you described a protocol very nicely.

What about day-to-day recovery?

I mean, the workout that you described is intense but short.

How many days a week can the typical person do that

and sustain progress?

Yeah, I mean, I think that comes back to your training age

and your training history.

Obviously there’s a resilience and a robustness

with an incremental training age.

So, you know, that’s not a protocol

that I would advise anyone to go out and start tomorrow.

They’ll be mopping them off the gym floor.

But at the same time, it’s also relative, right?

So 80% of your maximum at a young training age

is still 80% versus, you know, I’ve been training 10 years.

It’s still 80%.

But yes, the mechanical load is gonna be significant.

It’s just more tonnage, right?

But yeah, I think a protocol like that,

we would look at two times a week,

something that’s pretty intensive like that.

Because again, it comes back to the point you make,

is that you really need to be, for want of better terms,

suffering a little bit through that type of protocol,

both in terms of the challenge of the load,

but also being able to tolerate the metabolic stress

that you’re exposed to.

It’s, you know, a bit of a sicko feeling, right?

Because of the lactate that you’re driving up.

So, you know, I wouldn’t promote an athlete

doing that type of modality, you know,

multiple, multiple times,

unless you’re from the realms of bodybuilding,

and then you really, that’s the sole purpose

of what you’re trying to achieve.

Most athletes in most sports have diverse requirements

in terms of outcomes that they’re trying to achieve.

They’re not just targeting muscle growth.

Muscle growth is a conduit to increased strength,

increased power, increased speed, obviously.

So yes, trying to get bigger cross-sectional area

of a muscle means that we can produce more force

into the ground or wherever it may be

if we’re a locomotive athlete.

But usually, sports men and women

are not just purely seeking muscle growth.

They look for different facets of muscle endurance

or maximal muscle power, muscle strength, you know?

So then you’ve gotta be very creative

in how you build the workout.

If it’s a bodybuilder, absolutely.

They’re chasing muscle growth,

and they’re gonna do so with these types of protocols,

which sees high intensities and high volumes of workload

on a pretty regular basis.

If it’s just somebody, you know, a weekend warrior

that wants to keep in shape and look good,

I would say, you know, two times a week

for a really challenging workout like that,

and then flex the other types of workouts within the week

to have more of a volume emphasis,

where you reduce the intensity,

and you might just look at, you know,

larger rep ranges from 12 to 15 to 20.

Another workout where you’re looking at, you know,

reducing the volume, but increasing the intensity,

and really trying to drive, you know, different stimulus

to give you more end points of success.

Great, no, that’s really informative.

Along the lines of androgens and intensity,

when I think intensity, I think epinephrine, adrenaline.

And since you have a background

in catecholamines and testosterone,

last time I was here at the UFC Performance Institute,

we had a brief conversation,

and I want to make sure I got the details right,

that in the short term, a big increase in stress hormone

can lead to an increase in testosterone,

like a parachute jump.


So stress can promote the release of testosterone.

That was news to me.

We always hear about stress suppressing testosterone,

stress suppressing the immune system,

all these terrible things.

But in the short term, you’re saying

it can actually increase the release of testosterone.

So I have that right?

Correct, yeah.

And so then the second question is,

does my cognitive interpretation of the stressor

make a difference?

In other words, if I voluntarily jump out of a plane

with a parachute, does it have a different effect

on my testosterone than if you shove me out of the plane

against my will, or presumably with a parachute, too?

I mean, so this was what all my PhD work was looking at,

was the exposure to a stressor and the pre-arousal

of how your body essentially prepares for that stressor,

and then how it manages it

throughout the exposure to the stress.

And it was actually motivated from parachute jumpers.

There was an older study looking at parachute jumpers

into combat, and they were studying the cortisol,

the stress response, and the epinephrine response

of these parachute jumpers.

So it got us thinking about, hold on,

there’s certain workouts that you do

that are just, they’re daunting.

It’s like, okay, it’s squat Saturday or whatever it may be.

Oh my gosh, this is going to destroy me.

Or I have to talk to this person I don’t want to talk to,

or, you know, right?

I mean, something, or a PhD dissertation exam

or something, yeah.

Giving public speaking or whatever it may be.

Now, we used an exercise,

we used a resistance training protocol

that these athletes knew was going to be

very, very challenging.

It’s going to be,

there’s going to have some anxiety to doing it.

They knew there were going to be

some physical distress from doing it.

And therefore, you know, their mindset

of how they were going to approach that was already set.

So what we saw prior,

15 minutes prior to the start of an exposure to the workout,

the epinephrine, the neuroadrenaline,

the adrenaline was already starting

to prepare the body sympathetically

to go into what it knew was going to be

a very, very challenging workout.

So that brings you back to, you know,

exercise preparation, competition for certain preparation,

preparation for certain competition, excuse me.

And, you know, pre-workout routines,

the use of music, you know,

all these different things that we know can now,

you know, anecdotally in the gym we put into place.

But, you know, the data that I presented

showed that it was the first of its kind

to show that this link between, you know,

epinephrine and norepinephrine release and arousal,

and then consequent performance,

so force output throughout the workout

was intimately linked.

So what was the takeaway there?

Should, is it beneficial for people

to get a little stressed about the upcoming impending event,

whether or not it’s a lift in the gym

or whether or not it’s talking to somebody

that you might be intimidated to talk to or at an exam?

Is the stress good for performance or is it harmful?

Yeah, and I think that’s a great question.

And I think I can only talk to, you know,

physical exertion, which is what we were exploring.

And I don’t want to tread on the toes of the psychologists

with flow state and these types of things,

because clearly-

I think you’re in the position

of scientific strength on this one.

I think you have the leverage.

I mean, most, you know,

I have a lot of friends in that community,

as I’ll just say as a buffer

to the answer you’re about to give,

that there’s very little science around flow,

and there’s very little neuroscience

related to most psychological states anyway.

So I think we’ve got a lot of degrees of freedom here.

All right, I can breathe easy.

Thank you for that.

Yeah, I’ll take it.

I’ll be anything you like, credit Duncan,

anything you dislike, send the mean comments to me.

Yeah, I think from my data, certainly,

the greater the arousal, the higher the performance was

from a physical exertion perspective.

And I think that was the intriguing part

of some of my findings,

where there’s definitely an individual biokinetics

to some of these hormonal kind of releases.

And as much as those guys that had the highest,

you know, adrenergic response

in terms of epinephrine release,

norepinephrine release,

also sustained force output

for a longer period of the workout than those that didn’t.

So the individuals that had a lower stimulus

of the sympathetic arousal, let’s say,

certainly didn’t perform as well throughout the workout.

Now the intriguing thing then becomes is,

okay, and I think this, you know,

really segues into what we’re doing here

with combat athletes, with mixed martial artists.

You know, there’s a philosophy,

there’s a paradigm now for myself

in terms of the exposure, repeat exposure.

You know, the more you do that challenging workout,

do you get the same psychological stimulus?

Do you still get the same stress response?

And the assumption is unlikely.

You know, you accommodate,

you become accustomed to the stress,

so your body will therefore adapt.

And that’s the classic overload principle, right?

You then need to take the stressor down a different route.

But I think when you look at, you know,

the athletes that we work with here,

it’s a fist fight at the end of the day.

There’s nothing more stressful than that.

But I think just the exposure to the rigors of training,

to understand the bad positions, the bad situations,

to know that they can get out of certain situations,

out of certain, you know, submission holds

or whatever it may be.

I think that really ties in with some of my PhD work

in terms of what these guys do to approach

what is, you know, a really challenging sport

and arena in mixed martial arts.

Yeah, it’s definitely the extreme of what’s possible

in terms of asking, does stress favor or hinder performance?

Because yeah, like you said, at the end of the day,

it’s someone trying to hurt you

as much as they possibly can within the bounds of the rules,

and you’re trying to do the same.

So that’s, you know,

I find that your thesis work fascinating.

Were you never to be at the UFC Performance Institute,

luckily they made the right choice and brought you here.

But were you have never to come here,

I was still fascinated by this

because over and over we hear that stress is bad,

stress is bad, stress is bad.

But everything I read from the scientific literature

is that stress and epinephrine in particular

is coupled to the testosterone response

to performance and to adaptation,

provided it doesn’t go on too long.

So unless I’m saying something that violates that,

I mean, that’s your work.

So it’s a really important and beautiful work.

And I refer to it often,

so I’m just glad that we could bolt that down

because I think the people need to know this,

that discomfort is beneficial.

Now, there’s another side to this that I want to ask about,

which is the use of cold,

in particular things like ice baths, cold showers,

or any other type of cold temperature exposure.

In theory, that’s stress also, it’s epinephrine.

And so how should one think about

the use of cold for recovery?

So if it’s stress, how is, if stress,

if cold causes stress, then how is cold used for recovery?

That’s what I don’t understand.

And maybe you just want to share your thoughts on that.

Yeah, no, and I think, you know, it’s a great question.

And I think the jury is still out there, certainly,

knowing some of the conversations that we’ve been having.

But I think, you know, when we talk about stress,

it’s your classic fight, flight, or freeze approach.

And, you know, throwing your body into, you know,

a cold tub, an ice bath, or whatever it may be,

certainly is gonna have a physiological stress response.

Now, people are using that for different end goals.

And again, I think that’s where

the narrative has to be explained.

If you are using the stress specifically

to manage the mindset,

to use it as a specific stress stimulus,

that’s the same as me doing six by 10, 80%.

You know, you’re just trying to find something

to disrupt the system, to do something that’s very,

if you want a better term, painful, discomfort, whatever.

You’re just finding a stressor

and then being able to manage the mindset.

But if you’re using cold,

specifically from a physiological perspective,

to promote, you know, redistribution of vascularity,

you know, of blood’s flow, you know,

to different vascular areas of muscle

that you feel have gone through a workout,

that are damaged, or whatever it may be.

I think there’s, we’ve got to understand

what that stress mechanism is.

And, you know, the data, the literature,

is certainly still out there

with respect to cryotherapy, and cold baths,

and some of these, you know, high,

these cold exposures in terms of what they do

at the level of the muscle tissue.

If that’s the target,

if you’re trying to promote a flushing mechanism,

or you’re trying to promote redistribution

of the blood flow, what you’ve got to understand

is that cold is going to clamp down

every part of the vascular system.

And we’ve really got to understand

how the muscle would be redistributed

to areas of interest.

So, you know, I think the stress response

is a real thing with respect to, you know, cold exposure.

But I think the narrative around

what are you using the cold for

has to precede the conversation.

Because, yes, it’s, you know,

it’s like putting your hand over a hot coal.

You know, that’s a stress the same way

as jumping in a cold bath is.

I think most people don’t realize that.

You’re going to get the epinephrine release

from holding your hand up too close to the flame,

and you’re going to get it from getting in the ice bath.

Your body doesn’t know the difference, right?

Your body does not know the difference.

It has a, you know, a primordial kind of physiological

response that it’s created over millions

and millions of years.

And I think that physiology is not changing,

and it’s fixed in a particular way right now,

and that it doesn’t understand the difference

between whether it’s six by 10

doing a challenging workout over here,

whether it’s putting my hands on the hot coal,

whether there’s a lion stood in front of me or whatever,

that epinephrine response from the level of the brain

down to the whole signaling cascade is the same.

And cold, I’ve heard, can actually prevent

some of the beneficial effects of training,

that it can actually get in the way

of muscle growth, et cetera.

Yeah, there’s some pretty robust data out there now

showing that it definitely has an influence

on performance variables like strength and power

in particular, but absolutely in terms of muscle hypertrophy.

And there’s a big kind of theme

in the world of athletic performance right now

in terms of periodization of cold exposure

as a recovery modality.

When do you use cold?

You know, should you be using cold for recovery

in periods of high training load

when you’re actually pursuing, you know,

maybe general proprietary work,

where you’re actually trying to pursue muscle growth?

Well, that’s usually where you get the most sore.

It’s usually where, you know, you feel the most fatigued,

but it’s probably not the most beneficial approach

to use an ice bath in that scenario

because you’re dampening, you’re dulling the, you know,

the mTOR pathway and the hypertrophic signaling pathway.

Whereas in a competition phase,

where actually quality of exercise

and quality of execution of skill and technical work

has to be maintained,

you want to throw the kitchen sink of recovery capabilities

and recovery interventions in that scenario

because you now, you know,

the muscle building activity should be in the bank.

That should have been done in the general preparatory work.

And now you’re focusing on technical execution.

So you’re absolutely right.

No, it’s interesting.

So if I understand correctly,

if I want to maximize muscle growth or power

or, you know, improvements and adaptations,

then the inflammation response,

the delayed onset muscle soreness,

all this stuff that’s uncomfortable

and that we hear is so terrible

is actually the stimulus for adaptation.

And so using cold in that situation

might short circuit my progress.

But if I’m, you know,

I don’t know that I’ll ever do this,

but if I were to do an Ironman or something

or run a marathon under those conditions,

I’m basically coming to the race, so to speak,

with all the power and strength I’m going to have.

And so there, reducing inflammation is good

because it’s going to allow me

to perform more work, essentially.


Yeah, you have to be strategic

about when you use some of these interventions.

And, you know, the time when you’re preparing

for a competition is not the appropriate time,

excuse me, is the appropriate time

when you want to drive recovery

and make sure that your body is optimized.

And, you know, when you’re far away

from a competition, you know, date

or, you know, out of season or whatever it may be,

and you’re really trying to just tear up the body

a little bit to allow it to,

it’s natural, you know, healing

and adaptation processes to take place.

Well, you don’t want to negate that.

You know, you want the body

to optimize its internal recovery

and that’s how muscle growth is going to happen, so.

So interesting.

There’s a time kind of consideration

that you need to make with these interventions, for sure.

At the UFC Performance Center,

are the fighters periodizing their cold exposure

or are they just doing cold at will?

Well, it’s not just the UFC.

And again, I talk about my personal experiences

with different sports.

I think just education around where science is at

and our understanding of concepts

like the use of cold exposure for recovery, ice bath.

You know, everyone wants to jump in an ice bath.

But I think as we’ve stepped back

and scientists have started to say,

have started to figure out and look at some of the data,

you know, we’re now more intuitive about,

well, actually that might not be the best

or the most optimal approach.

And I think that’s any given sport.

So yes, certainly here at the UFC,

we’re trying to educate our athletes

around, you know, appropriate timing.

And it’s the same with nutrition.

It’s the same with an ice bath intervention.

It’s the same with lifting weights.

It’s the same with going for a run

or working out on the bike.

You know, there’s tactics to when you do things

and when you don’t do things.

And I think, you know, stress and cold exposure,

we have to have a consideration around that as well.

But it’s not just, you know, MMA fighters.

That’s any athlete.

And I think it’s the best professionals,

the most successful professionals do that really well.

They listen, number one, they educate themselves

and then they build structure.

And I think, you know, at the most elite level,

we always talk about it here at the UFC,

but the most elite level,

you’re not necessarily training harder than anybody else.

Everybody in the UFC trains hard.

Like everyone is training super hard.

But the best athletes, the true elite levels

are the ones that can do it again and again and again

on a daily basis and sustain a technical output

for skill development.

Therefore their skills can improve or physical development,

their physical attributes can improve.

So that ability to reproduce on a day-to-day basis

falls into a recovery conversation.

Now, when is the right time to use something

like an ice bath and when isn’t,

is part of the high-performance conversation for sure.

So really they’re scientists.

They’re building structure.

They’re figuring out variables.

But it sounds like the ability to do more quality work

over time is one of the key variables.

I mean, it’s fundamental.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Quality in, quality out.

But in our sport, I talk about mixed martial arts,

it’s truly a decathlon of combat.

So there’s so many different attributes,

whether it’s a grappling, whether it’s a wrestling,

whether it’s a transition work,

whether it’s a stand-up striking.

So the different facets of a training program in this sport

are significantly large compared to something like

a wide receiver in football.

And that’s no disrespect for wide receivers,

but they run routes.

They’re going to run a route, a passing tree,

and that’s all they need to do.

These guys have to be on the ground.

They’ve got to be great on the ground.

They’ve got to be great standing up.

They’ve got to be great with the back against the fence.

There’s so many different kind of facets to our sport.

So managing the distribution of all the training components

is one of the biggest challenges of mixed martial arts.

And the best guys get that right.

They allow their body to optimize the training.

And remember, why are we doing training?

We’re doing training for technical and tactical improvement.

Now, if your body is fatigued

or you just can’t expose yourself

to more tactical development or technical development,

then you’re essentially doing yourself a disservice.

You’re going to be behind the curve

with respect to those guys

that can reproduce that day in, day out.

On the topic of skill development, regardless of sport,

we hear all the time,

and it certainly is intuitive to me

that the person who can focus the best

will progress the fastest.

But it’s kind of interesting.

Sometimes I talk to athletes

and they seem a little bit laid back

about their training sometimes,

and yet they obviously know how to flip the switch

and they can really dial in the intensity.

Do you think that there are optimal protocols

for skill learning in terms of physical skill learning?

Like, could it ever be parameterized

like the six sets of 10 reps?

And this gets to the heart of neuroplasticity,

which is still, it’s not a black box,

but it’s kind of a black box

with portions of it illuminated, I like to say.

But what are your thoughts on skill development?

Is there, for somebody that wants to get better at sport,

do you recommend a particularly long

or short training session?

Does intensity matter, or is it just reps?

Yeah, I think, no, it’s not a volume-driven exercise.

It’s a quality-driven exercise.

And listen, my expertise is not in motor learning

and motor skill acquisition.

I tend to default to Dr. Gabrielle Wolfe here at UNLV

for that, she’s one of the leading proponents in this area.

But if you look at true skill development,

it is about rehearsal of accurate movement,

accurate movement mechanics.

And as soon as that becomes impacted by fatigue

or inaccurate movement,

you’re now losing the motor learning.

You’re losing the accuracy of the skill

that people can call it muscle memory

or whatever they want, right?

But essentially, you’re grooving neural axons

to create movement patterns,

and they’re situational throughout sport, right?

Whether it’s a Cruyff turn in soccer

or a jump shot in basketball or a forehand down the line,

you can carve out that particular posture

and position and skill, and you can isolate it,

and you can drill it again and again and again.

Now, as soon as fatigue is influencing that repetition,

it’s time to stop.

And the best coaches understand that.

They understand that it’s quality over quantity

when it comes to skill acquisition.

So to answer your question in a roundabout way,

I would say, yes, it’s shorter sessions

that are very high quality.

And I think the best athletes in my experience

are the ones that consciously and cognitively

are aware of it at every moment of the training session.

They should leave the training session

not necessarily just physically fatigued,

but mentally fatigued,

because they’re completely engaged in the learning process.

The problem then becomes,

okay, if we just do lots of 30-minute sessions,

we’ve got to do a lot of 30-minute sessions

to get the volume exposure of the repetition

and the rehearsal of the skill again and again and again.

So it’s a bit of a paradox.

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

But a three-hour session versus a 90-minute session,

we’ll take the 90-minute session any day

when it comes to skill acquisition,

because that’s going to be driven by quality over quantity.

Yeah, training and skill learning

is incredibly mentally fatiguing.

I’ve often wondered why when one works out hard,

whether or not it’s with a run or with the weights,

why it’s hard to think later in the day.


Yeah, there really does seem to be something to it.

And I’ve wondered, is it depletion of adrenaline, dopamine?

I sometimes think it might be dopamine,

and here I’m totally speculating.

I don’t have any data to support this.

But if you hit a really hard workout or run early in the day,

oftentimes the brain just doesn’t want

to do hard mental work,

which gives me great admiration for these athletes

that are drilling their mind and body all day, every day,

with breaks.

So what are your thoughts?

What leads to the mental fatigue after physical performance?

Well, again, I don’t want to talk out,

I’m talking to the man here.

Well, we’re just two scientists speculating on this point.

Up until now, you’ve been giving us

concrete peer-reviewed study-based feedback

on my questions.

But if we were to speculate,

I mean, I think this is a common occurrence.

People think if I get that really good workout

in the morning, I feel better all day.

That’s true, unless that workout is really intense

or really long.

And then the mind just somehow won’t latch on

to mental work quite as well.

I mean, just philosophically,

I think there’s a, coming back to this kind

of stress consideration,

like a public speaking or taking an exam.

I mean, if you have an amazing coach

who is setting up training in a particular way,

it’s challenging.

There’s a strain related to it.

And I’m not talking physical strain.

I’m talking figuring things out,

figuring out the skill.

And I think that can be stressful.

Like the learning process can be stressful.

So we’ve touched on stress.

I also think if they hit the right technique,

that reward center in the brain,

that dopamine shot is gonna fly up there.

And there’s only so many times that we can get that

before that becomes dampened.

And I think there’s an energetic piece to it.

There’s the fueling of the brain.

There’s the carbohydrate fueling exercise

that actually the strategy around how you fuel

for learning and fuel for physical training

is actually pretty similar.


Yeah, it’s glucose.

It’s sugar at the end of the day, right?

So, are you fueling accordingly

around your training sessions?

Be that very physical.

Cause everyone thinks, okay,

I’m gonna jump on a treadmill

and I’m gonna bang out 15 sprints at max effort.

And I’m gonna be dropping off

and lying on the floor at the end of it.

I need to refuel.

But what about the refueling of the brain

in a very demanding exercise or drilling session

where you’re looking at technique

that you’re trying to figure out

that’s very challenging for your mind

to figure out the complexity of it,

but still needs to be fueled or refueled afterwards.

And I think that’s obviously might be an area

where athletes do themselves a disservice

by not appropriate fueling

from what might be considered

to be a lower intensity session.

But the cognitive challenge has been significantly high.

So they’re doing skill work or drill work

and it’s taxing the brain.

And they’re thinking,

oh, I wasn’t pushing hard lifts or doing sprints.

And so I can just go off the rest of my day,

but then their mind is drifting.

Yeah, I mean, I speculate.

Yeah, that seems very reasonable.

I mean, I know that I’m here

and presumably with the other athletes you’ve worked with,

nutrition is a huge aspect of that.

And I think the general public can learn a lot

from athletic nutrition because at the end of the day,

the general public is trying to attend to their kids,

attend to their work,

whether or not they’re lawyers or whatever,

they need to focus.

Nutrition is a barbed wire topic.

Oh, yeah.

But since we’re free to do what we would do

if we were just sitting in each other’s offices,

which is to just speculate a bit,

for the typical person,

do you think these low-carbohydrate diets,

typical person who exercises,

runs, swims, yoga, lifts weights,

maybe not all those things,

but some collection of those,

pushes themselves to do those things and to do them well,

but isn’t necessarily a highly competitive athlete?

Do you think that nutrition

that doesn’t include a lot of glucose,

doesn’t include a lot of carbohydrates is a problem

or is it okay?

What do you recommend for athletes?

What do you recommend for typical people?

Yeah, again, disclaimer, I’m not a dietician, but I-

That’s okay.

The dieticians don’t know what to recommend

to athletes either.

And I say that from having spent a lot of time

with the literature now, it’s a complete mess.

It’s like, I thought we didn’t understand anything

about the brain.

The nutrition science stuff is all over the place.

So I think we have, again, a large degrees of freedom.

Right, right, right.

I mean, I think it comes down to metabolic efficiency.

So we would never advocate a high…

I never say never, okay?

But we rarely advocate a high-performance athlete

in a high-intensity intermittent sport like MMA,

being totally ketogenic or-

You do not recommend that.

No, because at the end of the day,

some of those high-intensity efforts

usually require carbohydrate fueling

for the energy produced at those high intensities.

So we try to navigate around that.

Now, listen, there are fighters in the UFC and elsewhere.

Matt Brown is a great example

who promotes the ketogenic approach, and it works for him.

But we look at the science and the nature,

the characteristics of our sport,

and we don’t necessarily promote that.

Can I interrupt you real quick?

What about ketones for people

that are ingesting carbohydrates?

This is an interesting area

because people always hear ketones,

and they think, oh, I have to be ketogenic

to benefit from taking ketones.


And recreational athletes now as well

taking liquid or powder-based ketones

even though they do eat rice and oatmeal

and bread and other things.

So are there any known benefits of ketones

even if one is not in a state of ketosis?

So the use of ketones that I’m primarily aware of

in our sport is after the event

in terms of the brain health

with athletes that are potentially taking trauma

to the brain, et cetera,

and looking to maintain the fueling

and the energy supply to the brain.

But yes, it’s probably a little bit out of my remit,

so I don’t wanna talk on that

because I’m not fully familiar with that.

Well, I’ve heard that ketones after head injury

can provide a buffering component.


It’s not gonna reverse brain damage,

but it might be able to offset some of the micro damage.


So that’s how we use it,

just to sustain the energy supply

to the brain that might be compromised

through brain trauma.

So that’s why we use ketones.

To come back to the original question,

if it’s a general population,

then yes, I think there’s a place to argue

that actually being on a ketogenic diet at times,

and maybe it’s a cycling exercise,

maybe not, I don’t mean cycling a bike.

I mean, cycling ketosis is beneficial

because I think it’s gonna lead

to better metabolic management and metabolic efficiency.

At those lower intensities

where we should be fueling our metabolism

with lipids and fats,

clearly the Western diet and the modern day diets

is heavily driven by processed foods and carbohydrates

that people become predisposed to utilization

of that fuel source above lipids use, fat use,

intensities that are very low.

So some of our data with the fighters shows that as well.

But I think the challenge for us

is that we’re working with a clientele

that require high intensity bouts of effort.

So fueling appropriately is very important for that.

Now we use tactics here where we essentially

have athletes on what you would say

kind of a, is it a largely a ketogenic diet,

but then we will fuel carbohydrates

around training sessions.

So we’ll do very timed exposure to carbohydrates.

So it’s not-

Post training.

Post training, immediately pre, during,

and then immediately post.

And then the rest of their diets,

breakfast, lunch, and dinner,

are what would look like ketogenic type approaches.

So we’re trying to be very tactical in the exposure

to maximize the intensity for the training

and then return to a metabolically efficient diet,

which is heavily reduced in carbohydrate

because we’ve fueled the sessions that need it.

I’m smiling because once again,

this place, the UFC Performance Center,

is doing things scientifically,

which to me, the idea, and I’m pleased to hear that

because to me, this idea that the ketogenic diet

is the best and only diet,

or carbohydrates and low protein diets are the best diet,

it’s just, it’s ludicrous.

Then you mentioned metabolic efficiency.

I think some people might be familiar with that term,

some perhaps not,

but the way I understand metabolic efficiency

is that you teach the body to use fats

by maybe doing long bouts of cardio,

maybe lowering carbohydrates a bit,

so teaching the body to tap into its fat stores

for certain periods of training.

And then you also teach the body to utilize carbohydrates

by supplying carbohydrates immediately after training

and before training.

You teach the body to use ketones,

and then you use them at the appropriate time

as opposed to just deciding

that one of these fuel sources is good

and all the others are bad or dispensable.

Do I have that correct?

You nailed it.

I mean, from Bob Sibahar, formerly of USA Triathlon,

is the guy that kind of came up

with the concept of metabolic efficiency.

But yes, you’re absolutely right.

I mean, at low intensities of exercise

or just day-to-day living,

we shouldn’t be tapping into

our carbohydrate fuel sources extensively.

That’s for higher intensity work

or the fight or flight needs of stress.

If athletes or any individual has a high-carbohydrate diet,

they’re gonna start to become predisposed

to utilizing that fuel source preferentially.

Now, at low intensity, that can be problematic,

certainly for an athlete,

because if they preferentially use carbohydrate

at lower intensities,

when the exercise demand goes to a higher intensity,

they’ve already exhausted their fuel stores.

They can’t draw upon fat

because the oxidization of that fat is just too slow.

So they’re essentially now become fatigued

because they’ve already utilized their carbohydrate stores.

So what we try to do, yes, through diet manipulation

and a little bit of exercise manipulation is, as you say,

teach the body or train the body

to preferentially use a specific fuel source,

fat, obviously, at lower intensities

and carbohydrate at high intensities.

And we look at, specifically,

the crossover point between the two

tells a lot in terms of how an athlete is ultimately,

how their metabolism is working.

Well, again, I was smiling because I love this,

because it’s grounded in something real and scientific,

which is that we have these different fuel sources.

The body can adapt to use any number of them or one of them.

I think most people are looking for that one pattern

of eating, that one pattern of exercising

that’s going to be best for them or sustain them.

And they often look back to the time

when they felt so much better

switching from one thing to the next,

but the adaptation process itself is also key, right?

Teaching the body.

So, if we were to just riff on this

just a little bit further, if somebody,

I’ll use myself as an example,

since I can only speculate

what other people’s current nutrition protocols are,

but if somebody is eating in a particular way

and they want to try this kind of periodization of nutrition,

could one say, okay, for a few weeks,

I’m going to do more high-intensity interval training

and weight training,

and I’m going to eat a bit more carbohydrate

because I’m depleting more glycogen

than if I switch to a phase of my training

where I’m doing some longer runs,

maybe I’m training less,

maybe I’m just working at my desk a little bit more,

then I might switch to a lower carbohydrate diet.

Do I have that right?

And then if I’m going to enter a competition of some sort,

certainly not UFC or MMA of any kind, to be clear,

not because it isn’t a wonderful sport,

but because that wouldn’t be good for my other profession,

but if I were going to do that,

then I would think about stacking carbohydrates,

ketones, and fats.

Do I have that more or less right?

I mean, I think, yeah, you just said it eloquently.

At the end of the day,

you’re consciously understanding

what the exposure to physical exertion is,

and you’re flexing your diet accordingly.

And I think that-

So it’s need-based eating.


You know, for want of better terms,

you can call it whatever fancy terminology

there is out there,

but yes, it’s needs-based eating,

but you’re very conscious and cognizant

of what is my current exercise status.

You know, if I’m taking some time off,

then don’t gorge on the carbohydrates.

We probably need to be cut.

It’s going to be lower intensity work,

or even just habitual day-to-day walking around,

doing your groceries.

You know, that doesn’t require massive amounts

of glycogen storage and carbohydrate fueling.

So you can potentially go more ketogenic in nature,

you know, oxidizing lipids for that fuel.

If you are in a high period of high-intensity training,

then you have to consciously flex your diet

to support that.

That’s not normal.

You’ve made a change.

You’ve elevated the demand.

So the fueling requirements for the regenerative,

not only fueling the exercise,

but the regenerative requirements of your body

after that type of work

is going to be really important as well.

So yes, take on more carbohydrates.

So I think it’s consciously interpreting

the nature of your diet

against where you are at any moment in time.

Yeah, I like that.

I think the listeners in my podcast

generally are experimenters.

They are scientists of themselves,

which makes me happy, obviously.

And I like to think that they’re paying attention

to the changes they’re making

and how they’re affecting themselves.

And they seem more open to trying things,

provided they can do it safely, you know,

and seeing what works for them.

And I’m certainly going to try some of the change up.

I also am really a creature of habit.

And I think talking to you today,

I realize I’m probably doing a number of things

truly wrong in my training,

but also that I don’t tend to vary my nutrition

with my training quite as much as I should.

I’m just locked into a protocol.

We covered a number of things

related to your PhD thesis work,

but I cut you off early on related to your trajectory.

After you finished your thesis,

I know you were at Notre Dame for a while.

Was that your first spot after your PhD thesis?

No, no, I basically finished my PhD

and I dropped into the British Olympic system

for about 14 years.

Oh my, okay.

I was with, you know,

I’ve done three full Olympic cycles with different sports

and largely a strength and conditioning coach

as a practitioner.

I was always working in universities and academia alongside,

you know, in terms of continuing to publish and write

and do research and teach as well.

That explains the huge volume of publications.

I don’t think people realize the work

that goes into getting a quality peer-reviewed publication.

It’s not, what do they call it now on Instagram?

Anik data, where people would do something,

want, you know, they have this experience

and then they put it in the world.

Anik data are,

I don’t even know that we should call it data,

but so 14 years working with the British Olympic team?

Yeah, so with, you know,

whether it was GB boxing,

primarily with the Rio side, excuse me,

the Beijing cycle,

but also lightweight rowers and gymnastics.

And for the London Olympic games,

that cycle I was with,

I was the lead strength and conditioning

and physical performance coach for British basketball.

So GB basketball.

I had about three years in the English Premier League

and with Newcastle United and the soccer team.

And then for the Rio Olympic cycle,

I was with Great Britain Taekwondo.

So again, another combat sport.

After I’d finished there,

I kind of moved to the University of Notre Dame

where I went into more of a,

more of a managerial position,

working across all the different technical services,

medical, nutrition, strength and conditioning,

you know, psychology, whatever,

sports science, whatever it may be.

As the, you know,

the director of performance sciences

for Notre Dame athletics.

And then after about 16 months there,

the UFC came knocking

and they recruited me out of Notre Dame.

So it’s been a great ride

and lots of, you know, I’ve got, you know,

lots of athletes have taught me a lot along the way.

Lots of coaches, you know, every day is a school day.

I still try and keep that mentality.

And, you know, in this world,

we call it white belt mentality.

You know, it’s, you know, I’m a PhD.

I’ve got 25 years of experience in high performance sport,

but I still learn every single day

from these people out on the mats and in the ring.

And it’s impressive to see what they do.

Yeah, it certainly is.

I got introduced to MMA just a few years ago.

I think the first time I came out here

was one of the first times I’d heard of MMA

because I was kind of in my laboratory and, you know,

nose down.

And it’s a really interesting sport

because it incorporates so many different types of movement.

As you said, you know, it’s not just stand up boxing.

It’s just kicking.

It’s every, you know, ground game, everything.

And I’m still learning about it.

But as you mentioned,

going in with that beginner’s mind,

the white belt mentality,

what has been the most surprising thing for you

in terms of being exposed to MMA in particular,

as opposed to other sports?

Like what’s unique about MMA fighters

besides that they have this huge variety

of tactical skills that they have to learn and perfect?

Yeah, that’s a great question.

I would say two things.

I’m going to answer two questions.

One actually reiterates what you’ve already said.

Like the degrees of freedom in mixed martial arts

are exponential, like no other sport.

You know, we’ve got 11 different weight classes.

We have men’s classes.

We have women’s classes.

We have, you know, kickboxers, wrestlers,

jujitsu fighters, judokas, you know, like karate fighters.

You know, the stylistic backgrounds are infinite.

And we have, we’re a weight classification sport.

There’s a whole issue relating to making weight

and then rebounding to fight about 24 to 30 hours.

Like just the variability in this sport,

the considerations that you have to make

are unprecedented compared to any other sport

that I’ve worked with.

And a lot of them go against,

and they are the antithesis

of what you would expect for a high performance.

You know, in terms of,

we don’t always have a very clearly defined

competition schedule.

You know, once these guys fight,

they don’t necessarily know

when their next fight’s going to be.

What’s the closest spacing of a fight?

I mean, listen, I think the record is around,

it’s just over a month, I believe.

So, you know, that’s a quick turnaround.

But most of these guys are fighting,

you know, three or four times a year,

three times a year is pretty normal.

The bigger fights, maybe two times a year.

But invariably the guys don’t know

when that next date is going to be.

So we’re in this gray area of, okay, what do we do?

Like, are we taking some time off?

Are we just going to do some general prep work?

Are we going to try and keep this, you know,

the knife sharpened in case I get-

I didn’t realize this,

in that way it’s a lot like special operations.

Absolutely, you don’t know when the call is going to happen.

They have to be ready at all times.

There isn’t this like, let’s get ready for the season.

Right, yeah, like when I was

with the British Olympic Association,

you know, I knew it was the British Open,

the Spanish Open, the French Open,

the European Championships, the Israeli Open,

the American Open, the Canadian Open, the Olympic Games.

You know, I could-

It’s a circuit in your brain, I can tell.

Right, you just plan like,

you know where all the targets are going to be.

Here, it’s a moving target

because you might be just hanging out

doing some general prep work

and then you might get a short notice fight.

They give you a quick call

and it’s in six weeks or five weeks.

And okay, I’ve got to ramp everything up really quickly.

So that’s a real challenge in terms of just managing

all these different components of mixed martial arts alone.

To come back to your question,

the other thing which is truly fascinating

about these individuals is their,

just their mental resilience.

And again, we’ve touched on it in the talk,

but the ability to do what they do on a daily basis,

to look at all the different skill sets

that they have to try and engage in

and bring into their training,

to do that and embrace the grind,

embrace the process of just learning.

The physical side of our sport is unprecedented,

but the mental side, you know,

we have a funny saying here,

we always say it’s 90% mental

apart from the 60% that’s physical.

So, you know, it’s just more and more and more.

And these guys’ ability to just do that on a daily basis

is very impressive.

Like their resilience, their internal drive

and their resilience is really impressive to see.

Yeah, all the fighters I’ve met here

have been really terrific.

It’s interesting.

Every time I meet a fighter, how often I,

I shouldn’t be surprising

where they’re often very soft-spoken.


Always extremely polite.

Yeah, yeah.

And fighting is such a, you know,

it comes from a very primitive portion of the brain.


But a large portion of the brain, nonetheless.

But I think that’s another skill is that switch,

you know, and again,

that’s the recoverability piece, right?

Like you cannot be type A

or you cannot be like supercharged 24 hours a day

because you’re going to just fry your system, right?

And I think that’s something else

where we’re really trying to manage this whole process,

be it through nutritional interventions,

be it through education around sleep,

be it through training program management,

be it through psychological interventions.

You know, you could look at fighters and say,

like, these guys are go.

Like they’re red alert

and they’ll run through a brick wall.

But actually, again,

their ability to turn it on and off

means that they can do what they do.

You know, they can bring it down and be very normal,

very polite, very, you know, accommodating.

Maybe even better than most people,

because, you know,

one of the reasons I’m obsessed with human performance

and high performance and people like fighters

you know, elite military

or even bodybuilders for that matter

is that they experiment.

They find the outer limits of what’s possible.

But one of the things that they have discovered

as you’re describing is this ability

to toggle between high alert states and calm states.

Most typical people can’t do this.

They see something that upsets them on the internet

or something on the news

or some external event pressures down on them

and they’re stressed for many, many days and weeks.

And sometimes it goes pathological, right?

I don’t say this as a criticism.

It’s just that most human beings within our species,

most members of our species

never learn to either flip the switch

or to just voluntarily toggle between states.

I think athletes learn how to do that extremely well.

And it sounds like MMA fighters do that even better

than perhaps many other athletes.

I mean, yeah, there’s the odd one or two

that would struggle with,

but I think in terms of that chronic exposure,

we see that coming from challenges

around cyclical weight cutting

and metabolic disruption and metabolic injury,

not necessarily from the psychological drive.

They do understand that this is a job for them

and the time on the mats,

most of them can turn it off a little bit

and downgrade things when they’re off the mats.

It’s impressive to see.

Because again, like as a layman,

just looking at the fight game,

you think it’s going to be crazy chaotic,

100 miles an hour, every hour of every day.

But that’s clearly not the case.

They manage their energy and their efforts pretty well.

So it’s a little bit like science,

although maybe scientists could take a lesson from it.

Yeah, it’s like that evidence-based practice

or practice-based evidence, right?

No, I like that.

That’s good.

A couple more questions.

I can’t help myself.

I know we talked about temperature earlier

when we discussed cold, but I can’t help myself.

I have to ask you about heat

because earlier we were having a conversation

about heat adaptation, about how long does it take

for the human body or athlete or typical person

that’s maybe exploring sauna or things of that sort

to learn to be a better sweater?

It sounds like something none of us would want to do.

We all want to stay cool, calm, and collected.

But one of the reasons to deliberately expose oneself

to heat is for things like growth hormone release, et cetera.

We can talk about this, but a couple of questions.

One is heat exposure stress in the same way

that the ice bath or cold exposure is stress.

The second one is, is there any difference there

that’s important?

And the other one is how does one get better

at heat adaptation, or at least what are you doing

with the fighters to get them better at dealing with heat?

How long does that take?

So the first question, just because I threw

three questions at you, is heat stress like cold is stress?

Yeah, I think it is.

And I think heat shock proteins, for example,

are driven by that stressful exposure

to a changing environment.

So I think we do graded response

in terms of heat acclimation strategies.

But yes, we’ve touched on it earlier in the conversation.

For me, heat is still a stressor.

And if it’s managed incorrectly,

you can have detrimental responses

rather than beneficial responses.

So barring like hyperthermia and death,

like, I mean, obviously you heat up the brain too much,

people will have seizures and die, but you lose neurons.

But what’s the right way to acclimate heat?

Taking into account that people should check

with their doctor, et cetera, we do all these disclaimers.

But let’s just say I want to get better

at dealing with heat, or I want to extract

more benefit from heat.

I mean, how many minutes a day are people

typically exposing themselves to heat?

How often and over what periods of time?

Yeah, so we normally start with about 15 minutes of exposure.

Now, if someone’s really lacking acclimation to heat,

you can do that in three, five minute efforts.

Do you know what I mean?

And actually take time-

This is hot sauna.

Yeah, hot sauna.

Take time to step out.

200 degrees or something like Fahrenheit.

Correct, yeah, yeah.

200 Fahrenheit, yes.

And we try to work up to 30 to 40 minutes

to 45 minutes in the sauna continuous.

Now, we have to understand what’s the advantage

of heat acclimation for our athletes.

Ultimately, their ability to sweat

and to lose body fluids is going to be advantageous

to their weight cut process, their ability to make weight.

It is a technique that some of these guys adopt.

So if you don’t have high sweat rates,

it means you’re going to have to sit in the sauna

for longer and longer and longer

to get the same delta in sweat release.

So the more acclimated you are,

the more your body is thermogenically adapted,

the more sweat glands you have, the small pores,

you can sweat more and therefore,

you’ll lose that fluid quicker

and you spend less time in the sauna.

So that’s why we do it, to try and promote,

to limit the exposure.

And it comes back to your first question, is it a stressor?

Absolutely, it’s a stressor if you’ve got to spend

two hours, over a four-hour period,

two hours of it sat in a sauna because you just-

Where the phone doesn’t work, so you can’t be,

no, just, you know, people just voice them from their phone

and that’s a stressor in itself.

Right, I mean, yes, I think,

you know, there’s a, you know,

what we do is we, like anything,

we build up in temperature,

but we build up in volume of exposure.

So, you know, we start with 15 minutes

and then we just try to add on and add on across the time.

And now for us, we kind of found about 14 sauna exposures,

starts to really then drive the adaptations

that we’re looking for.

So it’s not a quick fix, you know,

a heat acclimation strategy has to happen

long before fight week or long before the fights.

You know, this is a process

that has to begin, you know,

eight to 10 weeks before the fight

so that we can actually get that adaptation

and that tolerance to the stressor,

to the exposure of heat.

It’s interesting, until today,

when we talked about this earlier and again now,

I didn’t realize that,

but it makes perfect sense now that I hear it,

that heat adaptation is possible,

that you basically can train the body

to become better at cooling itself,

which is what sweating is.

I mean, I should have known that before,

but you know, you don’t see that in the textbooks.

And so, yeah.

I mean, listen, it’s the same

as the ketogenic conversation, you know,

you’re training your body

to be more metabolic efficient,

you’re training your body to tolerate heat more,

you’re training your body.

Like the body is, you know,

as an organism, as an organic system,

it’s hugely adaptable, it’s hugely plastic.

But I think the skill is understanding

the whens, the whys, and the where ofs

in terms of changing the overload,

changing the stimulus to drive specific adaptation.

And philosophically,

that’s how we go about our work here.

We talk about adaptation-led programming.

Now, adaptation-led programming

fits into every single category,

not just lifting weights or running track,

it fits into nutrition,

it fits into sitting in the sauna,

it fits into being in a cold bath or not,

it fits into so many different things

because we’re driven by scientific insights.

And that’s how we really want to go about our business.

I love it.

I love this concept of adaptation-led programming

and doing that not just in the context

of throwing another plate on the bar

or something like that,

but in every aspect of one’s training and performance.

And I think there’s a lot here

that’s applicable to the recreational athlete too.


Would you say that what comes to mind is 12 weeks?

It feels like 12 weeks is a nice block of time

for someone to try something

in terms of to try something new,

see how they adapt, adapt,

and then maybe switch to something new.

I realized that it’s very hard

to throw a kind of pan timeframe around something.

But in terms of if someone wanted to experiment

with heat adaptation or experiment with cold adaptation

or change up their training regimen or diet

and look at metabolic efficiency,

do you think 12 weeks is a good period of time

to really give something a thorough go

and gain an understanding of how well

or how poorly something works for oneself?

Or would you say eight is enough or three?

I mean, that’s how long is a piece of string

for that kind of response, right?

I mean, yes, if we’re just talking arbitrary numbers.

Recreational experimenter, yeah.

Three months exposure, 12-week training strategy,

12-week intervention is more than adequate

to say for 99% of things that change within the body

that physiologically adapt to a training stimulus

or an overload stimulus,

you’re gonna start to see either regression or progression,

beneficial or detrimental effects within three months.

Absolutely, I would say so.

Now, listen, I say that in as much as we do

training blocks here that are three weeks long.

That’s because of this constraint

that sometimes people suddenly have to,

they get the call to fight.

Correct, yeah, so it’s like super condensed.

And in that scenario, we’re always conscious of,

is there a body or this individual,

do they have the ability to tolerate that super overload,

that like super condensed exposure?

Now, we might be doing that purposefully.

We might be trying to do an overreaching strategy

where we’re really trying to damage or flex something.

And I don’t mean like negatively damaged,

but like we’re trying to damage tissue

to really get an adaptive response

versus more drawn out 12-week strategy,

which is more coherent, more planned out,

more structured in nature.

But yeah, for all your listeners, I would say,

if 12 weeks to engage in a process

of trying to change and adapt your body

or expose yourself to something is more than sufficient

to see if it’s gonna be the right approach for you.

And I think the individual interpretation

is always has to be considered.

And I think that’s where it comes back

to be a thinking man’s athlete

or be a thinking man’s trainer,

like someone that’s going through exercise.

You have to consciously understand

where your body’s at any moment in time.

You’ve gotta be real with yourself.

You can create a journal, create a log of your training,

create a log of your feelings,

your subjective feedback of how you felt,

your mood, your sleep.

Do your athletes do that?

Yeah, we try to promote that

because again, that’s part of this process.

Might be 12 weeks for you,

but I might get the same responses in eight weeks.

And I think that’s another critical theme here

is that we could put 15 guys on the mat

and give them the same workout,

and there’s gonna be 15 different responses

to that same workout

because the human organism is so complex

and in nature that it’s gonna adapt differently.

Some people will tolerate it.

Some people are gonna be challenged by it.

Some people have got a metabolic makeup

that’s gonna promote it.

Some people are metabolically challenged by it.

There’s just so many different things

that we have to consider.

And that’s what we try to do here.

It’s the cross we bear is that we try to understand

on an individual level

how to optimize athletic performance.

I think it’s terrific.

And the athletes here are so fortunate to have this.

And most people out there,

I’ve certainly been trying to encourage people

to learn some science and some mechanism

and become scientists of their own pursuits,

whether or not skill learning or athletic pursuit, et cetera.

As a sort of a final question,

what are some things about the UFC

or something about the UFC

that perhaps people don’t know

in terms of its overall mission

or what you guys are trying to do here?

I mean, I think I’ve become a fan of MMA

and I am more and more as time moves on.

Some people might be into MMA,

some people not into watching MMA,

but what are some things that the UFC is interested in

and doing that most people might not know about

and certainly I might not know about?

Yeah, I mean, I think,

we try to be cutting edge.

We try to be super progressive.

We think we’ve got an amazing platform here,

particularly the Performance Institute

to do some really cool things

that can inform many different people.

And that doesn’t just mean the 600 or so athletes

that are on our global roster.

What we’re trying to do is influence global community

around optimizing human performance.

So any moment in time,

we’re engaging in different technologies

with different vendors, different partners,

exploring opportunities to learn more, share data,

understand what’s the best mechanisms

for interpreting your body,

interpreting how your body’s responding to training,

interpreting your nutrition or whatever it may be.

We get, we’re in a really privileged position to do that.

But we’ve also, hence you being here today,

we’re also trying to venture

into some really cool areas of science and research

that’s got applicability

that you can take from high performance athletes

and apply to yourself,

to Joe Blow walking down the street out there

that is really interesting.

And that’s everything from whether it’s CBD and psychedelics

through to different technologies for thermal monitoring

and Bluetooth heart rate monitoring or whatever it may be

through to data management, et cetera,

and anything in between.

We’ve got some great partners on the nutrition side,

on the psychology side, on the data side.

And I think we always try to just push the envelope

a little bit more.

I think we keep our core mission with our athletes,

but I think a lot of what we do,

hence your podcast and an amazing platform,

you do such a great job of it,

that we can all learn and take from the elite

and interpret how it might help us

and just in the general population.

So I think that’s our North Star

is to provide our athletes

the best integrated service of care.

But we also want to influence just the global community

and put UFC at the forefront of that.

That’s great.

Well, you guys are certainly doing it.

We can’t let the cat out of the bag just yet,

but the things that we’re gearing up to do

with my laboratory and the work together,

hopefully we’ll be able to talk about that

and share that in the year to come,

but we’re very excited about that.

And Duncan, look, I have this filter that I use

when I talk to people, academics or otherwise,

which is some people, they open their mouth

and it doesn’t make much difference,

but when you speak, I learn so much.

I’m going to take the protocols that I’ve heard about today.

I’m going to think about how I’m training

and how I could train differently and better,

how I’m eating, how I could eat differently and better

for sake of performance and just in general.

Thank you so much for your time,

your scientific expertise,

the stuff you’re doing in the practical realm, it’s immense.

So hopefully we can do it again.

Yes, thank you.

This has been a blast.

I appreciate it.

Yeah, keep doing what you’re doing

because I know there’s a lot of people out there

that love the platform.

So thanks for the invite.

It’s been awesome.

Thank you.

Thanks so much.

Thank you for joining me for my conversation

with Dr. Duncan French.

I hope you found it as insightful and informative as I did.

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