Muscle-Bound Genius: How Weight Lifting May Boost IQ (And Why it Makes Sense)

By on May 19, 2017

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It has long been common knowledge that physical exercise enhances brain function. However, in all my time reading about this link, the focus has always been on cardiovascular exercise. It has long been the assumption that cardio is better for your brain than lifting weights. In particular, cardio has been linked to improved memory. This is pretty unexciting especially considering just how easy it is to explain away: in all likelihood it comes down to improved circulation to the brain and better energy efficiency for the mitochondria (report).

Meanwhile, weightlifters have the reputation of being dumb ‘meatheads’ like Johnny Bravo. Jokes on them; Johnny Bravo is awesome.

The Genius Warrior

But this has never sat quite right with me. After all, all the strongest guys in the media also appear to be the most intelligent and the most capable. Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to become the world’s highest paid actor, a self-made business millionaire and Govenor of California. Sylvester Stallone writes most of his own scripts and directs, is a successful painter and is said to have an IQ of 160 –  higher than Carol Vorderman’s. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was a successful athlete and wrestler before beginning his acting career, now has an insanely successful media company and massive social media following and is rumoured to be considering running for president in 2020. Dolph Lundgren has another 160 IQ and attended multiple universities around the world earning himself a masters degree in chemical engineering. He was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship to MIT.

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Jackie Chan is another polymath who writes, acts, films, choreographs and produces his movies. He’s also a pop star, a multiple-business owner and even a faculty member of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytetchnic University where he teaches Tourism Management. He’s a polyglot – even speaking sign language – and a political activist. Chan, Sly and Arnie have all managed to stay relevant (and in insane shape) as they have aged and Chan has successfully broken the US.

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Of course I don’t need to even mention Bruce Lee, who was just as much focused on honing his philosophy as he was on honing his body and whose philosophical writings are only now being fully appreciated. Even Socrates is quoted as saying:

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

These guys are about as far from ‘muscle heads’ as it gets. And isn’t this pretty much the aim? To be as smart and cunning as you are physically formidable?

New Evidence That Brawn Builds Brains

And now we have some science to back some of this up. According to a recent study looking at participants aged 55-86 with early signs of dementia, weight lifting may actually be able to reverse ‘mild cognitive impairment’ to an extent (report, study). The researchers hypothesize that this effect might also be translate to healthy individuals.

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The team also revealed in a subsequent paper that the participants’ ‘global cognition’ improved to a significant degree as a result of the weight training, whereas the brain training alone was not able to replicate this effect.

Dr Yorgi Mavros, one of the researchers, said that the follow-up revealed a correlation between brain function and muscle strength.

“The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain.”

The weight training protocol in question closely resembled what you might expect to see in any gym-rat’s diary: reps at 80% of the participants’ 1RM (one rep max). They only trained twice a week however, suggesting potential room for even greater improvement!

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MRI scans showed that specific brain regions were increasing in size as a result of the training, pointing to some potential explanations as to what was going on. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to access the full study in order to tell you which brain regions those might be. So much rage.

The study authors report that their next step is to test that this really was a causal correlation and to look at what the ‘optimal prescription’ might be for someone looking to reverse age-related cognitive decline or just give their grey matter a workout.

What Might be Going On

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I can’t tell you which brain regions specifically are benefiting from this training and the study authors conclude that more research needs to be conducted to identify the mechanisms of action. But in lieu of that information, I can still come up with a few theories.

And helping along the way is the fact that this study is not the first of its kind. Another study similarly looking at the effect of resistance training on age-related cognitive decline found that it encouraged better performance on the troop test and an associative memory task (along with balance and mobility). It also triggered improvements in overall brain plasticity and growth in three specific regions of the cortex: the right lingual, occipital-fusiform gyri and right lingual pole (study). It would be interesting to see if these finding correlated with the more recent study.

The occipital-fusiform gyri appears to play a role in reading comprehension and more broadly processing ‘meaningful visual stimulus’ (study). The lingual gyrus is likewise involved in processing visual stimulus and in encoding visual memories. Perhaps not what you might have predicted! (Fun fact: gyri in the context of neuroscience simply means ‘bulge’).

My best guess is that a) weight training is probably very good for brain plasticity in general. The brain is designed to adapt and learn and particularly when it comes to allowing us to move through our environments. When we challenge it with new movement patterns, this puts it into plasticity overdrive and thus we might become better at all aspects of learning and cognitive performance. If I were to be a naysayer, I could postulate that the main reason for the improvements seen in the elderly participants was simply that the movement was novel.

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Then again, information from the superior and inferior occipital gyri are used in orienting the body prior to movement. It is part of the cerebellum, which controls all voluntary actions in the body and helps to process sensory information. It stands to reason that movement would train these areas. In weight lifting, we see the weight, we visualize moving it, we orient our bodies and then we recruit on the necessary quantity of muscle fibers to shift said weight.

It’s like we’re learning the physics of our own body!

So perhaps this has something to do with embodied cognition? I have explained before that embodied cognition describes the theory that we think ‘with’ our bodies. We understand what people say to us by visualizing that information through our senses and even through our body. Brain areas light up as though it were happening to us.

Using the body – and developing the mind-muscle connection to gain greater control over more muscle (one of the primary correlates of strength) – could potentially give us more control over our own body and thus greater processing power? Certainly only a theory.

But the bottom line is this: the image of the ‘meat head’ is inaccurate. Lifting builds brain and brawn.

smart hulk 2

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.