Episode 79: Jeff Cavaliere – Optimize Your Exercise Program With Science-Based Tools | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • Learning to engage muscles actively without a load will improve “muscularity” or muscle tone at rest
  • Train smarter: increase the intensity and reduce the time; workouts generally shouldn’t last more than an hour unless you are lifting heavy and rests are longer
  • If your goal is general health & fitness, split time 60% strength training (M/W/F) + 40% cardio/conditioning (Tu/Th)
  • Grip strength is tied to performance & recovery – if you have a decrease in 10% or more of grip strength, you should skip the gym that day
  • Choose the sleep position that is least abrasive to your body – sleep position affects movement while awake; you can sleep through uncomfortable positions, but the body will incur the strain and stress in wakefulness
  • Tip: try passive stretching before bed to lengthen muscles before entering a contracted state while sleeping (depending on position)
  • “Your body is very smart and it’s going to find compensations but that doesn’t mean the compensation isn’t going to leave you with a whole host of other issues.” – Jeff Cavaliere
  • Lose the nutrition dogma: if you try a nutrition approach that allows you to gain control of your nutrition and health forever, then do it!
  • Universal nutrition truth: we’d all be better off without the sugar
  • How to approach eating: largest portion = fibrous carbohydrates (e.g., broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, etc.); second-largest portion = protein (e.g., clean sources – chicken, fish, meat, etc.); smallest portion = starchy carbohydrates (e.g., sweet potatoes, rice, etc.)


Jeff Cavaliere, MSPT, CSCS (@athleanx), is a world-class physical therapist and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. Jeff is an expert on proper resistance and cardiovascular training, injury prevention, and rehabilitation and has extensive knowledge on proper form, posture, nutrition and supplementation.

Andrew Huberman and Jeff Cavaliere discuss how to best design and optimize a physical training program to achieve specific goals. They also discuss the role of mental focus during workouts, when and how to stretch, pain management and enhancing workout recovery and sleep, and how to personalize your training and nutrition program over time.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Website: The Coach – Athlean-X

General Guidelines For Managing Gym Time

  • Managing gym time for health, aesthetics, athleticism: 60/40 split leaning towards strength training – for example, break up 5 days of exercise into 3 days of strength training (M/W/F) + 2 days of conditioning (Tu/Th)
  • Duration of workouts: keep workings to an hour or less if the training goal is overall health (if using splits or heavy lifting it will take longer because of load and rest between)
  • “You can train long or you can train hard but you can’t do both.” – Jeff Cavaliere
  • Make sure a good warm-up is part of your routine, especially with age – this will help avoid injury and allow you to move heavier loads with reduced risk of injury

Designing Splits & Two-A-Days

  • The key component is sustainability – splits take longer and are less enjoyable, so will you stick to it?
  • Splits can mess with the schedule because if you miss a day, you miss a body part
  • Bro split: one muscle group per day, maximized toward aesthetic over strength gains
  • Two-a-days make sense but it’s tough to fit into most people’s schedules and hard to rally twice for a solid exercise
  • Two-a-day sample: morning workout upper body, afternoon workout lower body – or push/pull split

When To Train What

  • If the main goal is to maintain or gain muscle and get lean, the bare minimum cardiovascular training is two days per week
  • If training cardio and strength on the same day, put it at the end of the workout to not compromise strength training
  • Conditioning and cardio done prior to lifting might compromise lift effort
  • Even if the effort level is lower during cardiovascular training at the end of strength training, it’s still demanding cardiovascular output and sufficient if the goal is strength training
  • Jump rope 101 (Jump rope video): jump roping is relatively easy on joints although it’s ballistic; once you perfect regular jump rope, mix up jump rope modalities – one leg, side to side, high knees
    • Learning to land properly and training your body to experience a ground force in the right way will also improve jogging/running and keep you from landing on your heels

Cavaliere Muscle Contraction Test

  • Mind-muscle connection: certain muscles will grow bigger and get stronger depending on your ability to contract that muscle in the absence of load
  • If you know the bicep is supposed to be doing the work on a curl, the bicep needs to do the work – squeeze it
  • The level of resting tone (AKA muscularity) in the muscle will improve if you can learn to engage the muscle and connect neurologically
  • When working towards hypertrophy or muscle growth, you need to seek ways to make it uncomfortable
  • Some places are easier to forcefully contract through range than others – for example, most of us can contract our bicep, but fewer can contract their calf

Navigating Local & Systemic Recovery

  • Different muscles recover at different rates – some also respond better to higher volume training while others thrive on lower volume
  • Using muscle soreness as a guideline is really the primary, non-invasive way to indicate recovery
  • Grip strength is tied to performance and recovery
  • Grip strength test: you can use an old fashion dial bathroom scale and squeeze the dial with your hand – or – when you first wake up, try to make a fist and squeeze as best you can (check out hand grip dynamometer)
  • Measure grip daily; if grip output is decreased by 10% or more, skip the gym that day

Sleep Behavior & Position

  • Tip: don’t tuck in your sheets at the foot of the bed so your feet can move comfortably, especially if sleeping on your back
  • Sleep position affects movement while awake – you can sleep through uncomfortable positions, but the body will incur the strain and stress in wakefulness
  • Reasons to avoid sleeping on your stomach: (1) excessive extension of the lumbar spine; (2) internal rotation of hands; (3) cranking neck on one side or the other
  • Reasons not to sleep on a side: (1) prolonged hip flexion (legs and knees near chest) – we do enough while seated during the day
  • Static stretching prior to going to bed is helpful in creating lengthening before we sleep in potentially contracted positions
  • Sleep positions aren’t all or nothing (e.g., side sleeping is helpful for apnea), but something to consider


  • The basic types of stretching: (1) active and (2) passive
  • Passive stretching is done to create an increase in flexibility in the muscle and
  • Timing of passive stretching: should be done only after workouts are done for the day or at the end of the day before bed – never before exercise, because you’re changing the length-tension relationship of the muscle and need to recover
  • Muscle has more leverage to contract with length; we can’t generate much force in a muscle that’s maximally contracted
  • Active/dynamic stretching is done to increase the readiness of the muscle to perform, not for the purpose of increasing the length of the muscle
  • Active/dynamic stretching doesn’t alter the length-tension relationship of the muscle – thing leg swings, hurdles, etc.

There’s No Reason To Upright Row

  • The shoulders have the most mobility but the least stability
  • The rotator cuff is the only muscle that externally rotates the shoulder– we need to actively and consciously train them
  • Internal rotation is free and natural and far outweighs external rotation – nature is creating an imbalance we need to counteract
  • If we raise our arms overhead while internally rotated, we’re creating stress in the joint – you need to rotate the joint while you raise overhead externally
  • If your external rotation isn’t strong enough to counteract the internal rotation bias, it’s going to create trouble on the shoulder
  • The main problem with upright row: elbow is higher than the hands, reinforcing the internal rotation which is naturally stronger
  • Try high pull as an alternative to upright row: exercise with hands going higher than the elbows using high pull (high pull video) without going through any stress of upright row

Biomechanics & Pain

  • Most back pain really isn’t pain in the back at all but something above or below (almost always below)
  • Of course, disc issues and structural deformities are real and cause pain, but most are non-operative so worth exploring avenues of relief
  • A tight glute medius can tighten and press on the sciatic nerve and induce pseudo-sciatica
  • Do you suffer from back pain? Check out the video – fixing back pain video, and perform as needed to build new patterns and counteract the body’s natural tendency to want to move in the path of least resistance (painful flow)
  • Once the trigger point lets go, the pain will release
  • Knee pain is not from the knee – the knee is a hinge joint, impacted by the hip, ankle, and foot
  • People with chronic ankle sprains end up with low back pain because the knee wants to hinge which has repercussions on the hip and back
  • Tommy John pain: if you can’t externally rotate the shoulder, your elbow will torque more to allow the arm to get back further and take motion from a joint not capable of doing it which ultimately causes strain
  • Tip: Elbow pain? Make sure you hold weights in the meat of your palms and you hold the bar with your palms instead of your fingertips
  • “If you’re doing an exercise and it hurts, you probably shouldn’t be doing the exercise.” – Jeff Cavaliere

General Nutrition Principles & Themes

  • Nutrition is individualized – find what works for you in a nondogmatic way
  • Nutrition is harder than exercise because it requires extreme commitment! We’re at the gym one hour per day, but what about the other 23? There’s a lot of time to make poor food choices
  • Universal truth: we’d all be better off getting rid of sugar, start there
  • If you try something that allows you to gain control of your nutrition and health forever, then do it! But it has to be sustainable and something that doesn’t feel punishing
  • “Non-exclusionary approaches to diets are the most sustainable for the rest of your life.” – Jeff Cavaliere
  • How to arrange your plate: largest portion = fibrous carbohydrates (e.g., broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, etc.); second-largest portion = protein (e.g., clean sources – chicken, fish, meat, etc.); smallest portion = starchy carbohydrates (e.g., sweet potatoes, rice, etc.)

Breaking Down Myths

  • Should men and women train differently? No, but there are some natural differences in tendencies for casual exercise participants; anything to get you moving is preferrable
  • Kids can start lifting around age 13; the avoidance of structured training is false because kids are naturally pushing and pulling and running around; why not make it structured?
  • Time-related effects of protein intake: thankfully your body will reap the benefits of replenishment up to 4 hours post-training
  • Pre-workout is good if it allows you to perform at the highest level but if it’s making you sluggish (like high protein can for some), then it’s not right for you – focus on post-workout replenishment

Utility Of Training Journals

  • Increasing awareness: journaling and keeping track of workouts can help keep you on task
  • Tip: set an objective goal
  • Workout to get an effect from your exercise, not just to say you’re doing it


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