Fast Twitch or Slow Twitch?

Think about it, my brother said the other day, most people are either high-twitch or low-twitch. I had never heard this way of analyzing people. And I must have raised my eyebrow, because he went on to explain. Usually, he admitted, fast-twitch and slow-twitch refer to muscles, each with different functions.

Slow-twitch muscles work for the long haul. They are fatigue-resistant and good for marathons and distance swimming and endurance training. But when slow-twitch muscles can’t generate the needed energy, fast-twitch muscles come into play.

Fast-twitch muscles are good for short bursts of power. They rise to peak force quickly, even though they don’t sustain this energy for long periods. Sprinters and power lifters use fast-twitch muscles.

“It’s not so much a matter of intelligence,” my brother said, “as style.”

My brother got me to thinking about my students. And as their faces filed through my mind, I found myself ticking them off—slow-twitch . . . fast-twitch . . . slow-twitch.

And it came to me that my fast-twitch students were, perhaps, the most vulnerable.

Take Lemuel, for example. He was the intellectual sprinter, the fastest and most intuitive mind in the class. But the brain that gave him bursts of insight also gave him the capacity to overwhelm himself—to become so emotionally fatigued he couldn’t function. Consumed with geometry, for example, he’d solve five complex proofs in one evening. But the next day he’d go into a funk, withdrawing from his friends, refusing lunch, and melting down over an essay. His explosive energy worked for him and against him.

And then there was Rachel, slow-twitch, for sure. Not instinctive like Lemuel, she worked step-by-step, plodding away, thoughtful and accurate. Rachel could hang in for the long haul—unless she was under the pressure of a timed test or an unexpected challenge. With these pressures, she often froze. But in the normal, work-a-day world, she was certainly more stable than Lemuel.

Unlike muscles with distinct purposes, students need to cross-train for both long hauls and short spurts. To maintain balance, Lemuel had needed variety and comfort. His friends had brought these to him—strong-arming him to the ball field, cajoling him into eating, and joking him out of a mood.  What Rachel needed was spark–to become curiously absorbed in a topic. And it was Lemuel who often lifted her imagination.

“Take a look at this, Rachel,” he’d say. And he’d persist until he could tell she had caught some spirit.”

While Lemuel livened our class with intellectual verve. Rachel made us thoughtful and preserved our sanity.

Fast-twitch and slow-twitch—they each bring their gifts.

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