Why stress is limiting your gains!
This article is a big one, but may be one of the key things you read this year- why STRESS is limiting your gains! Not just from a muscle building perspective, but from every level of fitness and performance.
“How have your stress levels been this week? What did you do to manage stress this week?”
These questions are answered every week by all of our clients on the check in form. And the responses always interest me. Here’s some we see ALL the time:
“Stress isn’t an issue for me so no plan needed to manage it, I just need to focus on training and diet more this week”. Rephrased, here’s what most are saying: “My training and diet is struggling due to not having the right stress management systems in place”.
Or this one:
“I train more when I’m stressed, and this helps”. Rephrased, this one could be “I get stressed but feel better after training, so my training becomes focused on stress management, and achieving my goals needs to wait!”.
Stress is more of an issue for some of us than others. Every day, in my roles as a business owner and coach, I have deadlines to meet, finances to manage, and other typical “high stress situations” at work- yesterday we had to change a floor in the gym, so my afternoon with plenty of time in the office because a 14 hour work day with very little opportunity to grab a break. In addition to this, I’m always working on CPD with deadlines, and manging normal day to day stressors that most of you guys will face at home. I know I run at pretty high stress most of the time, I’m spinning plates. Here’s what it took a while to realise- when one plate is thrown off, it has a downstream effect on EVERYTHING I do.
But at least I know this, a few years ago I didn’t appreciate the impact this was having, and it killed my progress in the gym. And worse than that, I didn’t fully appreciate that impact it was having on every decision I made.
Fast forward a few years, and it’s now proved to be the single biggest change I’ve made in not only my own training, but also my coaching- and the results have proven that this change was the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to health and fitness.
Here’s why stress is limiting your gains, and how to fix it!
Stress- an overview
Here’s an overly simple view of stress, but this will demonstrate why it can be limiting your gains. I don’t want to offend here, but evolution happened. If you don’t want to believe that, and think you’re made of fairy dust and smiles, you have bigger fundamental truths to learn before coming back to this blog.
But assuming you’re ok with that, let’s take a basic look into the stress response.
Our body is one big chaotic symphony of stimulus and responses, designed to help you to survive right now. If you can do that, we can think a little further ahead, but if this stimulus response system isn’t sure, we can throw everything not essential to “survive right now” on hold. If we understand this basic principle of stress, then we can follow the logic to see why managing this is essential to your progress in the gym.
The stress response:
“As you look up, you see it. Your heart starts to race. Your focus becomes more tuned in. You feel your breathing rate increase. Your body is ready to go”
What’s happening here is our stress response. The release of catecholamines into your system (adrenaline, dopamine, etc) to help you to focus on survival right now. Imagine in the above situation, you are standing face to face with a Lion. What helps you to survive in an emergency? You want to become super alert, right now. You want to get ready to zone in on threats- we focus on the lion, to better perceive it’s movements.
Our body has started the cascade of physical changes to allow us to run like hell, or fight. But with this, sometimes, it can paralyze us. This is the fight or flight response (unfortunately, sometimes this doesn’t go to plan- hence the addition of “freeze” to this). A little deeper into this, blood flow to the large muscle groups increase, and we start to mobilize more energy (glucose) into our bloodstream due to the expectation of intense activity. Blood pressure also increases to facilitate these physical changes, all driven towards helping us get the hell out of a dangerous situation.
And in the case of seeing a lion, this is a pretty dam PERFECT response. Our body is freakin awesome.
Unfortunately, we only really have one fundamental stress response. Yes, this differs in intensity and duration (we will get to this), but the response is the same. Increased alertness, energy mobilisation, increased heart rate and breathing rate, increased blood pressure- READY TO GO!
Ideal when facing a lion, not so much when you’re a little late to work and sat in traffic. Or when you go to the cupboard and realise you’ve no teabags. Or when you are about to go to sleep, but see an email that pisses you off. In this case, the stress response seems pretty flawed.
By the way, this is explained brilliantly in the book by Dr. Robert Sapolsky: “Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers”.
Too much, too often:
As I mentioned, as a biological system, we’re amazingly complex. But as we’re not made of sunshine and fairy dust, all of this extra energy going into our ability to “fight or flight”, somethings got to give. And the things that sacrifice themselves for this extra “ability” short term, are the things we need for long term survival, AKA general health. Immune function is suppressed, libido reduced, and digestion shuts down. Even memory and thought processes are limited.
We don’t necessarily have too much stress in our life. Certainly, in the scheme of things, we’re living pretty well. But sound the alarm so often (and so loudly) at trivial situations, that we start to enter a state of chronic stress: that is, we’re now living in a heightened state of stress.
We are spending a disproportionate amount of time “breaking things down” in our body in preparation for the “physical life or death event”, that we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of building things up (recovering from workouts, digesting food and getting it into our system, sleeping, and enjoying things). Now, there’s a whole league of problems with this, but let’s stick to the physical side- why this kills your gains!
Some of the smartest of you may be catching on already…
Training, stress and limiting your gains!
My first course with the UK strength and conditioning association back in 2012 always jumps out at me here. My group was asked to explain the principles behind the GAS principle- General Adaptation Syndrome. A theory of adaptation to stress. Funny how the worlds of fitness and stress are so intrinsically tied together.
In this instance, within the GAS principle applied to fitness, training is the stressor.
Now, training can be great to help manage stress, no doubt it’s an essential part of the puzzle. Good nutrition and regular exercise are key stress management strategies. But here’s the problem. People use training to REDUCE their stress. And when you hit this “Chronic stress” state, this “beast it out in the gym” strategy is simply naive, to say the least.
We can still workout, but if you’re not breaking food down, not sleeping, and training like shit, then your plan training needs to consider this. Progress is about balancing the workout with the recovery, so if recovery is reduced, the workout should be modified. Trying to push harder in this state is where most people fall down.
If you want to improve strength, muscle mass, performance, health or improve body composition, you need to manage stress.
Dieting, stress and limiting your gains even more!
In case the fact of your training becoming a stress management tool rather than a make progress tool wasn’t bad enough, here’s the real kicker. Stress can completely ruin your diet. Sure, put it down to willpower, but the fact is, generally, your stress management is off, leading to poor decision making. Now, without going into any level of detail with this, just know when we’re stressed, we use glucose for energy.
It’s the logical system for the stress state. Fast energy, regardless of long term efficiency. The by product. We get a little bit worse at using stored energy from fats. But we need a pretty constant supply of carbohydrates to run this state- hence the stress eating of ice cream, cake, chocolate, pizza, and more. Your willpower will lose, because your physiology is screaming for sugar. And all the while, the fats are being stored up, ready to be used when the stress goes away.
Obviously, fat gain and fat loss will be calorie dependent, but appetite, cravings and decision making will be heavily influenced by stress regardless.
In addition, stress WILL have a huge impact on digestion. Now, this is a problem that needs to be accepted by the most calorie and macro focused people too. We are not what we eat, but we are what we eat, digest and assimilate (thanks to precision nutrition and musclenerds health on this insight!). If you’re not getting the macros into your system, nobody cares that you hit your numbers. Healthy digestion will give your macros a value that counts, without it, you have bigger things to worry about than being down to the gram on your numbers.
How to revive your progress
Stress isn’t a bad thing, and the idea that stress is limiting your gains isn’t suggesting that we need to avoid stressful situations. What we need to do is get the parasympathetic processes working again (the recovery side of things, rest, digest, fight illness, build muscle, refocus, etc). Simply put, we need to learn to switch off, and be more resilient to the stressors we face.
What can you do to stop limiting your gains? Firstly, cut the shit. Take a look at your schedule, and give it a spring clean. What needs your attention? What needs your focus? Anything that isn’t important to you, cut it out. Your time and energy is limited, so be careful where you spend it.
But once you’ve done this, there’s some daily habits you can use to really help out. Take some time every day for you. Go for a walk, meditate, read, whatever, but give yourself a chance to get out of an environment that may be causing your stress, and give yourself the opportunity to change your state. After this, things generally seem more manageable.
The thing with stress is that we will all have some BIG stressors in our life. Absolute soul crushing times. And you’ll feel shit during this. So stop worrying about things that aren’t important. Your perception of the stress is key. Is it worth sounding the screaming stress alarm to being sat in traffic, or needing to nip out for dog food (two situations I’ve had already today)?
To make the best progress, consider stress, deal with stress, build a thick skin, but don’t be an idiot. Keep a close eye on sleep, digestion and recovery. These can give an indication that you’re running the stress state. Or get a little more detailed, and start to consider metrics regularly like heart rate variability, blood pressure, resting heart rate and more. Either way, pay attention to how you feel.
Our key 5 areas at FX are heavily focused around stress management. Training, Nutrition, Fulfillment, Relaxation and Recovery. The thing is, we can’t consider training and nutrition in detail without understanding stress. It changes how you train, it changes how you recover, and you can be sure it changes how you eat. So, stop ignoring stress, give it the consideration it deserves in your plan, and STOP limiting your gains!
If you want support on your fitness journey, contact us today!
Want more detail? Check our our podcast on this and more great topics, or check out the following books:
- Why Zebras don’t get ulcers: Dr. Robert Sapolsky. A book on Stress.
- Psycho cybernetics: Maxwell Maltz, MD: A book on self belief and perception.
- The chimp paradox: Dr. Steve Peters: A book on mind management.
Josh Kennedy MSc, ASCC, CSCS