Stress & Training: How training performance gains may be affected by your stress.

Head of Strength and Conditioning, Coach Dimi, explains the science behind stress and it’s impact on our bodies.

Why has life become so stressful? You can’t understand why you have become so stuck in the rat race of life and it has taken over your entire being. Work is worrying you…you’re not sleeping enough…you’re financially unstable…your children are misbehaving…your partner is giving you heartache…or someone has attacked you on social media. All of these factors are triggers of negative stressors but what it’s doing to your training goals plays a huge role in why you’re not progressing as well as you’d hoped.
As humans we are wired to cope with stress on a chemical and hormonal level. You can call it what you want, “stress”, “anxiety”, “worry” or for the tough type, you can go on telling yourself that you’re fine. In the mean time your heart rate has increased and won’t come down and your stomach has a nauseous feeling that won’t go away. You may think your stress is insignificant and a normal feeling, but this chronic state elevates a hormone called Cortisol. Prolonged exposure to this hormone can make it harder to lose weight, it can reduce your rate of recovery by inhibiting normal immune system function, and it can put the body in a catabolic state (meaning it may become difficult to build muscle). It is impossible for our bodies to stay in this state for long periods of time and chronic exposure can negatively effect your training goals.

– I can’t lose weight: Before you blame cortisol, ask yourself if you’re training hard enough and eating the right foods. It’s easy to place blame elsewhere but first thing is first; are you doing everything right?
– I can’t get to where I once was: Stop living in the past. Life today is different to what it once was, so stop comparing yourself to your younger self.
– I have plateaued: So what if your weight loss journey has come to a stand still? Focus on the positive- you have already lost weight and the stress of losing the last few may be what is inhibiting your ability to lose more.

When we stress our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands to release adrenaline. Back in the Palaeolithic era when man perceived threat, adrenaline was released by the adrenal glands (“fight or flight response”) helping them survive in life and death situations. This chemical was secreted as a physiological response to the danger. Although todays’ stressors are much more insignificant to those thousands of years ago; the same mechanisms are still ingrained within our brains. That feeling of your heart racing and shortness of breath are both symptoms of this mechanism. Your body cannot stay in this state for long though, so what it does next is release cortisol to shut down all other bodily functions, and so all energies can be devoted to the threat at hand. But what does this mean for your metabolism?

Maybe this is why you suffer from the “Yo- Yo” effect, or feel stagnant in your weight loss. If you have constant cortisol production and you continue to subject your body these hormones eventually your adrenal glands will get tired. They will cease to function as they once did and here is where your weight loss difficulties can begin. Over time it will get harder to lose that weight and your frustrations will only make you more stressed. So, just keep your nutrition and training on track and stop stressing right? Easier said than done I know, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just keep at it, control the controllable and don’t give up.


Now that we understand the function of cortisol, it is safe to say that chronic exposure to this hormone can also play apart in sickness and recovery (obviously omitting previous more serious health conditions). If you are someone who experiences high levels of stress you are probably someone who gets sick a lot and doesn’t understand why. But how can you expect your immune system to function at its best when you have cortisol lingering in your system telling it to shut down in response to your stress?

This is when problems such as anxiety can become your silent killer and lead you to regular visits to the doctors. For you injury prone individuals who cannot recover from old and new injuries, it’s very simple. When the anti-inflammatory components within your system decrease, pro inflammatory cytokines increase. This is a neurochemical cost associated with prolonged exposure to cortisol and leading to a reduction in the healing process. You can stop asking yourself the old “why does this always happen to me” thing because this will just make things worse. My advice for those of you struggling with recovery is to re-shift your focus; work on something else and set realistic and achievable goals for your recovery. The more you worry the longer it will take you to get better.

Before I continue on with the next topic on how stress effects muscle gain and strength, for you women out there who are about ready stop reading DON’T. I’d like to remind you that the more muscle you have the faster your metabolism will become and the more fat you can burn…


I have spoken briefly about the role of cortisol but for you beastly humans out there who want more strength and better body composition, it’s important to know this; cortisol is a hormone extremely catabolic in nature and will down regulate your protein synthesis inhibiting your ability to build muscle. The more cortisol in your body the less testosterone you will have so when the ratio in your system favours cortisol you can potentially plateau or become “stuck”. Worst case you can decrease muscle.

Testosterone is an extremely anabolic hormone present in both males and females, just as estrogen is. If the expectation of your training is to get stronger, bigger or leaner but your lifestyle is exhausting and stressful, physiologically your hormone ratio (cortisol: testosterone) is out of wack. The balance is off and the constant exposure to cortisol will slow your progress.

When endeavouring to pursue strength and muscle gains you need to ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice more of in your life, to gain more of in the gym. Don’t be disappointed if the answer is nothing. As time goes on priorities shift. Work hours can become longer, you may not sleep enough and you may find it difficult to get enough calories in. By this point you are exhausted, yet you still expect your body to produce these gains. In order to avoid disappointment my advice is this:

If your training goals sit anything less than first don’t get upset if you don’t hit your targets. Life’s stressors will affect you on a hormonal level and eventually will impact your progress. If it were easy to be big, strong and lean everyone would do it. A whole lot of sacrifice is necessary when pursuing strength goals and it goes beyond your nutrition and training regimen.