It’s fairly well-known and accepted, and knowable by anyone who does a basic search, that stress and it’s associated hormone in the body – cortisol – are not super productive things when it comes to building muscle and losing weight. At a very basic level, that’s true. As always though, if you want to really understand something you have to dig past the superficial layer and accept that there are grey areas – that things aren’t always cut and dry.
The first thing to accept is that there are different kinds of stress. How you categorize and divide them doesn’t really matter – you could look at where they come from in your life, whether it’s short-term or long-term, or whether it’s energizing or crippling. Essentially, some of it productive and some of it is not.
Anyone who has worked with me knows how much I love using a good analogy to drive a point home (or a bad analogy…I don’t really discriminate). So let’s try an easy one here.
Take a balloon. It’s untied, empty, and lifeless on the ground. Doing nothing. You add a little helium to it and pinch the bottom, and you can see the shape of the balloon start to form. You add a little more helium, and the balloon starts to rise – it’s going somewhere now! This is what the balloon is supposed to do.
But if some is good, more is better right? So you add more helium, until – sadly – you are now balloon-less, as it has popped.
In this example, you are the balloon and your total stress is the helium.
Stress comes in numerous forms, just like helium has several different isotopes (aaaaaaand that was the point where I lost most everybody, I think. Note to self: leave the chemistry in the ‘drafts’ folder next time). Some of the stress, you need – think of the acute, physical stress of an intense workout. Without that, your body is given no stimulus, no reason to grow, adapt, or change in any meaningful way. This is the stress you can easily control, by working out more/less or with lower/greater intensity. We want this, and need it for our goals.
The other stress, though, is what often causes our balloon to pop. Rather than literally bursting (ewww), our body simply shuts down and stops cooperating. In some cases, acute stress from working out can pop your balloon all by itself (though this is not common enough to be a concern and, frankly, is really hard to do with conventional training methods). More commonly, the long-term stresses are the ones that cause your balloon to pop. This long-term stress can show up in many different ways:
- Job-related stress
- Emotional stress (relationships, family issues, etc)
- Financial stress
- Diet-induced stress
- Physical stress
- Success stress
That last one is a biggie. You are so consumed with succeeding that if change doesn’t occur at the rate you expect it to, you compound the issue by getting mad at your body for not living up to your expectations. Stress goes up, balloon approaches ‘pop’ status a little faster.
So what can we do about this stuff? Obviously you need to go get a cortisol-blocker, available from my online store if you just….ok ok, kidding. I don’t have a store. Those products exist, and they are band-aids at best. To solve long-term problems, you need a long-term solution – in this case, that means changing habits, thinking patterns, expectations – whatever is generating the stress that’s overloading your system.
A lot of this is internal brain processing – it helps to sit down and really think about what is causing stress in your life. Here’s a tactic that can help:
Make a thorough and complete “to do” list. Everything that you need to get done that’s more than a 3 minute task goes on this list. Add things to it, cross them off when you complete them, and after 1-3 days (depending on how much stuff you end up adding to this list), look at two main things-
- What category most of the items fall into
- What types of things don’t get completed
I did this some time back when I could tell I was getting stressed out but couldn’t easily explain why in conversation. I noticed that 80% of my own to-do list was related to work – things for clients, organizing files, book keeping, writing, etc. It was getting done, but obviously there were things I could do to streamline a lot of my processes.
Interestingly enough, the majority of the remaining items on my list were hobby-related – woodworking and home renovation stuff, two things I really enjoy doing. I felt so overwhelmed by the amount of projects I had started that I couldn’t keep everything straight in my head, and it felt like I had more to do than I really did. I ended up creating a separate project board so I could visualize every ongoing project, what stage it was in, and what came next – easy to wrap my head around, and I could feel the stress that comes from being “behind” start to fade away.
These are examples, but the point is that you can attack stress in an intelligent way if you are first able to identify what’s causing it.
It seems weird from a bodybuilding coach, but I have a lot of conversations with clients that are along these lines. Being able to manage your stress – the good and the bad – is a big part of continuing to make the kind of progress you’re working so hard for.