Is Stress Robbing you of Gainz?
That’s it, you’ve made your mind up; it’s about time you put on a little lean muscle tissue. Maybe you’re looking to tone up? Perhaps your shirt sleeves are just feeling a little loose? Or your rugby coach told you “hey, you’re a great player but you’re just not big enough”.
What to do next? Easy!
You train hard, and eat lots of good food.
You sink £50 on protein shakes.
The weights seem to be going up, and you feel stronger.
But for some reason the results seem to be coming on slower than you expected.
Now there could be a multitude of reasons; could be that you aren’t eating enough, or training enough, or even training too much (I know, just to be awkward there is such a thing!), perhaps you are doing too much fitness or speed work. But is stress playing a role in how your progress is going?
Is stress robbing you of hard-earned muscle?
In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (which I thoroughly recommend you grab a copy of), Robert Sapolsky goes into great detail into how the stress response takes place and the mechanics behind it. Whilst not a book written with the personal trainer or gym-goer in mind, there were some really great connect-the-dot moments I took from it. As mentioned in the videos on my Facebook page, it has inspired me to create some content on the subject. And how it may be affecting your progress. Ramble Over. Soap box tucked away.
So back to the question at hand.
Is Stress Robbing You of Hard-Earned Muscle?
The short answer is quite probably yes. The long answer is, well, a little longer. At this stage you can skip straight to the “What To Do Section” if another 500 words is too much for you to stomach (I won’t judge). For the rest of you, the long answer is …..
The thing is, our bodies have evolved and adapted over hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s only the last century that “fitness” has had any serious impact on society globally. Sure you can find Greek vases with muscled warriors hoisting rocks overhead, but even if we stretch back that far (over 2,000 years ago), it’s still a drop in the ocean compared to the rest of our time on Earth.
As far as your brain is concerned, the only reason you would push your body to it’s physiological limits is because your life is in danger. It assumes you are running 5km as fast as you can because you are being chased by a predator, or trying to catch your prey because if you don’t you will starve to death. Little does it know that being a sadistic F**k you choose to go and workout of your own volition. That self-inflicted vomit-inducing personal training session is just your regular ole’ Tuesday night! Your ancestors would laugh in your face.
So your brain goes about making sure you survive this “deadly” encounter with the kettlebell:
Blood gets directed to your limbs, feet and hands; so you can run further, ran faster, and fight harder.
Your digestive system slows to a grinding halt (after all what’s the point in spending energy digesting lunch when you’re about to be eaten?).
And your body releases hormones like adrenaline to mask the pain you are going through so you can keep running!
This stress response is perfectly normal, and essential for our survival as a species. But here is where the problems start arising for you.
6am: Alarm goes off, jump out of bed, down your coffee, rush to the gym (sounds stressful already doesn’t it?).
7am: Smash your workout, quick shower, jump in the car (obviously stressful).
8am: Traffic bad, minor moment of road rage, late for work (stress).
1pm: Boss on your case, deadlines to meet (you know what I’m going to say).
5pm: Get home, argue with your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/cat (more stress).
7pm: Tune in for a high-octane fast-paced TV series like The Walking Dead/Game of Thrones/
Gilmore Girls (now you’re awake!).
11pm: Struggle to get to sleep, toss and turn for a bit, nod off after 12pm, cram 5 and a bit crappy hours of sleep in.
6am: Alarm goes off, jump out of bed, down your coffee, rush to the gym (here we go again).
Now perhaps that sums your day up perfectly, perhaps only one or two of those moments apply to you, regardless the rules of stress still apply.
One day, one week, here or there of this never hurt anyone, but long term we might run into an issue or two.
At this point I should mention that there are WAY MORE IMPORTANT RISKS associated with chronic stress than just missing out on some lean muscle tissue. But you aren’t here for those, you’re here for the GAINZ, so we’ll focus on that!
So what does all this have to do with my muscles?
When you are trying to gain lean muscle tissue, you are (hopefully) consuming more calories than you need (hypercaloric), because that’s what it takes. But what happens (as mentioned previously) when you are constantly stressed?
Your “rest and digest” system takes a back seat and your “fight or flight” pathway takes over! Great for when you are lifting a 1RM or running away from a T-Rex, not so helpful when you are trying to work your way through 4,000 calories a day.
What happens? You guessed it. You end up piling lunch on top of breakfast, dinner on top of lunch, and God knows how long it’ll take for you to digest that tub of ice cream at 9pm. Bloated, sluggish and strained; it becomes a chore just to eat. Rather than having a smooth digestive process which rifles through the calories like a well-oiled machine.
And if you aren’t eating enough food, and getting in enough calories, you won’t grow. No matter how hard you train, no matter how many supplements you take, you can wave goodbye to those GainZ.
For the history buffs:
Believe it or not, the first person to figure this out lived over 800 years ago. A rather inquisitive King by the name of Frederick once had two prisoners fed, sent one on a run and one to bed, and summarily had them disemboweled to see who had digested more food (this genuinely happened). A overly-simplistic test, with barbaric methods…but…dare I say it highlights the point (just don’t ask your ethics committee to sanctify this study). Takeaway message, learn to rest to digest!
So What Can I Do About It?
Welcome back those that skipped the previous 500 words (OK it was 722 to be precise, I tend to ramble on). What can we do to get out of our “fight or flight” stress response when it’s not needed. You’ll be glad to hear there are multiple ways, but by far the most effective and simple I have come across (which I use in my own personal training and with clients) is the following:
Yep that’s pretty much it.
Find a quiet corner of the gym after your personal training session, lie down on the floor (maybe grab a Yoga mat), find a comfortable position, and breathe.
Long, slow steady inhalations and exhalations. In through the nose, out through the mouth, try to count your breath in seconds.
Breathe in 1…2…3…4…5…6 and pause…and breathe out 1…2…3…4…5…6
Now you can add a mindfulness app into the process if that’s your thing, you can focus on relaxing tight, tense muscles, you can pop some whale music over the sound system. If the foam roller helps you to switch off, go for that too! The key is to relax and breathe, nice and easy. Show your brain that there is no immediate threat around (or that you are brilliant at hiding), and that it can start to dial down that stress response. This is also a great technique to use before bed if (like me) you sometimes struggle to nod off.
3 minutes is all you need. If you can find 5 brilliant. If you only have 60 seconds then that’ll do. Just get it done.
So if you are wolfing down portions of steak and potatoes and
Montezuma’s buttons vegetables, but feel full all the time, and suspect you might be a little chronically stressed, make sure you are taking the time to dial down when it’s not appropriate.
Save your adrenaline for that PB deadlift, “Fran” time or running from your sister’s crazed hamster. Relax when you can, trust me, it’s worth it.
Thank You For Reading!
I hope you found this content useful/entertaining/interesting. Make sure to head over to my various social media pages to keep up to date with regular videos and posts. Thank you for reading, and don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask all your health & fitness questions.