An Exercise In Stress Management

Training comes down to stress management. The more you can apply, and the more you can handle, the better your results will be, and the faster they’ll come.

Training comes down to stress management: it’s my job to determine how much and what kind of stress to apply, and it’s your job to get yourself ready to handle as much stress as possible.

Training comes down to stress management: it’s my job to determine how much and what kind of stress to apply, and it’s your job to get yourself ready to handle as much stress as possible.

I work as a trainer, both in person and online, specializing in getting former athletes back into game shape. A lot of the time this comes down to dudes in their 30s and 40s trading a few pounds of fat in for some more muscle. The tough part? Most of them are busier than ever, and certainly busier than they were when they felt their best.

The name of the game for us—and for you—is stress management. I want to to apply as much stress to your system as it can handle. The more we can apply, and the more you can handle, the better your results will be, and the faster they’ll come.

How does stress help someone lose fat or build muscle? What do I mean by stress management? And how can you apply some of these lessons to your own training? Let’s take a look.

Stress Type

The first question I need to answer in regards to any client and stress is what type of stress do I need to expose them to? In some sense, stress is just stress, but when it comes to adaptation—more on that later—we need to get more specific.

Are we trying to improve aerobic capacity? Then we’ll need to drive capillary and mitochondrial density by starving working muscles of oxygen, and filling them with waste products—all in an effort to get your body to prevent that specific kind of badness from happening again in the future.

Wanna get jacked? We’re going to literally rip your muscles apart with heavy load (in a nice way, promise!) while creating such an acidic environment that it forces a cascade of hormones to be released, all in an effort to keep it from being so bad the next time around.

There’s a ton of detail here. Sets, reps, rest periods, training timing, and frequency. The good news for you is that that’s all on me.

The bad news? That’s only half of the equation, and the other half is up to you.

The Amount of Stress and Response

That second half of the equations is all about the amount of stress a client can tolerate. This isn’t about being tough, it’s about being prepared and being effective.

Before we go any further, it’s important we understand the stress response and what happens to us on a chemical and hormonal level when we’re subjected to stress.

At this point, it’s not important for us to differentiate between stressors—between, say, your Monday commute and your Friday workout—so instead we’ll try to get a basic understanding of the similarities. Let’s take a look at how stress works in a simple but dramatic context.

The Zebra: A Story

In his seminal book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky outlines the mammalian stress response, and how its intended effect has been subverted by modern realities. I’ll attempt to boil a few hundred pages written by of one of the world’s leading neuroendocrinologists down to a handful of bullet points (wish me luck!):

  • A zebra being chased by a lion is super stressed out.
  • That’s a good thing. It keeps him alive.
  • A zebra’s stress halts every process that isn’t going to matter in the next five minutes—digestion, cell repair, sex hormone production—and it diverts these newly freed up resources to running fast and far.
  • Once the zebra gets away, he’s not stressed. He goes back to grazing, napping—whatever it was he was up to before the mean ol’ lion showed up—and his body’s systems go back to normal. You don’t see a worried or neurotic zebra.
  • We’re like zebras in some ways, and not like them in others.
  • We have a similar stress response—we divert long-term resources to short term fixes when we’re stressed.
  • The problem is that it’s not usually lions stressing us out. We can’t literally run away from our problems. Things like taxes. Politics. Jobs. Traffic. Boyfriends. Children. And yet the result is the same—digestion, cell repair, sex hormone production, and more all take a back seat so that resources can be freed up to deal with our modern lions.
  • Look around at our chronically-stressed society and just how commonplace issues with digestion, inflammation (cell-repair), and sex hormone regulation have become. The deadliest and most expensive healthcare crises we face all come down to these factors.
  • Stress is great when it’s an acute response, and dangerous when it’s chronic.
  • Be more like a zebra.

The Zebra: Some Biology

Let’s take another look at the zebra, this time through a slightly more scientific lens.

Stress drives three related shifts to occur within the zebra.

The first change that occurs is that the zebra’s autonomic (or unconscious) nervous system moves from a parasympathetic state to a sympathetic state. In plain English, his nervous system switches gears from neutral to overdrive. Colorfully put, he switches from a “rest and digest” focus to the famous “fight or flight” mode.

The second shift affects the zebra’s cellular processes. The grazing zebra is in an anabolic state. All that this means is that his systems are largely devoted to building bigger molecules; turning glucose into glycogen or amino acids into proteins.

The stressed zebra shifts—in a virtual instant—into a catabolic state. Larger molecules need to be broken down. Glycogen needs to turn back into glucose, and glucose into carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and water in order to fuel his escape.

The third way of examining the zebra’s shift in priorities is from a hormonal standpoint. Hormones are the body’s chemical signalers, and in the case of this particular exotic equine, the hormonal profile registers a shift away from the future and towards the present.

Testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin are all anabolic, future-driven hormones. They ensure the propagation of our genetic lineage, take care of the wear and tear of daily life, and generally get us ready to face the next challenge.

The lion is that next challenge, and so things change. The future is mortgaged for the present, and the increased presence of hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine (adrenaline), and glucagon reflect that shift.

All of these changes work in concert to keep the zebra alive. Each supports and is supported by the others, and all reflect the general principle that the future isn’t worth worrying about unless you get there.

The Drip of Stress Hormones

We face the occasional lion in our lives; a sudden, immediate, and overwhelming source of stress. You can feel the impact of these moments—suddenly swerving to avoid a car or pedestrian, rushing to grab your child before they hurt themselves—and that sensation is a reflection of the huge changes taking place internally to allow you to respond effectively. But these occurrences are rare for most of us.

Instead, we face an onslaught of low-level stress. A drip, drip, drip of stress hormones rather than a tsunami. We don’t feel the rush of blood and narrowing of focus that accompanies an emergency, and so we have a tendency to ignore it, but it’s still there, eating away at our ability to prepare for the future.

Bigger muscles? Sorry, bad boss. Trimmer waistline? But what about traffic? Where the zebra ping pongs between two different states, we have an ineffective habit of living between them. And as a result, we’re ill-equipped for both present and future.

Stress and Training

What’s that all have to do with gaining muscle or building endurance? In many ways, your body has trouble distinguishing between stressors. Stress is stress. Your morning commute and leg day feel about the same on a biological level, driving similar hormones but with very different consequences.

If we can’t keep the day to day chronic stress under control then we’ll be severely limited in how much acute training stress we can apply without doing more harm than good. Releasing just enough cortisol to help remodel muscle? That’s great! Releasing a constant stream of cortisol, resulting in a constant signal to break down rather than rebuild? Not so great.

Stress evolved to be a good thing: it literally fuels the zebra’s escape.

Stress can be a good thing for us—products of modern realities—but rarely in the immediate case of running for our lives. Instead, it gets its value from the subsequent recovery it triggers. We call this stress-induced recovery an adaptation.

The Role of Adaptation

Everything you’ve ever done in the gym has been an attempt to drive adaptation. Bigger muscles? Adaptation. Better endurance? Less fat? Adaptations.

Here’s a simple experiment that nearly perfectly illustrates stress, recovery, and adaptation:

Find a carpeted floor and vigorously rub your palm on it for 5-10 seconds. You should feel heat, tingling, and maybe the start of an uncomfortable burning sensation. With me? Good. Now imagine two different scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: Rub your palm on the carpet for the next 10 minutes with exactly the same vigor. Pain, sores, and blood await.
  • Scenario 2: Vigorously rub your palm the carpet for 10 seconds. Stop. Wait for an hour or two. Repeat, 59 more times over the next few days. Sores have been replaced by callouses. The difference? It wasn’t the stress (both experiments involved 10 minutes of stress), it was the recovery. In this case, all that was needed was time, the stress being simple and relatively moderate.

The link between stress and adaptation lies in recovery, and recovery requires the removal of stress.

There’s more to recovery than rest—nutrition, hydration, sleep and more are all tremendously important—but none of these are effective in the face of persistent stress.

Practical Strategies to Manage Stress

We can’t eliminate stressors from our lives. Quitting your job, abandoning social media, and moving to the middle of the woods to meditate isn’t a very feasible option for most of us.

What we can do is try to minimize the influence of those chronic stressors in order to maximize the effect—via adaptation— of the acute stressor we can train.

Below are three practical strategies for mitigating stress and maximizing your gains.

  1. Meditation: You can call it froufrou or hokey, but there’s some good solid research to support meditation’s effect on both the mind and the body. I’m ill-equipped to give detailed advice on the minutiae of meditation, and it’s an extremely personal practice, but I will say that habit, practice, and repetition go a long way. I use a guided meditation app called Headspace and aim for 10-15 minutes per day.
  2. Sleep: The importance of sleep is almost impossible to overstate—consider it a panacea and you’re about right. It reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, dementia, and more. We reconcile memory and emotion and restore hormonal balances during sleep, and even a few night of what’s termed “short sleeping” have immediate detrimental effects. For a lot of us, stress can actually make sleep more difficult.
    Reducing caffeine intake, exercising regularly, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, and practicing sleep hygiene by ensuring a cool, dark room reserved for sleep and sex are good starting points for better sleep. I’d also recommend Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep as a fascinating and helpful look at the details of sleep.
  3. Social Support: This one is the proverbial double edged sword. On the one hand, friends and family can add to our stress levels, while on the other these relationships can serve as an outlet and a balance for the stress of daily life. The bottom line here is that like the zebra, we have a hardwired need for positive social interactions, and even the most driven individual needs to get out of the gym and spend some time with people they care about.

Use Stress to Your Advantage

I ran into a great summary of exercise the other day:

“Exercise is just applying pain to the body until it’s immune to that kind of pain.”

Not exactly, but to be honest it’s pretty damn close.

We develop immunity through exposure. If you had chickenpox then you developed antibodies that helped you develop a level of immunity to catching the disease in the future. The disease was the stressor, the antibodies the response, and immunity is the resulting adaptation.

Stress isn’t bad. We started with the premise that I’d actually like to give you an awful lot of it in specific and calculated doses. The problem with stress is when it becomes ever-present, and understanding the stress response in general terms can help us understand how it limits our progress in the gym.

As fitness junkies we have a tendency to focus on the “hard” stuff—sets, reps, and macro counts—while ignoring the “soft” side of the equation. The problem with this approach is that human being may be the most complicated and integrated machinery in history.

The soft stuff is the hard stuff. Mean people can impact your blood work. Meditation may just help build muscle. And while we may not yet—or ever—have a perfect understanding of the innumerable ways stress impacts the body, we can be sure that it does.