Conditioning Programs Help Prevent Muscle Damage and Stress

A good strength and conditioning program is essential for the competitive athlete. Why? New research shows it can help reduce cortisol levels and muscle damage over the course of a season.

Most athletes and skill coaches agree that there’s a good place for a strength and conditioning program in preparation for sport, but that’s about where the agreement ends. Some people view conditioning programs as an absolute must for all athletes, where others find them to be a good insurance policy, or a boost that takes you from a great athlete to the best. While many people seek to explain the importance of strength and conditioning, there are a limited number of good studies looking at the topic as it relates to success in sports. The reason is simple; it’s a very complicated issue. One recent study examined the effects of a strength and conditioning program on muscle damage and stress.

In the study researchers used Division I college football players and tracked their cortisol levels, amongst other things, over the course of a twelve game season. Cortisol is a hormone that typically responds to stress, so it makes a good indicator of both the level of physical duress players are under, and also how much damage their muscles are taking. The intent of the researchers was to see how much stress the body takes on when competing at a high level as a season progresses.

What they discovered was fairly surprising. There wasn’t a significant change in stress response as the season carried on for the participants. However, the researchers did discover large individual variations. In other words, while there were no big changes to report for the study as a whole, but some of the participants did experience substantial stress. They concluded that a strength and conditioning program helped mute the response to stress.

Now, their conclusions seemed pretty speculative (at best) but provide an interesting talking point. In MMA and Brazilian jiu jitsu, in which I have trained extensively, many coaches have the mindset of forcing their team to do a brutally tough warm up. And they believe this makes for better athletes. However, the problem is that the only athletes who thrive on this are those already fit enough and advanced enough to tolerate it. For most, however, it’s a good way to reinforce bad technique over time and make athletes worse.

I think the take home point of this study, and my experience as an athlete myself, is that preparing well for your training and your competition will allow you to withstand more physical and psychological pressure. When that pressure is an invariable, like a set number of tough games in a season, or a coach who wants tough warm ups, the better prepared you are ahead of time, the more likely you are to pull through and succeed. A big part of that success is a solid strength and conditioning program that keeps your body prepped for everything that might get thrown at you.


1. William Kraemer, et. al., “Changes in Creatine Kinase and Cortisol in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I American Football Players During a Season,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:2 (2013)

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