Lower Stress to Increase Fitness

Find what centers you, shed your stressors, and your training plateau will disappear.

No one walks into the gym with plans to burn out and invite injury. We eat clean, take pre-workout, and have a gainer shake waiting for the second we’re done training. We do everything we can to recover…or do we?

If you find yourself in an overtrained state, it isn’t the stress of your lifting program. It’s your life.

Are you in a job you hate? Does the presence of your supervisor make your blood boil? Is your relationship or financial trouble pushing your stress levels into the red? Do you have children who are – ahem – challenging? These are all major factors that affect your training, but many of us do not quantify into our programming. 

Is it the workout, or is it your work? [Photo courtesy Cara Kobernik]

Job Change Plus Divorce Equals…

At the start of 2006, I was in the best shape of my life. I had abs and an engine that wouldn’t quit. My training had hit an all-time high, and I was becoming the person, physically, that I had only dreamed of. That same year I also made two massive decisions that would alter my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

First, I changed jobs abruptly. Eight months after that, my wife and I were filing for a divorce. During this time, my training hadn’t changed and my eating was as dialed as it had ever been. But in less than a year, I went from being a total thoroughbred to being inflamed and sore in every joint. To add insult to literal injury, I shared a space with another coach who was one of those “if I’m not happy, then no one is happy” types of people. By the holidays I had severe tendonitis in both elbows, my knees hurt when I sat for too long, and I had one of my biggest back blow outs of my lifting career under a 465lb squat.

The mental stress I was enduring was too much for my body to take. 

Dr. Chris Hardy and a Jug of Water

Last summer I attended Dragon Door’s inaugural Health and Strength Conference, where Dr. Chris Hardy lectured on the impact of accumulated stress. To demonstrate the idea of how mounting stress can cause turmoil on the body, he pulled out a jug of water and several glasses of various sizes, each representing a person’s stress tolerance. He poured 12oz of water into two glasses; one was filled half way and the other spilled over.

Think about the size of your internal glass and consider that every aspect of your life is a potential stressor. Can you identify where your spill over point will be? Are you a coffee cup or a Big Gulp?

In 2006, training alone was not significant enough itself to set off the dominos that fell that year. It was my life that caused my cup to overflow. My life was causing my overtraining. The meathead in me thought that if I added one more protein shake, another energy drink, or an additional handful of aminos that I would eventually get my head above water. It never happened.

Stress as a Neurological Threat

From an evolutionary standpoint, it was not long ago that the only thing we needed to stress about was the threat of an attack from an animal. Our natural fight or flight response was our survival mechanism when things became dangerous. These days, confrontations with something that might eat us are few and far between, but our fight or flight response is running at a continual low-level hum. Stress from work, money, relationships, the kids, the in-laws, or your favorite team losing all contribute to keeping the system in a constant state of agitation. Even low-level stress tells the nervous system to be on alert.

That stress tells the nervous system that something is wrong, so the gatekeeper to your survival goes into defense mode. Your body releases cortisol, which is a nightmare for someone who is trying to put on muscle. Even stress at a level of two on a scale of 1-10 forces your nervous system to adjust to the proposed threat. A continual state of stress fatigues your nervous system, and sooner or later the wheels come off. 

The human body is the most adaptable organism on earth, but years of low-level stress can only be buffered for so long. Many of those tight muscles that we all spend time stretching are a result accumulated stress. That tight low back or stiff neck that you battle every morning are very likely your nervous system’s response to your stress level, not some gross asymmetry in your muscles.

Here is a simple drill to demonstrate this: 

  1. Stand up and touch your toes. Get a feel for the existing tension the muscles have at a general part of your day. Stand back up.
  2. Shut your eyes and think of the thing that irks you the most. Think of any one of the individuals who will be potentially elected President this November, or that neighbor you hate, or that song that you can’t stand. Immerse yourself in those thoughts.
  3. Open your eyes and touch your toes. Can you feel the level of tension increase in that stretch?

The same drill also works in the opposite direction. Set your baseline, then close your eyes and think of puppies, the smell of a brand new baby, or the face of that person you love the most in this world. Spend 30 seconds with that and then touch your toes. When you cut your stress with something that is soothing and positive, your nervous system relaxes and begins to take the brakes off. It’s not magic, it’s fundamental neurology.

Have a seat

Take time to decompress before your low-level stress accumulates into a big problem. [Photo courtesy Jorge Huerta Photography]

Solving Your Stress, and Your Plateau Problem

If you are in a major training rut, step back and take inventory of your life. If you are taxing your nervous system with stress, basic functions are going to trump things like recovering from heavy bench presses or max effort lift attempts.

Luckily, there are countless ways to take a large slice out of our stress. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Qigong. My absolute favorite. Qigong is the ancient Chinese approach to health. It is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress, lowering inflammation, and restoring balance throughout all systems of the body.
  • Tai Chi. Twin sister to Qigong, Tai Chi can be a massive stress reducer. Additionally, heightened body awareness, increased rootedness, and intensified focus can all come with regular practice.
  • Meditation. The easiest practice any of us can begin and stick to, meditation has been studied intensely and is proven to work. My two absolute favorite meditation sources are the Omvana app and a meditation called Easing Chronic Pain and Clearing Anxiety from Paige Bartholomew. Both have literally saved my life. The Omvana app has several free meditations that address a variety of issues. Paige’s download is $18, but she should charge $1,000. It’s one of the most transformative things I have ever done.
  • Prayer. One of the most overlooked stress reducers. I’m not saying to drop to your knees and beg for reduced stress, I’m referring to your time of communion with your sense of divinity. It’s centering, a degree of homecoming, and in the Chinese medicine world, is a literal replacement for sleep.
  • Any activity that relaxes you. A walk, going to the beach, an easy hike, listening to music or whatever your favorite calming activity may be.
  • Eliminating obvious sources of stress. Take the bull by the horns and eradicate the things you know are making you spiral. I’ve been around people who’ve walked away from relationships, moved away from a stressful area, and quit jobs. Most of us don’t need to go to these extremes, but some of us might.

Center Your Mind So Your Body Can Perform

I will be getting into much deeper concepts in the months to come. I appreciate how abstract some of this can be, but rest assured we will lay it all out for you in a very palatable way.

No one is exempt from stress. Our ability to get strong in the gym correlates directly with our ability to cope with outside shit. All chronic illnesses have stress as one of the prevailing causes. It can no longer be ignored. Find the thing that gets you centered, calms you down, and allows you to breathe easy. Once you have, your progress in the gym can get back on track.

More on the impact of your real life on your gym life:

Stress Is Ruining Your Fitness

Coaches: How are you helping your clients deal with their stress?

Shop Shaming Your Clients – Help Them Solve the Time Crunch

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