Stress could be stopping you from getting stronger – here's how

Exercise may be a great tension reliever, but how does being stressed affect our training? And does it actually make us weaker? Strong Women explores.

After the past year, we’re probably more aware than ever of how stress affects us. From headaches and breakouts to more severe side effects, like hair loss and teeth grinding, it’s clear that high levels of stress can take a big toll on our bodies.

When we’re feeling tense, we’re often advised to sweat it out. Workouts are universally seen as effective stress relievers that give us a much needed boost of endorphins. But how does being stressed affect our training?

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Research has found that the experience of stress impairs efforts to be physically active, andmental stress can have a big impact on weight lifting in particular. Strong Women explored how being stressed can actually stop you from getting stronger. 

Stress increases your cortisol levels

When we’re stressed, we experience increased levels of the hormone cortisol. In natural amounts, cortisol is actually good for our bodies, and plays a role in regulating our nervous system, metabolism and maintainingimmune health. It also helps us to wake up naturally in the mornings.

However, the issue with cortisol comes about when we encounter stress throughout our day, as too much (or too little) can negatively impact our bodies.

Daily stress – whether it’s short-term or chronic – causes a spike in our cortisol levels, which our bodies then have to adapt to. 

This is when an influx of cortisol production brought on by stress can impact muscular gains and strength. A study of grip strength from 2014 found that higher stress levels correlated with catabolic properties in skeletal muscle. Put simply: stressed people experienced a decrease in muscle protein synthesis, which is the opposite of muscle growth.

In addition, when we experience high amounts of stress, anabolic hormones like our natural growth hormone and insulin are decreased. This also includes testosterone, the hormone responsible for building muscle mass and helping us to lift heavier. Therefore, when we’re stressed, our bodies can also feel physically weaker. 

“Chronic stress and trauma can also create shifts in pelvic tilt, tightening hip flexors and impacting posture which can create over activation and weakness in the core and diaphragm. Therefore, management of stress and breath are all vital to look at before commencing a more intense training program,” advises Sara Picken-Brown, a coach and former professional bodybuilder with over twenty years fitness industry experience. 

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Stress can hinder recovery

In response to stress, the muscles throughout the body reflexively tense up. If stress isn’t reduced, chronic muscle tension can lead to painful conditions like headaches and back pain.

Stress can also interfere with the quality of your sleep, and people often experience insomnia when stressed. Since your body typically recharges during periods of deeper sleep ― repairing tissue, resting muscles and boosting immunity ― you may find that you have less energy to tackle your workouts, or DOMS impacts you more than it usually would.

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Stress distracts and demotivates you

When we’re stressed, it triggers a “fight-or-flight response” which increases the adrenaline in our bloodstream. During exercise, adrenaline can also be converted into energy and burned off, however, this only works well with regard to physical strength. The psychological effects can be much more disorienting.

Simply, when our minds are racing elsewhere, it can be hard to focus on any task in front of us. However, it’s particularly important to be fully present when we’re lifting so that we can pick up on any signals our bodies may be giving us to rest, lower the weight or stop altogether.

Practicing mindfulness and breathing techniques during exercise can be a good way to slow your heart rate down and reset.

“Being mindful while exercising can result in a more effective workout, a lower chance of injury, and a more positive relationship with your body,” Dr Aria, a high performance psychologist and author of A Mindful Year, previously told Stylist.

“Research has also revealed that focusing our attention during exercise affects the activity of our muscles. For example, focusing on the movement of our biceps during bicep curls results in greater muscular efficiency and maximal force production. The evidence indicates that this type of focus leads to more effective recruitment and coordination of the fibres within and between your muscles, allowing you to lift even more.”

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