Stress Response – Why Less is More

We live in a world where more is better.  The “ Go Hard or Go Home” mentality takes control, and we end up pushing ourselves to the limit…ALL THE TIME.  We treat each day like a special event, and we treat each workout like it’s a competition.  Pictures with sexy women get posted all over Facebook with cheesy motivational quotes that make me want to throw up.  All of these images seem to tell us that if you’re not busting your ass day in and day out, then you’re not really trying.  So is this the mentality it takes to get great results?  Do we really have to train like we’re competing for the Olympics on a daily basis to improve our bodies?  I don’t think so.  Actually, I know we don’t.

I’ve been able to help people build bodies they’re proud of, get off medications, drop tons of weight, and blow their biceps up like balloons so they’re pretty to stare at in the mirror.  I’m not trying to say it doesn’t take hard work to get results.  I’m not saying that having discipline isn’t a factor.  Both hard work and discipline are major contributors to achieving your health and fitness goals.  The more elite the status you’re trying to take your body to, the more hard work it’s going to take.  However, if we’re going to train our bodies and push them to the max, we need to understand the stress response and how stress actually affects our bodies.  Stress is inevitable, and the same response will happen whether it’s a good stressor or a bad stressor.

“Eustress” is the term for positive stress within the body.  Working out, falling in love, getting a big fat bonus at Christmas time from work, getting a massage, and taking your first vacation in years are all examples of eustress.  These are all good things and I’m sure if you’re reading this, each example of eustress would be desirable.  Not all stress has to be bad.  Stress can be a good thing.    It is inevitable, so we need to learn how to control it.

“Distress,” on the other hand, is a stress in the body that is negative in nature.  Some examples of distress can be training through an injury and ignoring your body’s warning signs to stop, having a parent pass away, losing a job, having your favorite critter decide to take a week long stroll through town and go missing, and working from sunrise to sunset.  These are all forms of distress and our lives would be much better if we didn’t have to deal with such things.  Eliminating distress from our lives sounds awesome, but it’s an impossible task to achieve.  We’re always going to have some distress whether we like it or not.  Understanding the difference between eustress and distress, and how these two forms of stress affect our bodies, is crucial to achieving world-class performance.

I’m going to reference the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers when referring to the stress response.  If you’re interested in learning more about stress, how to manage it, and the responses you can expect within your body when stress comes about, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a not the easiest read, but it helps paint the picture on what stress is and how it affects our bodies.  Without going into the science of stress and the responses it produces within the body, I’m going to give a very quick recap and show you how sometimes doing less can elicit better results than doing more.

If you’re sick, should you follow your planned training program?

If you’ve recently experienced a tragic event in your life, is it going to affect your workouts?

What if you plateau?  Is working harder and picking up additional workouts going to help you break through the barrier you’ve been stuck at?

How about the crazy travel schedule you have coming up?  Have you thought about the response you may have from jet lag, time zone changes, altered sleep patterns, etc.?  Is your body going to be able to adapt, recover, and grow from the hard work you’re doing in your training?3D Character with head in hands, sitting on the word Stress

The fact of the matter is that our training load and intensity need to be altered when stresses begin to add up.  If your life is anything like mine, I’m sure you have periods of intensity followed by normalcy.  I may have periods of time throughout the year that my stress loads build up.  For example, I just got done with a buildout at our new gym.  To save some major cash on the build out, we did as much of the work ourselves as we could.  Adding a gym buildout to my normal routine definitely added some stress to my plate.  My nutrition wasn’t as good as normal.  My sleep patterns were altered and I was averaging a couple hours less each night.  I was working from sunrise to sunset on a daily basis.  Simply put, my stress levels throughout that three-month period were much higher than normal.

The excessive stress in my life caused me to change my training program.  If I would have kept the same planned routine I had written out, I’m almost positive I would have regressed that quarter.  However, with the tweaks to my program, I was able to continue working towards my goals throughout that intense period of time.  Understanding the stress response was a major benefit in this situation.  Knowing that outside stressors were wreaking havoc on my nervous system, I decided to change my plan from getting strong and building work capacity to working on technical aspects of my goal.
MOUNTAIN CLIMB I’ve been rock climbing for a little over a year now, so I’m still pretty new to the sport, but I LOVE it!  My goals over    the past year have been centered on improving my climbing abilities and how to take my skills to a new level.  Being  pretty new to the sport, I still have a lot to work on, so I decided to  rework my initial training plan when the outside  stress levels increased dramatically.  If I was following my initial plan, I would have been focusing on strength  development, intensive grip work, and repeated bouts of moderate to high intensity work coupled with moderate to  minimal rest to build my strength/endurance capacity.  My overall relative strength, grip, and endurance have kept  me from accomplishing some routes or taking some unnecessary falls.  If I were to follow my original plan, these  would have been some of the focal points of my training this fall.  However, this type of training is also pretty stressful  on the nervous system.  Like I said, I’m still new at this.  I still have a lot to work on to improve my climbing.  Making  the change from strength and conditioning focus to a technique focus allowed me to limit the overall stress my body  was facing.  Flagging, heel hooks, bumping, and back stepping are some of the moves I’ve toyed around with, but  there is a lot of room for improvement on the technique side.  Changing my focus allowed me to make gains without    ever experiencing any burnout or major fatigue.

A build out doesn’t happen overnight.  Stresses were going to build up and my body was going react accordingly.  Changing my program helped me control things.  What would have happened if I didn’t make a change?  Let’s look at some of the side effects of what stress does to the body and some of the responses you can expect to see from chronic stress.  Here are a few examples:

  • Decreases in Memory
  • Poor Judgment
  • Accelerated Heart Rate
  • Decreased Digestion and Absorption of Nutrients
  • Constriction of blood vessels, primarily in extremities
  • Lack of Sex Drive and Ability to get an Erection
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Increased Muscle Tension and Tone

chronic stres

Chronic stress will build  up over time.  Generally, this comes with distress versus eustress.  Eustress still creates the same responses within the body; however, we typically don’t worry and stress over the good things in our lives.  This is usually saved for distress, whether the stress is real or imagined.  Both stresses elicit a cascade of events to happen and certain hormones to be released.  Cortisol levels rise, blood sugar levels are altered, and your body starts to react to the stresses you  put on it.  The stress can be from training, or it may have nothing to do with training at all.  The fact of the matter is stress is stress is stress.

Talk to your clients and athletes about what’s going on in their lives.  Are they going through an intense period of stress right now?  If so, what are you going to do about it?  How are you going to alter their program to ensure they can continue to progress even with the increased stress load?  This is something you need to take into consideration if you want to be the best and provide your clients with the best results possible.

Taking a quote from my good friend and SGT Advisory Board member, Jim Laird, “We’re not strength coaches.  We’re stress management specialists.”  He’s spot on with that one.  Training is a stress, but it’s only one of literally thousands of stresses people are dealing with on a daily basis.  Manage stress.  Manage training.  Get superior results!

If you’re looking for more information on how we use tactics like this to personalize your training programs, check out the Elite Training Mentorship.  We’ve been contributors to this site for two years now.  Along with two years of SGT content, you’ll also have amazing info from Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, Dave Schmitz a.k.a “the Bandman”, Tyler English, and more.  Get a sneak peek on what goes on in our gyms on a day-to-day basis with Elite Training Mentorship.


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