Getting in top physical shape, as Status Fitness readers will no doubt appreciate, demands much dedication to high-level training, nutrition, and supplementation. But is this enough? Might we be overlooking an equally important variable that, when fully employed, can significantly increase lean mass-building? If psychological stress is a problem in your life, as it is for many others, then the answer is a resounding yes! A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances, psychological stress can in many ways deleteriously affect health and wellness. Negative stress is experienced by many bodybuilders, to the detriment of muscle-building progress. Simply put: stress places the body in a catabolic state, drains valuable energy reserves, and directs focus away from factors of importance to muscle building and fat loss (like training intensity and proper nutrition). But not all stress is bad. In fact, some stress is necessary. For example, the mental stress associated with learning a new task is critical to mastering it. Likewise, the physical stress resulting from intensive training is a key requirement when seeking a new suit of quality muscle. Such stress plays an important role in promoting positive adaptations to new experiences, engendering the motivation to excel and strengthening our reactions to and ability to overcome potentially harmful environmental stressors. Carefully managed, positive stress can be beneficial and healthy. It’s the prolonged, unwanted stress that kills (both fitness gains and, often, those who routinely experience it).
SIMPLY PUT: STRESS PLACES THE BODY IN A CATABOLIC STATE, DRAINS VALUABLE ENERGY RESERVES, AND DIRECTS FOCUS AWAY FROM FACTORS OF IMPORTANCE TO MUSCLE BUILDING AND FAT LOSS (LIKE TRAINING INTENSITY AND PROPER NUTRITION).
Stress becomes a problem when we worry about things beyond our control; respond to trivial events with extreme anger; routinely overwork and overtrain; prepare for non-existent threats; and adopt a pessimistic attitude to life. We may also become negatively stressed when an event or situation calls for a response that exceeds our coping mechanisms. Could it be that the best way to counter negative stress is simply to remove it from our lives? If only it were this easy. Like death, taxes and Phil Heath winning yet another Olympia title, stress is inevitable. It is pervasive and unpredictable. Thus it is always lurking in shadows, ready to influence our lives – for good or for ill. However, we can, and must, neutralize the negative stress that undermines our health and fitness. To fast-track muscle gains, we must banish such stress. Want to know how? Read on.
Chronic, unchecked stress can lead to such markers of ill health as heart disease, high blood pressure and suppressed immune function. While these undoubtedly affect muscle-building progress, there is one additional stress factor that can directly destroy muscle gains: cortisol. Released during periods of high stress, cortisol (an energy conservation hormone) is often considered a bodybuilder’s worst enemy. While useful in preparing the body for environmental stressors this catabolic hormone is also released in abundance in those who experience ongoing psychological stress. By rallying energy resources (fats and carbohydrates) cortisol prepares the body for action in anticipation of an environmental threat (real or imaginary). Sadly for stressed-out bodybuilders, cortisol (having put the brakes on carbohydrate utilization) requires an additional energy source to meet physical demand. Can you guess where this energy comes from? That’s right: muscle. To increase blood glucose in times of stress, cortisol engages a process called gluconeogenesis (literally, glucose from new sources) whereby amino acids are pulled from muscle tissue to produce more glucose. Muscle gains cannot be achieved when cortisol is flowing. In fact, by limiting cortisol production via the suppression of stress we will have addressed one of the single most important growth variables of all.
FAILURE TO FOCUS
The psychological impact of negative stress is immense. Whenever we overreact to a stressor, we are no longer in complete control of our thoughts and actions; the brain has been hijacked by an external threat (legitimate or otherwise) and our ability to focus and think rationally can be severely compromised. Try training all-out after receiving stressful news (the loss of a job or relationship, for example). Rumination over a ‘hopeless situation’ coupled with an agitated mindset makes generating the requisite intensity all but impossible. A scattered focus brought about by stressful events can derail the most dedicated efforts. Indeed, an inability to effectively deal with or prevent stress from occurring in the first place can adversely affect all areas of our lives – from relationships to employment to training. We simply cannot reach our full potential as humans when stress controls our behaviors and rules our thoughts.
INDEED, AN INABILITY TO EFFECTIVELY DEAL WITH OR PREVENT STRESS FROM OCCURRING IN THE FIRST PLACE CAN ADVERSELY AFFECT ALL AREAS OF OUR LIVES – FROM RELATIONSHIPS TO EMPLOYMENT TO TRAINING.
It is apt that the expressions ‘choked’, ‘gut wrenching’ and ‘hard to stomach’ are often used to describe traumatic, stress-inducing events. Of all the negative effects resulting from stress, digestion problems are, for bodybuilders, among the worst. Whenever stress activates the famed fight or flight response, the central nervous system (which controls the enteric nervous system which governs digestion) limits the contractibility of the digestive muscles; shuts down blood flow that aids digestion; causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal system; reduces secretions needed for digestion; increases stomach acid (thus causing indigestion); and may also precipitate esophageal spasms. All of this adds up to the improper digestion and assimilation of essential muscle-building nutrients. Healthy digestion is a critical cornerstone of the fitness lifestyle. Aside from breaking down muscle tissue for energy, added stress may also affect the uptake of nutrients. When both of these adverse reactions are combined, you can be assured that your gym efforts will no longer produce a return on investment.
We all encounter stress. It is how we deal with it that determines its impact. Here are five proven methods for staying in control when life threatens to bring us down. Use them daily to keep muscle growth on the increase.
Potentially stressful events are a constant part of life. A missed workout, an unanswered email, a disagreement or full-blown argument…the list goes on. While each of these events (and countless others) has the potential to create much inner turmoil, it is our mindset that ultimately determines how we view the problem and the level of importance we assign to it. Though important events that require our immediate attention must not be glossed over, there are as many or more that can simply be ignored (for example, we should not agonize over a slow driver to where ‘road rage’ becomes a real concern or overthink the judgments of an ill-informed person). Indeed, the ability to detach from irritating and annoying, though trivial, events can, over time, go a long way toward keeping cortisol at bay. Even more significant events (the loss of a friend or loved one, for example), though traumatizing, must be accepted and dealt with in a manner conducive to proper healing. Letting traumatic events fester or, even worse, suppressing them with alcohol or other drugs and/or denial, will only magnify one’s stress levels in the long run. And as for those argumentative drama-seekers who love nothing more than to see the bad in everything and everyone? Do yourself a favor and stay clear of them. Remember, the way we view a problem determines our response to it. Detach from the trivial and constructively deal with genuinely stressful events.
POTENTIALLY STRESSFUL EVENTS ARE A CONSTANT PART OF LIFE.
One of the best ways to manage negative stress is to engage in regular exercise. Often described as nature’s antidepressant, exercise (whatever form it may take) creates a cascade of positive chemicals (serotonin, dopamine and the endorphins, to name but three) that calm the mind and energize the brain. It’s extremely difficult to become stressed or think negatively during or in the immediate aftermath of an intensive training session. Exercise requires that we constructively channel our focus. Such focus serves as a welcome distraction to stressful events. A stronger and more resilient body is also less susceptible to various illnesses which can be both stressful in their own right and prevent us from dealing with additional stressors.
A vastly underrated fitness component, full body stretching is crucial to keeping the body injury free and improving athletic performance. Proper stretching is also a great way to de-stress. An influx of cortisol is not the only concern following the triggering of the body’s fight or flight mechanism. Muscle tissue also tenses up. And wherever such tension is held, chronic pain inevitably arises (the lower back, shoulders, neck and head being common sites). Psychological stress is thus increased. Stretching lessens the defensive response to stress (chronic pain and stiffness). The subsequent relief is not just physical. Mental tranquility and elevated mood is also achieved due to an increase in fresh blood to the brain resulting from improved circulation. Through stretching, the pain-suppressing endorphins are also released in abundance. The opiate-like effect of these endorphins (endogenous neuropeptides produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland)produce a state of tranquility that allows us to better manage stress. Regular stretching (4-5 times per week for 25 minutes per session) is proven to relieve pain and calm the mind. At least one stretch for each muscle group can be chosen. Hold each stretch for 20 seconds and relax for five seconds. Repeat this sequence three more times.
THROUGH STRETCHING, THE PAIN-SUPPRESSING ENDORPHINS ARE ALSO RELEASED IN ABUNDANCE.
Stress is unavoidable. Even the stress we are able to detach from can adversely affect us on a subconscious level. In fact, an accumulation of subtle, insidious stressors (like impending deadlines and financial concerns) can prompt the release of cortisol and agitate the mind, albeit to a lesser degree than, say, a physical altercation or relationship breakup. Whenever cortisol is released and allowed to circulate, aminos are taken from muscle and mass gains are compromised. An amino acid supplement taken 2-3 times a day may help to offset stress-induced muscle catabolism. Whey protein is another supplement that rapidly nourishes muscle with a full complement of valuable aminos while also providing immune factors to keep infection and illness from adding to one’s stress levels. Certain micronutrients (notably magnesium and the B complex vitamins) can have a profound effect on stress reduction. Magnesium (often referred to as the anti-stress mineral) is crucial for energy production and storage in the body. Whenever stress is encountered, the adrenal glands are strained. This in turn compromises the magnesium-dependent energy systems of the body. Without enough magnesium (600-800mg per day for hard training athletes) this energy depletion is magnified and may lead to fatigue and listlessness. The ability to effectively manage stress is thus weakened, which further stresses the adrenals. Without sufficient magnesium the nerve cells become excitable and over-reactive. This promotes greater sensitivity and nervousness independent of stressful events. Magnesium also calms the mind and is often prescribed as a sleep aid for this very reason. The eight B vitamins work synergistically to influence a vast number of physiological functions. Among these is the conversion of foods into usable energy. Without optimal B vitamin intake, the carbohydrates, proteins and fats needed for proper mental functioning cannot be fully utilized. In addition, B1 helps to alleviate anxiety, B3 is involved in the production of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, and B5 supports adrenal function to modulate stress. A full spectrum multivitamin/mineral supplement combined with supplemental proteins and amino acids can be of major benefit to minimizing stress levels.
STRESS IS UNAVOIDABLE. EVEN THE STRESS WE ARE ABLE TO DETACH FROM CAN ADVERSELY AFFECT US ON A SUBCONSCIOUS LEVEL.
While an obvious solution to stress, deep relaxation can be very difficult to achieve. While a fast-paced life with many commitments can be all-consuming for many, there are those who choose to take a step back once in a while. Just as the rest periods between workouts are as important as the training itself, it is the time away from any activity (work, time with family and friends) that invariably makes us better at what we do. Through strategic relaxation we get to recharge and renew our energy supply. Without sufficient time to completely let go of the demands of daily life (to read, watch movies, or simply to sit and think) we become increasingly more stressed. Just as a muscle needs a certain amount of time to recover and grow between workouts, our mind also requires regular periods of respite to recover from the stresses of daily life.
IT IS THE TIME AWAY FROM ANY ACTIVITY (WORK, TIME WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS) THAT INVARIABLY MAKES US BETTER AT WHAT WE DO.
DE-STRESS TO IMPRESS
Constant negative stress makes crafting impressive muscularity a near-impossible task. Protein is leeched from muscles, digestion is compromised and the sustained focus needed to stimulate muscle growth is decreased whenever the body is threatened by the invisible foe of underlying psychological stress. Doing whatever is necessary to banish stress is a frequently overlooked yet hugely beneficial way to improve fitness and build muscle. By following the steps outlined above you can lessen the negative impact of stress. By making stress reduction as much of a priority as high protein feedings and intensive workouts you will fast track your progress not just in the gym, but in the arena of life – guaranteed.