Imagine you’re backing out of your driveway. And, just as you pull into the street, a car that you didn’t see, comes whizzing by and swerves just in time to avoid you. You slam on your brakes. You tense up. Your heart rate elevates. Your skin feels flushed. You’re shaking.
This is your body’s fight or flight stress response kicking in. This beautiful physiological system is ideally suited to equip us with exactly what we need in extremely dangerous situations. It diverts resources from non essential bodily systems to heighten the function of others.
Being chased by a lion? You’re going to need blood pumping faster to your muscles so the body redirects blood flow ordinarily used for things like digestion for this purpose. Adrenaline is released. Energy stored as fat and glyogen is liberated. Your vision sharpens. You are on high alert.
When you hear the tale of the little old lady that picks up a car to rescue a baby trapped underneath it, it’s these incredible physiological features that gave her those super human powers in that moment.
Ok, ok… so, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be chased by a lion in this day and age and what the hell does all of this have to do with training?
Accumulation of Stress
Well, as you know, stress comes at us through many different avenues in our daily life. We’re stressed about deadlines at work. We’re stressed about making our car payment or paying for our kid’s education. We’re stressed about the fight we just had with our significant other.
Those are some of the obvious ones. However, other sources you may have not considered…. Exercise is stress. Lack of sleep is a stress. Poor eating habits is also a stress.
Feeling stressed out? Odds are actually quite high that you are.
Compounding all of this is the fact that within our society stress is worn as a badge of honor. You overcommit, overwork, overreach and you’re seen as a hard worker and a valuable employee – otherwise, you’re just a lazy bum.
And our bodies are extremely proficient at adapting to stress. In fact, it’s our ability to adapt to the stress from training, that makes us faster and stronger. So, since it’s commonplace and it can actually make us a fitter human, should we just keep our heads down and press harder?
Well, the trouble with that is, the body can’t distinguish between types of stress. It simply recognizes the precarious situation and responds as it is programmed to do so. And while the body is highly adaptable, the fight or flight system is designed to respond to acute-, not chronic stress.
All the stressors outlined above accumulate as we experience them day in and out. It’s as if a hundred little lions are chasing us each and every day.
Ok, let’s dive deeper into training now.
What Happens in the Body
Part of the physiology in the body’s innate stress response is the release of a hormone you may have heard of, cortisol… it’s all the rage these days on the internets.
This hormone does a handful of things in the body, but one of the main features is to induce a highly catabolic state. What does that mean? Break things down… the opposite of the growth we’re looking to achieve from our training.
Why would the body behave in such a cock-blocky way and leave you in this catabolic state? Well, remember that this response is designed for acute stress. So in moments of intense danger we need to release all stored energy. We need to maximize survivability in that momment. It just turns out, that if that moment is every hour of every day, we have ourselves a one way ticket to bummer town.
The other issue with Cortisol has to do with steroid hormone pathways. Hang with me for just a minute here. First, steroid hormones are created from cholesterol. What? Cholesterol serves a positive purpose in the body? Madness!
Anyway, cholesterol is used to make a hormone called pregnenolone. Through a series of complicated steps, this hormone becomes cortisol. This is important because through a different series of steps pregnenolone is also capable of becoming testosterone.
Why is this important? Hopefully I don’t have to explain that testosterone is critically important to training related goals for both men and women. Now, if you’re super fucking stressed out all the time, most of your prenenolone is going to be diverted to make cortisol – potentially leaving you with the testosterone levels of a 9 year old girl.
Choose your own Adventure
Imagine all of this as a “Choose Your Own Adventure Book.” Under large loads of chronic stress it’s as if you’re always choosing the ending where you’re not improving, you have low libido, trouble sleeping and depression rather than the alternate ending that has you getting the girl, PRing your snatch and her’s too 😉
This is why you see people seemingly doing all the right things. Exercising regularly. Eating well. Maybe even sleeping well (though, let’s be honest most people fall short there too). In spite of doing all of these things “right” they still fail to loose fat or gain muscle.
I’m sure many of you know someone from the gym, or maybe you’re that person, that has struggled to improve on their goals, in spite of working hard toward them. Take a moment to consider your stress level. It could be that working out less and devoting some of that extra time to deal with stress will yield much greater results. The opposite of catabolic is anabolic!
Look folks, you have the ability to choose your own adventure. It’s your life. Why keep picking the shitty ending when you know there’s a much better alternative? Be intelligent in your training, and make sure your exercise method and volume is appropriate for your stress level and volume.