How stress impacts performance, strength, body composition
Athletic Development

Q&A: How does stress impact performance, strength and/or body composition?

written by Mike Robertson

Another week, another question here are your favorite gym – Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training.

This one is a doozy, and applies to literally anyone who works out:

Question: How does stress impact performance, strength and/or body composition?

stressThis is a great question, and before I answer it, make sure to read this article for a bit of an overview:

What is a Reset? And Why Do We Do Them?

Now that you’ve got a frame of reference, allow me blow your mind.

Training is Stress

First off, here’s something that most people never consider (trainers included):

When you lift weights or do cardio, the goal is to stress the body.

Yes – you heard that right – the goal is to stress the body.

When we stress the body, it fights back.

It thinks, “I didn’t like that, and I wasn’t prepared for it. So I’m going to make myself better. I’ll be ready next time that happens.”

The goal of working out is to incrementally stress the body in a safe way, so that it adapts and becomes more immune to the stressors.

So the next time you’re in the gym crushing biceps, realize that you’re tearing the muscle down.

After the training session, your body repairs those muscles, making them bigger and stronger than ever before.

This way the next time you train biceps, the muscles are better prepared for the stressor.

Pretty cool, huh?

This is very similar to how a flu shot works. A flu shot is a low dose of the flu strain that is introduced to the body.

The body goes in and produces antibodies to fight this off, so that if/when you do get the flu, it’s prepared and ready to fight it off.

So if training itself is inherently stressful, how does stress impact our performance?

Great question…

Stress and Performance

Think of your body like a bucket that is holding water, with the water representing stress.

If you have a very small bucket, you can’t hold a lot of water. Your ability to tolerate stress is very low. stress-bucket

Any stressor you encounter will have a profound impact on your body. You’re more likely to get injured, sick, or get (and stay) overweight.

On the flip side, if you have a big bucket that can hold a ton of water, your ability to tolerate stress will be much greater.

You’ll be able to trainer longer and harder, you’re less likely to get sick, and it will be easier to achieve your training-related goals.

To get the most out of our bodies, we have two goals:

  1. To keep “room” in the bucket we have, so that the water doesn’t spill, and
  2. To build a bigger bucket.

Keeping “Room” in the Bucket

With regards to the bucket we have, it’s important to note that the body looks at all stress as stress.

So whether you’re struggling at work, your relationships are on the rocks, or you’re crushing it in the gym, the body will look at and respond to each of them (on a global level) in much the same way.

The unique aspect of training stress is that we control it.

If everything else in life is going great, this might be a great time to crank up our training and hit the gas pedal.

But if everything else in your life is out of whack, we should probably back off training intensity and go into maintenance mode.

If you continue to push your training under high levels of stress, this is when we tend to get sick and/or injured. Our stress bucket is overloaded, and our body goes into shut down mode so that it can rest and repair itself.

If you find that you’re constantly stressed out, your first goal should be to clear out some room in your bucket.

  • Start meditating (I’m a huge fan of the Headspace app).
  • Get a massage or  hop in a float tank.
  • Go to bed 30 minutes earlier.

Quite simply, until you clear some space in that bucket, you will never have the ability to properly recover from your training.

And if you can’t recover from training, you can’t build a bigger bucket.

Building that Bucket

Once you’ve cleared room in the bucket, now it’s time to judiciously start stressing the body.

Whether it’s strength training, cardio, or a mix of the two, you have to slowly and incrementally work to increase fitness.

As you start to build the body, eventually, your bucket will start to grow.

You’ll be able to handle longer and more intense training sessions.

You’ll sleep and recover better.

And all in all, you’ll move and feel better as a result.

But here’s the thing – you can’t rush this.

Especially as we age, it gets harder and harder to “grow” our bucket.

This is where a smart coach with an understanding of physiology comes into play. Every individual is unique, and must be trained in such a way that stresses them, and then allows proper time for recovery.

Bringing it All Together

To answer the question, too much stress negatively impacts our ability to reach any of our training goals.

Whether it’s getting out of pain, improving body composition, or getting stronger, too much stress directly impacts our ability to recover.

Now I could get into the specifics of each of these, but I hope that answer will suffice.

If you want to maximize your performance in (and out of) the gym, you need to have your stress levels in check first.

Work with the bucket you have, and make it a goal to always have some extra room at the top.

Once you’ve got your current situation under control, then start to incrementally crank things up with regards to training.

This was kind of a long-winded answer, but I hope it gives you a clearer understanding of how stress impacts your body.

Good luck and good training!

All the best


Mike Robertson

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