Why Stress Is Slowing Your Progress

We can look at stress from multiple points of view. The first way to look at it, and probably the way the majority of you reading this blog post are thinking of it, is the kind of stress you feel when you have a major deadline for work, and not enough hours in the day to complete what you need to. That feeling of needing to do so many things, you end up doing nothing. Pulling your hair out, drained, etc. But what else, in the world of training, nutrition and physique development, can we class as stress?

Sam Barnes Lifestyle ftm online coach personal trainer

Well, I kind of hit the nail on the head with my last sentence. Training is a stress on the body. Playing around with your nutrition so you’re in either a deficit or surplus of calories is a stress on the body. It’s taking you out of homeostasis (aka equilibrium). So, how do we manage this? And, how much stress is too much?


First off, let us define stress in an easier to understand way. In my eyes, stress is placing the body into a sympathetically dominant state (aka fight or flight). This state changes our body and, if you’re facing perceived danger, with good reason. It was essentially designed to save your life. Back in the day, if you happened to come across a dinosaur, you’d freak the f*ck out and run very fast. You’re able to do this by down regulating other systems in the body, such as the gastrointestinal system, the production of certain hormones, etc. as, in that moment, those things aren’t important to you. What’s important is getting the hell away from that dinosaur. The body can then pump you full of adrenaline and increase blood flow to your muscles, to get you running faster.


The body doesn’t know the difference between the stress of a potential predator, and the stress of giving a speech in front of 4,000 people. It simply senses danger and reacts.


Now, let’s talk nutrition. Taking your body below or above its required maintenance calories means you take it out of homeostasis. Even if you need to lose weight for health reasons, it initially won’t want you to take away food, even if it’s for the good of your wellbeing in the long-term. So, how can we manage this stress?


  • Slow, gradual decrease of calories if we’re cutting. Slow, gradual increase in calories if we’re bulking

  • Keeping our distribution of macros safe and effective

  • Diet breaks / off plan meals where we need to


For 90% of the people I work with, an aggressive cut isn’t appropriate. If they have work stress, family stress, etc. then going in with an aggressive diet isn’t going to end well. A slow, gradual decrease in calories as I get to know them and their body is the best way to get the results, whilst also keeping them in a safe and relatively healthy spot.


The distribution of macros is, again, client dependent. But I can almost guarantee the majority of people don’t need to cut carbs LOW to lose weight. There may be the odd client who, again, we can be slightly more aggressive with from the outset but, for most, keeping fat at around 0.3-0.4g per pound of bodyweight, protein at 0.8-1g per pound of bodyweight, and dedicating the rest of our calories to carbs will get the results we’re looking for. This will allow us to keep performance in the gym and during day to day tasks high.


Finally, the off-plan meal talk. This is sort of an entire blog post in itself, but let’s keep this one short and simple by talking about the general population client. I like to add in off plan/ non-tracked meals with all general population clients as often as I can, whilst also keeping their results a priority. This gives them the chance to unwind and relax, and continue to enjoy life.


Training. First off, we HAVE to place the body through an element of stress in order to create change (i.e. an adaption). Perform 10 reps of a leg extension and you create tiny, microscopic tears of the muscles (aka the stress part). We then refuel via food, heal the tears, come back bigger and stronger, and hence create an adaption.


For the record that was possibly the most basic, unscientific explanation of hypertrophy ever written, but it gives you a slight understanding as to why we do need to have some level of stress in order to create a change.


Any client that comes on board with myself will start with an incredibly low level of overall volume (sets and reps). From here we can slowly taper up, assessing progress whilst also keeping an eye on recovery. When it comes to stress management in relation to training, my opinion is that this method of slowly tapering up volume is the best way. I’ve had a few instances with potential clients wanting to start a “high-volume” plan. This isn’t something I have a problem with, but I’m not going to do this from day one. If we can taper things up, continue to see results and get you recovering between sessions, that’s great. Ultimately, a big key to the success of a plan is the clients level of enjoyment, but that cannot come at the cost of health.


Finally, let’s cover the daddy of stress; poor sleep. If you’ve ever done even the slightest bit of research into sleep, or you happen to have read the work of a certain Mr Matthew Walker, you’ll know just how important it is to get the right amount of sleep, that’s also of good quality.


The decline in our sleep habits over the years is not only detrimental to our training performance, but to our life expectancy, safety, productivity, and overall health. My plan is to put together an in-depth sleep guide on here over the next couple of months but, for now, if you’re interested in learning more about how you can improve your sleep, I have a video over on my YouTube channel that you can watch here.


For those of you that don’t want to have to wait for the blog post I’ll be writing on sleep, and want to get nerdy on the topic now, here’s a couple of research papers that I have found particularly informative and useful in my understandings of the importance of sleep:


Buysse DJ. Sleep health: can we define it? Does it matter? SLEEP 2014;37(1):9-17


Milewski, Matthew D. MD et al., Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated With Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes, Journal of Paediatric Orthopaedics: March 2014 - Volume 34 - Issue 2 - p 129-133


Now, you could argue that, even though I’ve just spoken about the importance of sleep, I didn’t specifically touch on the stress element and how it effects your progress. So, let me describe a very simple “cycle” I describe to clients:


  1. You start the day with a lack of sleep - you wake up feeling tired and groggy

  2. You have a terrible day at work - poor memory, lack of motivation, etc.

  3. You now need to train - Lack of strength, lack of motivation, general poor performance

  4. Time to eat - A lack of sleep has been found to trigger increased levels of ghrelin and decreased levels of leptin, leading to an increase in hunger. This is going to increase your chances of overeating. Not great if you’re dieting.

  5. Mental health - Bad day? You’re now in a bad mindset, leading to poor mental health.

  6. Can’t Get To Sleep - If you’ve had a bad day, your head is probably racing. Good luck getting back off to sleep.

And we start the cycle again and again. That’s something that I have created, but it does give a very realistic scenario that a lot of new clients are facing when they first come on board with me.


So, we’ve covered the ways in which we can better manage stress through training, nutrition, and sleep. But what about general, day to day stress management tools we can look to add to our days?


  • Journalling - Something I’ve been doing for the last couple of months, and have been really, really enjoying. Getting your thoughts down on paper allows you to see things from different perspectives.

  • Meditation / Deep Breathing - Just 2 minutes of deep breathing when you first wake up and before you go to bed will help to clear your mind.

  • Making time for our favourite hobbies

  • Scheduling our week - If you can create a strong schedule that creates boundaries between work and home, you’ll find it a lot easier to switch off and relax.

  • Flipping the training switch - Training places us into a sympathetic state. Before eating post workout, give yourself time to make the switch to the parasympathetic state, by allowing your breathing and heart rate to decrease. This will put you in a better position to digest your food.

  • Limiting social media use - The mindless scrolling is doing none of us any favours. Set boundaries and don’t pick up your phone for the first 30 minutes and final 30 minutes of the day.

Stress is a part of all of our lives and, as I mentioned above, it’s not always a bad thing. What is bad is the mismanagement of it. Take some of the tactics mentioned in this post and begin to add them into your day to day life. The benefits are truly endless!

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