Is stress robbing you of your gains?Training
When you aren't gaining muscle or losing fat as fast as you should be, you know you need to look for holes in your training or your diet. Pretty obvious stuff, right?
But there's something else that can dramatically – and I mean dramatically – affect your muscle-building and fat-burning progress: STRESS.
Take a guy who's hitting it hard in the gym, getting his peri-workout feedings, and making good gains. Now toss in a soul-sucking girlfriend/wife, a dickwad of a boss, and a daily traffic jam. The same dude's gains will most likely damn near screech to a halt. Here are a few strategies to beat stress before it can catabolize an ounce of your precious iron-earned lean body mass.
I guess you want to be leaner, right? How about more muscular? Well, I can help.
Here's the thing: What you need most likely has nothing to do with set/rep schemes, or the fact that your glutes aren't activated enough.
What you really need to do is... relax!
There's probably no bigger cause of decreased muscle gain and fat loss than stress physiology. Whether somewhere in the HPA axis, further up in the hippocampus, stress physiology can damage virtually everything: the immune system, endocrine system, neurological system, and gastrointestinal system.
Stress has been extensively shown to:
Suppress pituitary function (LH, TSH)
Decrease the conversion of T4 to T3
Increase liver burden (and thus metabolism of hormones)
Decrease binding of thyroid hormone to receptors
Decrease your body's ability to use leptin
Decrease secretory IgA (your immune system's first line of defense)
Influence inflammatory messengers (cytokines)
Walking around all day stressed out is wreaking havoc on your system. If you could de-stress a little bit, then it would be a whole lot easier to drop 10 pounds of lard or add 10 pounds of muscle.
Easier said than done? Actually it's not. Here are some surefire ways to help you reduce stress so you can more easily build muscle and drop body fat.
Drink Green Tea
Green tea is often touted for its potential weight loss and anticancer properties due to its powerful antioxidants. However, antioxidants aside, green tea is also a key component to your anti-stress toolbox.
Several studies show that drinking green tea is associated with lower depressive symptoms. And another larger study found that drinking five cups of green tea per day made the men 20% less likely to suffer signs of psychological distress compared to people who drank 0-1 cups per day.
What's the secret sauce in green tea if it isn't the antioxidants? Theanine.
Theanine is an amino acid found in relatively high concentrations in green tea (and also black and oolong teas). Theanine can readily cross the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to stimulate dopamine, serotonin, and GABA while decreasing norepinephrine levels.
One researcher best described the effects of theanine as "toning down" the CNS. In addition to green tea's effects on stress reduction, you'll also find great benefit from taking a break, unplugging, and drinking decaffeinated tea several times per day. This compound makes you relaxed WITHOUT feeling sleepy or tired.
If drinking green tea several times a day in no way can fit your schedule, at least get some Theanine capsules.
Sleep Better, if you can't sleep more
IME it's very rare to have a client that consistently sacks out for eight to ten hours a night. Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality greatly affects your health and your body's ability to deal with stress. It's a huge form of stress itself.
While eight hours is commonly touted as the recommended amount of sleep we should be getting, it may be the quality of your sleep that's more important than the quantity. So, if you can't always get eight hours make sure what you do get is very restful.
It's been shown that hard training athletes (not unlike those who are doing extra cardio with their usual lifting) have sleep disturbances in part related to higher nighttime epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine concentrations.
As mentioned above, drinking green tea may help combat increased norepinephrine levels. So a cup of decaffeinated green tea (or at least a tablet of Theanine) before bed is recommended if you're one of the sixty million Americans who have some sort of sleeping problem.
In addition to the aftereffects of poor sleep, getting quality deep sleep is also important for what happens hormonally during the course of the night. While engaged in periods of deep sleep, your body's cortisol secretions are decreased while growth hormone levels rise, allowing your body to heal and recover.
A simple way to optimize sleep for muscle growth? Just get to bed a bit earlier. Turn off the TV, shutdown your computer, make sure you room is completely dark, and try to string together fourteen nights of high-quality sleep to get your body back on track. A bit of Melatonin would also definitely help (3-5mg). It's safe, non-addicting and promotes deep restful sleep with zero drowsiness the morning after.
Did you know that slowing our breathing helps us calm down, and that taking a few minutes to do breathing exercises can help relax our mind and bodies — making it easier for us to cope with stress and anxiety? We also know that continued shallow breathing can actually do the opposite, keeping our bodies in a cycle of stress and affecting everything from our mental to physical health. When we are stressed, we tend to close down in a number of ways and, while this can feel protective, it often deprives us of needed emotional, cognitive and physical resources. It can even make us more likely to get sick.
Here is a very simple breathing exercise you can do to relieve stress anywhere and anytime. Try using it daily, whether you are clearly feeling stressed or not. Breathing fully, whether you are stressed or not, is great for your body and mind. It is also easier to use breathing techniques whenever you feel impatient or frustrated or in moments when you feel uptight, overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious if you have practiced when you are not stressed.
Before you get started, keep these tips in mind:
Get comfortable. You can lie on your back in bed or on the floor with a pillow under your head and knees. Or you can sit in a chair with your shoulders, head, and neck supported against the back of the chair.
Breathe in through your nose. Let your belly fill with air.
Breathe out through your nose.
Place your hands on your belly.
Don't force it. This can make you feel more stressed.
Wear comfortable clothes if possible.
The Box Breath Technique
This technique is named for the 4-sided approach in which each “side” or step is the same amount of time, as if you were visually creating a box with your breath.
Exhale all the air from your lungs while counting to four.
Hold for a count of four, keeping your lungs completely empty.
Inhale a deep, full breath for a count of four.
Keep your lungs full for a count of four.
Do this for at least four rounds and reduce the number of rounds if you start to feel light headed.
If you can't reduce stress, Enhance your Ability to Adapt
Rhodiola rosea is from a class of herbs known as adaptogens due to their ability to help the human body "increase resistance to a variety of chemical, biological, and physical stressors."
In the case of rhodiola rosea, it helps you adapt to both stress and fatigue. Much of the initial research regarding rhodiola rosea was carried out in Russia, as it was readily used medicinally to fight fatigue starting in 1969. And in 2001 Denmark officially classified the SHR-5 extract from rhodiola rosea as an herbal medicinal product.
How exactly will rhodiola rosea help you? It can help you function better while under stressful conditions. This is different from any of the other strategies that we've looked at so far in as it doesn't directly help you fight stress. It helps you to be better when stressed. This can be just as important, because stress leads to a decrease in performance. Because you're stressed you have a limited capacity for dealing with your poor performance. The end result is that you get more stressed. It's a vicious cycle. Rhodiola rosea will help stop that hateful cycle.
An added benefit to rhodiola rosea supplementation is that its effects can sometimes be seen within 30 minutes of taking the supplement – this is a very practical benefit as it can be used at a moment's notice.
If you're frustrated with your physique and are stumped by your lack of progress in spite of your best efforts, then you need to start focusing on de-stressing.
Take all of these strategies and put them into action for 2-3 weeks. You'll be happy that you did, and maybe even shocked by the sudden improvements in performance and physique enhancement!