How stress is slowing your progress.
Stress, we all have it to more or less of a degree. Some stress is good, in fact it is essential to making progress, as it forces adaptations. For example, lifting weights, at a basic level, stresses your muscular system and forces adaptation via new muscle fibres and increased neural efficiency. And as long as you can recover adequately then the level of stress is a positive thing.
Things head south though when you have more stresses than you can reasonably deal with. This could be from training, work, finances, diet, health, family or any other source that increases the amount of stress you are under. And when it comes to your body composition, too much stress will derail many of your efforts, particularly when it comes to weight.
You see, stress increases cause a release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Again, some of this is a good thing. It helps with a bunch of stuff and you need a certain amount to function. But the thing with cortisol is that it’s not supposed to be constantly on. It’s supposed to peak and fade away, cycling higher and lower across your day. But in our higher stress lifestyles, we tend to have elevated cortisol levels, leading to increased water retention. And it’s this water retention that is highly likely to be limiting, or outright stopping, any weight loss that you expect to see.
So what can you do about it?
- Look for ways to moderate your stress levels. This might include reducing training volumes/ intensity in the short term to better handle non-gym stresses, then ramping up as appropriate.
- Ease your diet a little. Being in an aggressive calorie deficit is a stressor, and I’ve seen a few instances where too aggressive a calorie deficit is leading to fat loss without weight loss. Sounds odd, but it happens often. Which takes me to:
- Make sure you are doing measurements as well as weighing yourself. If fat loss is your goal, and you’re only looking at weight as a marker of progress, then you may be adding to your stress levels when you don’t see progress. Taking measurements can reassure you that you are in fact making progress despite what the scales might be saying.
We’re all bodybuilders to a degree
If you are doing any kind of training, then you are, to one degree or another, a bodybuilder. You’re building fitness, you’re building physical capacity and, most importantly, you’re building some lean mass.
Adding a little more lean mass is vital for pretty much any physical goal you might have.
- Want to improve your body fat %? Add some muscle mass, it’ll help you burn more calories, improve your ratio of lean mass to body fat, improve “tone” and give you the shape you want.
- Want to improve your physical performance? Adding some lean mass will offer you more potential to generate force, improve stability and reduce injury risk.
- Want to improve your quality of life? From a physical standpoint, more muscle mass improves your chances of staying physically independent as you age. Being better at handling physical tasks and reducing risk of falls and keeping your bones and connective tissues strong and injury free.
And since we’re all looking to build a little lean mass, how should we train for that?
Here are 3 tips to help.
- Look for opportunities to increase your training volume over time. This could mean a big (ish) pr on a big lift such as a deadlift, or it could be a smaller improvement on something like a DB row or leg extension. They all count.
- Make sure you are eating enough to give you a chance at recovering well. Protein is important, but carbs are also a big driver of both performance and recovery.
- Training to failure is often touted as a necessity for building lean mass, but recent studies have shown that stopping with 2-3 reps left in the tank produces the same amount of muscle gain while reducing injury risk and making recovery between sets and session easier.
How to easily change habits
Habits are the key to creating progress. They can automate many of the key tasks that lead to success. But the wrong habits can derail even the best efforts to transform your fitness and body comp.
One of the pillars of habit creation, and, therefore, habit change, is the cues that trigger the habit. These cues could be a time, a place, people you are with, music that’s playing or any other environmental cue that sets off the habit train.
Changing habits is a difficult task, but changing your environment can make things a whole lot easier.
In a study into habits and snacking, researchers offered popcorn to subjects that were watching a series of short films in a cinema. Some of these people had a habit of eating popcorn at the movies, and some didn’t typically do so. The twist here was that the subjects were randomly given either fresh tasty popcorn, or stale, week-old popcorn. And the interesting thing was that while both groups rated the stale popcorn as awful, those who habitually ate popcorn in the cinema ate the same amount of terrible popcorn as those who had the tasty stuff. The power of their cinema popcorn habit was even stronger than the terrible taste of stale, week-old popcorn.
In a further part of the experiment, the subjects were shown videos in lab, and nobody eats popcorn habitually in that setting. And again, they were randomly given either stale or fresh popcorn. And this time, since the environmental cue wasn’t there, everybody hardly touched the stale popcorn. Simply changing the setting of the experiment, researchers effectively turned off the popcorn habit cue. And you find a similar off switch for your own habits.
Instead of eating your meals in front of your TV, eat at the dinner table instead. If you eat at the table already, try sitting in a different seat.
Change your route to work to break the habit of popping into your usual coffee shop, and cutting out that extra cinnamon bun that you don’t really want but get anyway.
Pack your training stuff to take to work so you can go to the gym on your way home from work instead of getting home first and struggling to motivate yourself to get back out.
The point is that if you have a habit you are trying to change, one of the most powerful ways you can do it is by looking at what happens in the run up to the habit kicking in, then looking for ways to change that. Doing so can make it a whole lot easier to improve your habits and minimise the effect of those bad habits that might be slowing your progress.
Give it a try.