Category Archives: Guest Blogs

The Hands-Free Hip Thrust: A Simple (Yet Very Effective) Hip Thrust Teaching Tool

The Hands-Free Hip Thrust: A Simple (Yet Very Effective) Hip Thrust Teaching Tool
By: Ben Bruno

I use hip thrusts extensively with virtually all of my clients, and one of the things I like most about them is that they’re relatively easy to learn and there’s a fast learning curve so most clients can get the hang out if quickly.

Still, there are a few issues that I tend to see arise repeatedly.

  1. It takes people a little while to figure out the proper bar position on the hips, and until you find that sweet spot it can be awkward and uncomfortable.
  1. The name “hip thrust” could imply a fast explosive movement, but I actually prefer that they be done in a controlled fashion with a brief pause at the top of each rep. Sometimes stronger clients start to let their form slip as the weight on the bar increases and they start to try to thrust up violently, often failing to achieve full hip extension at the top. I tell my clients that if they can’t pause at the top, the weight is too heavy.
  1. I notice that a lot of clients tend to go into anterior pelvic tilt and overarch the lower back, especially as the weight gets heavier. This not only takes the stress off the glutes, but it’s also potentially injurious for the lower back. In all fairness, I must say I’ve never seen or heard of anyone getting hurt from hip thrusts (another reason I like them), but it’s still a concern. For both effectiveness and safety it’s important to keep a neutral spine, or if anything even a slight posterior pelvic tilt as you thrust up.
  1. Some clients tend to push harder through one foot than the other, which is easy to spot just by looking at the bar.

As a trainer, I can queue clients ad naueseum when I see form flaws, but whenever possible, I prefer to give drills or exercises that teach them to do the exercise correctly without me giving them too many things to think about.

Enter the hands-free hip thrust.

I’ve found that for clients who struggle with the aforementioned hip thrust issues, doing them hands-free can clear them all up very quickly.

Here’s a video of what it looks like in action.

When you don’t have your hands to hold the bar in place it forces you to find the right positioning on your hips. Just be sure to keep your hands close to the bar in case you need to grab it quickly for whatever reason.

Furthermore, if you thrust up too fast and don’t control the weight, or if you push more through one foot than the other, there’s no way you’ll be able to balance the bar on your hips. Likewise, if you overarch the lower back, the bar will slide down your hips, giving you immediate feedback. In order to keep the bar positioned correctly, it requires you to keep a neutral spine with a very slight posterior pelvic tilt at the top.

In this sense, the hands-free hip thrust is a lot like the hands-free front squat, which I also love and use as a teaching tool.

Form issues with front squats tend to be similar to those with hip thrusts; people struggle to support the bar, and they also tend to rush the reps and lose proper body positioning and fold forward. By going hands-free, it teaches you to support the bar on the shoulders instead of relying on the hands, and it allows forces you to stay upright and do the reps in a controlled fashion.

It’s the same idea for hands-free hip thrusts.


As a teaching tool, I recommend doing sets of 8-10 reps. I actually like doing something similar to what I do with front squats which is going hands-free for a few warm-up sets and then switching to regular hip thrusts as the weight gets heavier. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my clients are often stronger with their normal hip thrusts after warming up with the hands-free version.

Now it’s important to note that while this may be a good teaching tool, it’s not a beginner exercise. I wouldn’t start off teaching hip thrusts hands-free. But for clients who have some experience with hip thrusts but either complain about feeling them in the lower back, or for clients who’ve gotten stronger but done so at the expense of good form, this method is a great way to take a step back and reset the form before continuing to add more weight.


For stronger lifters, hands-free hip thrusts can also function as a great standalone exercise that allows you to get an awesome training effect with lighter loads. In this case, I like doing 1-2 higher rep sets of 15-20 reps after you’ve done your heavier sets. You won’t be able to handle as much weight, but a 20-rep set of these with pauses at the top has my glutes begging for mercy more than almost any hip thrust variation I’ve ever tried.

If you’re the type who enjoys watching others suffer, here’s me doing a 20 rep finisher.

Give these a try and see if it doesn’t clean up the technique and allow you to feel the exercise even more in your glutes and less in the lower back.

About the Author:

Ben Bruno is a personal trainer in Los Angeles, California. He also Ben-Brunopublishes a blog and free newsletter at You can connect with him on social media at the following places:





Four Reasons to Push Press

Four Reasons to Push Press
Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York

For decades one of the popular upper body exercises to perform in the weight room has been the bench press exercise. One common question many high school athletes or any athlete may ask their peer is “How much can you bench”? With regard to upper body strength and power when was the last time any Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Professional has witnessed one athlete ask another “How much can you push press”? This inquiry does not usually occur because the push press exercise is not likely performed.

For decades overhead pressing type exercises appear to have accompanied the deep squat exercise as the “outcast” of the weight room. Overhead weight work has been tabooed by many sport coaches as well as some S&C Professionals as many are of the opinion that the performance of such exercises will result in shoulder pathology as well as be detrimental to athletic performance, especially in the overhead athlete.


The following are four (4) considerations for the S&C Professional to include the push press exercise as a component to their athletes (including the overhead athlete) training program design.

1. Strength Development – The apparent reason to perform the push press exercise is to enhance shoulder strength and muscular development. The push press unlike many other overhead upper extremity exercises requires the exercise to be initiated by the legs. Thus, higher weight intensities may be utilized executing the push press when compared to other overhead shoulder exercises that disregard the involvement of the lower extremities.

2. The Rotator Cuff – A rotator cuff (Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis, and Teres Minor muscles) pathology of the shoulder is a highly overstated false consequence of the push press (or any overhead exercise for that matter), when appropriately implemented into the athlete’s weight room training program design. It is usually an inappropriate program design and/or an excessively prescribed overhead exercise volume, not the exercise itself that may place the athlete at risk of injury. It has been demonstrated that during overhead pressing type exercise performance the rotator cuff is active, with the supraspinatus exhibiting the highest recorded EMG activity of the muscle group. It is also acknowledged that the supraspinatus is the rotator cuff muscle with the highest incidence of pathology therefore wouldn’t the S&C Professional want to place an emphasis on strengthening this rotator cuff muscle?

3. Gleno-Humeral and Scapulo-Thoracic Rhythm – The gleno-humeral joint of the shoulder is comprised of two (2) osseous structures the scapula and the humerus. The ball and socket articulation of this joint is comprised of the head of the humerus (ball) and the glenoid (socket) which is actually a component of the scapula. The scapula also comprises the scapula-thoracic joint at the posterior aspect of the thorax. During overhead sport skills or exercise performance there is a relationship to both the shoulder range of motion and the gleno-humeral and scapula-thoracic joints “rhythm” to maintain the head of the humerus appropriately centered in the glenoid. Disruption to this “rhythm” over time may place the rotator cuff at risk of pathology. Overhead exercise performance with a bench backing will “pin” or “compress” the scapula of the shoulder between the bench backing and the athlete’s thorax including the athlete’s body and barbell weight. Joint compression is synonymous with joint stability resulting in a less mobile scapula. This likely will affect the natural and necessary required scapula movement and rhythm during the repeated overhead exercise performance thus setting the table for possible shoulder injury. The standing overhead exercise performance allows for free scapula movement and proper rhythm throughout the exercise performance.

4. Lower Extremity Power Development – Yes you read this correctly, lower extremity power development. The push press has been documented to produce greater lower extremity maximum mean power when compared to the jump squat exercise. Thus the push press exercise provides a time efficient combination of lower body power and upper extremity and trunk strengthening during the exercise performance. This exercise may not only be utilized in the athlete’s training, but may also be appropriately utilized at end stage upper and lower extremity rehabilitation as well.

Below is a good video demonstrating the push press:

How a 41 Year-Old Mom of Three Got Her (Figure) Groove Back

How a 41 Year-Old Mom of Three Got her (Figure) Groove Back
By Shelley Cook

The Beginning: Bret didn’t want me.

Seriously, though, when I first reached out to him and asked him to coach me, I didn’t even expect a reply.

But much to my surprise, I did hear back from him about a week later – and it was much more wordy and polite than I could have imagined! Right away I was thinking, Wow, what a genuinely nice guy! Unfortunately, Bret was too busy at the time and wasn’t able to take me on.

I was sad, but I knew exactly what I wanted and needed to do to in order to be successful in a figure competition at my age. I had competed at age 36 and done well, winning the Masters and taking second in Open Short, but my backside had clearly been my weakest area and I hadn’t carried much muscle.

So now, five years of training later, at the tender age of 41, I wanted to do it again. But I wanted to do it under the guidance of the guy that knew glutes, who supported the studies and practiced everything I believe in as a trainer. This wasn’t just another figure competition to me; it was a matter of principle and testing what I’d learned.

Because Bret couldn’t work with me, I went ahead and hired the next trainer that came recommended to me. This coach was very quick to reply to every email, but the training program ended up not being the best fit for me. The volume was simply too high, and the five-days-a-week body part split was more than my body could handle. By the end of the fourth week with him, my old injuries were starting to flare up. I was weary and exhausted, and I was beginning to dread going to the gym. I knew that I had to change course.

While I felt discouraged, I wasn’t quite ready to give up. I knew I could do it alone, but I didn’t want to; I wanted someone who would support me and guide me on my journey back to the figure stage.

So naturally, I did what any persistent and driven mother would do in my position: I went back to Bret and I begged him to reconsider taking me on as a client and I must have caught him at a weak moment because this time he agreed!

After swearing up and down that I would be a model client, he said he would help me provided that I work with Sohee Lee for my nutrition. They came as a package deal: either I work with both of them as a team or not at all.

I thought about it for a split second and agreed. I mean, come on! Sohee Lee?! As if I’d say no to that! Honestly, who gets to say that their training team is Bret Contreras and Sohee Lee? I signed up with them as fast as I could before they changed their minds. Here is where I started:

ShelleyCook Beginning Front ShelleyCook Beginning Back

OMG did I really just post those?


For Everyone: Choose your trainer wisely. Just because they sell themselves well or your aunt lost 16 pounds in a week or the program is overly complicated or they train all the best figure girls does not mean it’s the right trainer or program for you. Do a little research and think about what you are getting into before you commit. Be patient enough to shop around, ask questions, and get to know potential coaches you’d like to work with. In the end, you will likely save time, money, frustration, and potentially an awkward breakup with your trainer!

For Professionals: Lead by example, but please remember that your clients are individuals. Listen to them, check in to see how they are doing, and support them. Above all, try to help them find the diet and training plan that will make them feel confident, happy and excited about their effort and results.

The Diet: Flexible Dieting or Bust

This wasn’t my first rodeo.

Following my competition in 2009, I put on 10 pounds in two weeks and another 10 in the month following that in a completely uncontrolled manner. I had felt so trapped and deprived by my low calorie meal plan that when I was awarded cheat meals, they would start at 4pm and go all night. I couldn’t seem to come to terms with not being able to eat my favorite trail mix or homemade soup simply because it was too hard to track. I was so hungry for all the things I was missing that once I started I just couldn’t stop. And then the guilt and remorse of what I had done would set in.

This started a chain of bad patterns that were really compounded once the competition was over and I didn’t have a plan or any idea of how to back out. I didn’t even see it happening until I hit the 125 lb mark. Twenty-five pounds over my competition weight in little more than a month…. Wow. That’s when I first started to dig for a better way.

I studied all kinds of diets and their effects, from the studies done on the aftermath of concentration camp survivors to the current trends in physique diets. I soaked it all in and experimented on myself out of thirst for knowledge over the course of three years. During that time I also fell in love with coaching. I had been working with Elite hockey athletes doing off ice training and the more I did it, the more I loved it and realized my niche had been found. It was time to get the education I needed to coach and once again the studying began. I became an NSCA-CPT in 2012.

All those years of nutrition coaching and eating to support training meant counting macros was second nature to me and that is what made flexible dieting the obvious choice.

I was excited to try out this approach firsthand, and Sohee was amazing. Quick and thoughtful replies, impressively fast turnarounds, and prompt weekly check-ins. For those that don’t know her, this girl is organized and runs a phenomenal program for online clients.

The macros she set for me surprised me at first because they seemed far too high for dieting calories. I mean, I know I can eat a lot of everything and take it like a champ (thanks to a great metabolism!) but I certainly expected the process to be a lot more excruciating. But it really wasn’t that difficult. Just focus on hitting the macros, don’t stress, and everything will turn out fine, she assured me.

Sohee started me out at a daily calorie intake of 1770, and by the end of my three-month prep, I was at 1570 calories a day with a weekly refeed. During this time, my bodyweight dropped from 118.0 to 110.0lbs and my waist measurement decreased from 25 to 24 inches.

Not only did I come in leaner, stronger and more energetic than I had before but I actually enjoyed my prep. I had no problem cooking and baking for my three teenaged athletes while keeping up with my workload and maintaining a healthy social life.

Yes, there were days that I got a bit hungry and I went to bed earlier because I needed the rest, but there were no feelings of deprivation, moodiness, lethargy, or fogginess that often accompany competition dieting. More importantly, I never felt like I had to fight feelings of impulsive eating or wanting to cheat or binge because I felt nourished and satisfied with my food choices which honestly included whatever I wanted. I had lattes and Starbucks breakfast sandwiches when I wanted them, ate with my family most meals and was even able to enjoy a Dairy Queen dipped cone with my girls on the Wednesday before I competed.

I would say this was by far the best part of my competition experience this time around. Honestly, I was a bit of a miserable bitch during my first diet experience, to the point that I felt sorry for my family. I wouldn’t eat out, didn’t want to socialize, hated cooking or baking because I was too hungry to handle it and I had little control over my temper or emotions.

This time there really wasn’t a big impact – in fact, my 17 year-old daughter bragged to her coach that it seemed easy and she might want to do it someday. And we went to Cabo San Lucas for a week mid-prep with no big setbacks and had a total blast!

Here are a couple of the everyday meals I ate during prep (always plenty of colour and flavour when I’m cooking) and a pic of me in my size 25 jeans. Even though I wasn’t overly hungry, I think it’s safe to say I was pretty lean.

Shelley FoodShelley Jeans


For Everyone: There are a thousand and one ways to diet, but be wary of titles, fads, and buzzwords. Know what you are looking for and research your trainer. You want someone who is genuine and science-based and practices what they preach.

For Professionals: Please remember that people hire us to help them. They trust us to show them the way to achieve a healthy balance lifestyle and that can look different for every client. You have the power to transform their lives in profound ways – do not take this responsibility lightly.

The Training: Should It Really Still be Fun?

Upon receiving my first training program from Bret, I felt scared. Umm, seriously… that’s it? This can’t be right. The training volume was a fraction of what I was used to. I combed through the workouts over and over, convinced that some pages were missing or that I’d overlooked some detail. But nope, that was it. Four to six exercises per day, three to four days a week, plus 10 minutes of optional time at the end of each session.

What really took the coaching to the next level were the things Bret said and didn’t say to me. He talked about the mind muscle connection and striving to reach for PR’s every week, focus on form and getting a strong contraction where you are supposed to. Those simple instructions stuck with me though every workout.

No empty pump ups, meaningless explanations, or self-promoting words were ever spoken. When I needed support and encouragement, it was given, and there was praise for every deserved achievement.

Bret gave me a lot of freedom with my plan and trusted me to do the work I needed to do. I felt more like I was part of a special team than just another dollar sign. This inspired me more than any other method ever had.

The real magic was in the programming, of course. It seemed so simple, yet my glutes responded within weeks, and I could literally feel them developing higher and rounder than they had ever been before. And I don’t use the term “magic” lightly: at 41 years old, I didn’t know my body was still capable of responding in this way. I even continued to hit PR after PR throughout the first 10 weeks of my contest prep while in a caloric deficit. I looked forward to every workout and stayed injury-free – and that was just as important, if not more, to me as the final result. Throughout this prep, no feelings of inadequacy, weakness, or failure ever crossed my mind. What a concept!

Here is my rear view 2009 vs. 2015 (please forgive the picture quality):

Shelley Rear


For Everyone: More isn’t always better; it’s just more. Try not to get caught up with chasing fatigue or thinking that hours of cardio or two-hour lifting sessions are the answer. It doesn’t have to suck. We are only built to handle so much before we burn out or get injured. Hire a trainer that knows how to get the same results with the least amount of work possible so you can maintain it long term. Workouts should you make you feel better over time, not worse, so why kill yourself if you don’t have to?

For Professionals: It is our job to build confidence in our clients. Some respond well to the drill sergeant approach but others might need a bit of hand holding, independence, or encouragement to help them find their way. Try to be open to feedback to your clients and tailor your coaching style to the individual.

The Competition: It’s Not Really That Complicated

Prep week was almost anti-climactic compared to what I had done before.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that there was nothing drastic happening. No water loading, low calorie days, depletion workouts, or pre-comp fat load. Basically, it was just more food, less heavy training, and a little extra glute work.

But I didn’t realize until after the show how great this really was. The program was easy to follow, stress-free, and had little impact on my regular life. Show day was a breeze!

As I mingled backstage with the other competitors, I was once again appalled by their stories of dehydration, starvation, deprivation, and exhaustion. To hear that some trainers were cutting clients water on Wednesday for a Saturday show made me question the sanity of the trainer and client alike. I was saddened to learn that in the six years since I’d competed, little had changed in that respect.

Shelley Backstage

When my turn came to hit the stage, I was pumped, energetic, and ready to pose my head off – and that is exactly what I did.

Admittedly, I was scared, and the nerves of show day got to me temporarily as I scrutinized my physique. My prep was pretty easy – should I have suffered more? I asked myself. Should I have eaten less? Maybe done more cardio?

I got all worked up for nothing, apparently, because the judges liked what I brought to the stage! I was rewarded with a first place finish in Figure Masters, which qualified me for Provincials (where I placed 5th two weeks later as an all-natural athlete in an untested show, thus qualifying me for Nationals next summer).

Shelley Show

Throughout the process, I had some moments of doubt, but throughout it all I managed to keep my initial promise to Bret and stuck to the plan. I trusted my trainers and maintained a high level of commitment to the program, and they were right there with me every step of the way.

Bret and Sohee made this not just possible but enjoyable by giving me a joint program that suited my lifestyle in a healthy, well-balanced way. I went into the competition confident, energetic and excited thanks to smart, sane, science based coaching, and came out a winner.

Here’s a shot from the between show photo shoot, just me in my suit and heels chillin with a big ass rope, naturally.

(p.s. If you ever book a photo shoot, please remember to bring a change of clothes 😉 but hey, who cares… I mean look at that GLUTE!)

Shelley Rope


For Everyone: Competing requires consistent time and effort but it by no means has to suck. If you have the discipline and genetics to build muscle don’t let the horror stories hold you back.

For Professionals: Coaching a physique competitor requires unique skill, sensitivity, knowledge, and experience that isn’t covered in most certification courses. If you aren’t confident that you can provide your clients with a safe, healthy, and effective experience, please take a step back and invest the time into getting the experience and education you need.

The Aftermath: No Rebound, No Problem

After the show, while my fellow competitors were gorging on all the foods they could get their hands on at once, I was pretty disinterested. I enjoyed a nice meal and glass of wine out with my family and friends and was perfectly full and satisfied. Considering my other experiences with dieting, this was the most comforting feeling.

I am always conscientious of the fact that I am a role model for my athletic teenaged girls and my clients. I am also a huge advocate of leading by example so it very important to me to show them I was making smart, healthy choices throughout the entire process. I feel like we accomplished that and then some.

It has been a month now since I competed, and after a thoughtful week of reverse dieting, I had a discussion with Sohee about what nutrition approach was best for me during my off season. After a little bit of back and forth, we determined that, while some people fare better when diligently counting their macros year-round, moving away from strict macro tracking and instead wading the waters of intuitive eating would be in my best interest and help me maintain my happiness and mental sanity.

[See related: Should you track your macronutrient intake?]

Nowadays, I’m holding my weight easily at 115-116, which is a mere 5lbs from the weight I competed at. Though my look is softer, I’m still lean and athletic because I train consistently and moderate my nutrition intake. I’m perfectly happy right where I am without weighing or measuring a thing.

Within three weeks of competing, I was back setting lifetime PRs in the gym with endless energy and motivation to thrive in all areas of my life. I’m looking forward to competing in Nationals next year the exact same way!

And here is a shot of the most important reasons for staying healthy and well balanced: myself and my two beautiful daughters on Mother’s Day 2015.

Shelley Daughters


For Everyone: There are so many ways to diet, from simple portion control or macro dieting to repetitive or restrictive meal plans to extremely complicated and low carb diets, but at the end of the day we all show up lean and ready. The only difference is how much we enjoyed the process and whether or not we will rebound when we return to our regular lifestyle. Try not to make it more complicated than it needs to be.

For Professionals: It seems to me that a lot of coaches will get their competitors to the stage in shape by any means possible but some will ignore the rebound or forget to help them return to a normal diet and lifestyle. The fallout can be difficult, lonely, even disastrous for some. Please make sure you have a plan for your clients safe and healthy post competition experience.

Here are the real life before and after photos. No tan no filters… just a 42 year old mom in her underwear.

Shelley Underwear

How important is psychological stress for your gains?

How Important is Psychological Stress for Your Gains?
By Fredrik Tonstad Vårvik

We know a lot about the physiological part of training, nutrition and recovery. You may think that if you optimize these factors you will have optimal progression and gains. People don’t often think as much about sleep, circadian rhythm, life outside the gym, and especially about stress. A growing body of literature implicates that psychological stress is a factor that modulates physiological recovery. If you have a lot of psychological stress, you need to cope with it. Moreover, If you have a lot of physiological stress (training), you need to recover from that too (1). There are a number of other reasons to expect that high life stresses lessen the training effect of exercise including increased basal cortisol, changes in nutrition, illness and related absence from training (2).

Consider these scenarios:

Peter is training 4 times per week; his nutrition is good, he sleeps well and has a regular daytime job from 8-4. His financial situation is stable, and he lives with his girlfriend in an apartment. Besides his work and training, he normally relaxes at home with his girlfriend. Sometimes he goes out with his friends on the weekends. The job is medium pressure that he handles quite well.

Robert is training 5 times per week, his nutrition is pretty good and he works in a shift job that is very hectic, with deadlines. He has sleep problems and the pay is not good, hence working mostly nights and overtime. He lives in his own apartment and rarely has the energy to hang out with friends. He forces himself to train, and is exhausted.

Even if Robert’s training program looks slightly better than Peters on paper, Peter will have the best workouts, progression and energy in the end. (Let’s say they have the same genetic potential).

I would therefore argue that the psychological part is underestimated. Look at the well-known general adaptation syndrome model (GAS by Selye) (3).

Stage 1 is stimuli/shock phase, stage 2 is adaptation to the resistance stage 1, while stage 3 is exhaustion. If there is too much stimulus/stress than you can’t recover from, you will be in stage 3.

If you have chronic disease, sleep disturbances, or just got divorced, you will probably not have the best results and recovery from your workouts. Why is that? There is reason to believe that psychological stress influences cytokines, neutrophils, macrophages, growth factors and stem cells (1), just like resistance training does (4). Therefore, a person needs to recover from both stimuli.


The point is that if you have a lot to do and feel stressed outside the gym (high stage 1), take it easy in the gym, since you need to cope and recover from it. If not, you might end up in stage 3 in Seyle’s model. You need to recover from both physiological and psychological stresses. This is one of the reasons why top athletes sleep a lot and don’t work: their training, nutrition and sleeping is their work. If you are a normal person that needs income from regular work, you must cater to that and set priorities.

There is not much research on this in relation to resistance training; however, lets delve into a study from 2008 and a short-term research paper from 2014.

Bartholomew et al 2008 (2) designed a study to examine the effect of self-reported stressful life events on strength gains after 12 weeks of resistance training.

Method and procedure

Participants totaled 135 undergraduate students that enrolled in weight training classes two times per week. They had various degrees of training experience, from beginner to advanced. All completed the Adolescent Perceived Events Scale questionnaire (APES), social support score and one-repetition maximal lifts (1RM) for the bench press and squat. Each participant did a 12-week training program that involved all major muscle groups twice per week. The periodization consisted of three mesocycles, hypertrophy, strength and power. Both training days were supervised and they were encouraged to complete a third session without the supervisor.

There were no differences between the high and low stress groups in terms of baseline physiological measures (1-RM and muscle mass). (Changes in muscle mass measured as circumference around upper arm and thigh along with caliper skinfold measure).


In both groups there was a significant change in both 1-RM squat, bench-press and arm size, with greater improvement in bench press and squat in the low-stress group. No significant difference between groups in arm size. And there were no significant effects for social support. Table from the study:


The authors suggest that experience of stress may impair one’s ability to fully adapt to training. It’s not certain how stress impairs the adaptation process.

Stress may undermine one’s training through diminished exercise behavior or perceptions regarding one’s training load and progression, or it may impair the recovery process, either by affecting behaviors that may promote recovery (nutrition sleep, etc) or underlying biological factors responsible for anabolism/catabolism or immune functioning and illness.

Stults-Kolehmainen et al 2014 aimed to determine whether chronic mental stress modulates recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations in a 4-day period after a bout of strenuous resistance training (1).

Method and procedure

Over 1200 people were screened for chronic stress. Those that scored very low, or very high, were selected to participate in the study. The participants aged 20.26 1.34 years, including 9 women and 22 men, totaling 31. They were all undergraduate students who regularly performed resistance training. Two different questionnaires were required, perceived stress scale (how stressed you feel) and undergraduate stress questionnaire (stressful life events the last month). They compared the results with a large national sample.

Firstly, the researchers performed different strength tests: maximal isometric force, vertical squat jump and cycling power. Energy, fatigue and soreness were also measured with questionnaires. They retested after the training protocol (explained below), at 24, 48, 72 and 96 hours post-workout.

The training protocol was: 10 repetition maximal (RM) the first set, then sets of 90% until a total of 3-6 sets were done. If 90% was too heavy, the load was reduced to 80%.


For maximal isometric force, higher levels of stress resulted in lower recovery curves, and lower levels of stress were associated with superior recovery. The low-stress group returned to baseline 48 hours post-exercise, while the high-stress group took about 96 hours to recover.

The high-stress group compared to the low stress group also negatively influenced soreness, energy and fatigue. The high-stress group had more soreness, less energy and more fatigue. The associations were still present after the researchers adjusted for fitness, workload and training experience.

The stress/recovery relationship appeared to be less consistent for the vertical jump squat as well as the maximal cycling power, from which both groups recovered quickly.

On the other hand, exercise can also help if you feel very stressed. High-stress is just not optimal for high volume and gains. Bretland et al 2015 (5) conducted a study in 49 participants that were not exercise regularly. They divided them into three groups, one as a placebo group, another did cardio and the last performing resistance training.

Participants were measured with different subjective stress and exercise scales at baseline and after four weeks. The exercise groups did at least 30min of exercise 3 times per week.

After four weeks of exercise, participants had greater positive well-being and personal accomplishment, less psychological distress, perceived stress and emotional exhaustion.

In summary:

Both low-stress groups in the studies reported feeling better and recovered faster after the exercises. If you have many stressful events in your daily life and feel stressed, don’t increase your training volume and intensity, rather, reduce it. Furthermore, if you can cope with it and feel good, you can make progression and increase. If you are stressed and feel that some exercise can help, go for it.

Take home message: do not underestimate lifestyle, sleep and stress!


  1. Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB, Sinha R. Chronic psychological stress impairs recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations over a 96-hour period. J Strength Cond Res Natl Strength Cond Assoc. 2014 Jul;28(7):2007–17. LINK
  2. Bartholomew JB, Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Elrod CC, Todd JS. Strength gains after resistance training: the effect of stressful, negative life events. J Strength Cond Res Natl Strength Cond Assoc. 2008 Jul;22(4):1215–21. LINK
  3. Selye H. Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. Br Med J. 1950 Jun 17;1(4667):1383–92. LINK
  4. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res Natl Strength Cond Assoc. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857–72. LINK
  5. Bretland RJ, Thorsteinsson EB. Reducing workplace burnout: the relative benefits of cardiovascular and resistance exercise. PeerJ. 2015;3:e891. LINK

About the Author

Fredrik Tonstad Vårvik is a personal trainer & nutritionist. He writes articles and work with online coaching at fredfitology. Follow him and his colleagues at facebook & twitter. Check out FredFitology for more info.