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.
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!
- 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
- 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
- Selye H. Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. Br Med J. 1950 Jun 17;1(4667):1383–92. LINK
- 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
- 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.
I always say to people the biggest stress is psychological. Great article and infos. thanks
Thank you for this article. It explains my last two weeks of almost zero workouts. I pushed myself a little too hard after a life-changing event that took place the end of April into the middle of May. I pushed myself because I felt guilty for barely working out during the most stressful time. I see now that I did myself a disservice by trying to get back to it too soon. It’s July 1st and I am just now getting back on track, albeit slowly. Thanks again.