Stress Can Sabotage Your Muscle Gains and Workout Recovery. Here’s How to Deal With It.

Man Rowing
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We’ve all heard that regular and consistent exercise can help mitigate the negative effects of everyday stress. Working out can make the brain more resilient to stress and reduce some of the risk factors between stress and cardiovascular disease, according to scientific research.

Sometimes, though, stress can overwhelm your system and start to take a toll on your workouts. If you’ve ever tried to do a light workout during a particularly stressful week at work or school and felt weak, sick, or just flat-out terrible, then it’s not that you’ve suddenly lost all your strength.

Everyday stress can limit your perceived strength at the gym, and limit how well your muscles recover after a workout, according to a new study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.

In the study, researchers asked students to do some psychological tests that rate mental stress. The students were then asked to do heavy resistance exercise—six sets of 10 reps on a legs press machine at 80-100% of their 10-rep max. The result: The students who signaled high stress more slowly recovered their muscle function.

So: What’s going on here? Why does mental and emotional stress affect physical ability? And if exercise is supposed to help you deal with stress, then why does stress limit your exercise ability?

To find out more, we talked to Sean Collins, C.S.C.S., the head powerlifting coach and co-owner at Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn, NY. A USA Powerlifting-certified club coach, Collins trains a number of lifters who balance high-intensity powerlifting training with demanding careers, so he’s seen firsthand how work stress can affect a lifter’s performance.

Why mental and emotional stress can lead to physical stress

“If you’re an athlete who’s accruing a lot of outside-the-gym stress—examples include, but are not limited to, tough times at work, interpersonal problems, or drug/alcohol use—your ability to recover from bouts of resistance-based exercise will be greatly hindered, soreness and fatigue will be slower to dissipate, and muscular function will return to normal significantly slower,” Collins says.

And while not all stress is bad stress, your body will physically react to both kinds in similar ways. Put another way: From a physiological perspective, stress is stress.

“Drinking with your friends, going away on a weekend trip full of fun activities, doing a presentation at school or at work—all might be great things that are perceptively fun or good,” Collins says. “However, these activities do take a toll on your body. Instead of signaling recovery hormones to speed up muscular and neurological adaptation, your body diverts hormones to manage the stress you’re taking on.”

Overall: listen to your body. “If you’re going through a stressful time, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to push yourself through a weight or a set you might’ve crushed when you were less stressed,” he said. “Do what you can, recognize that your recovery is hindered, and [remember] that your body is trying to manage the physical and mental stress as best as it can. In these cases, the worst thing you could do is push.”

Adding more physical stress will only push you further into overtraining, likely injury, and performance regression.

What to do in the gym when you’re stressed

When you’re stressed, shift away from heavy compound lifts like squats or deadlifts, and instead focus on doing high-intensity interval training work centered around bodyweight exercises.

“This type of exercise—burpees, pushups, max-effort sprints, intense cycling, bouts of swimming—will help you take out some of your stress on something productive,” Collins says.

Furthermore, adjust your mental approach. When Collins sees his athletes’ performances regress, it’s often because of how crazy their week or month has been outside of the gym. That means placing that stress into perspective.

“In these cases, I either ask the athlete to ‘take what’s there’ and not worry too much about beating their personal records, or to ‘punch the clock’ and go through the motions,” he says. In cases in which athletes are dealing with acute or chronic stress levels, he suggests that they cut volume and intensity, and take extra rest days to help stress dissipate.

Above all, Collins says, the new study reinforces the importance of making your gym time into an intentional stress-relieving session. If you’re stressed to the point that it’s affecting your performance, there’s no point to adding more stress to your system by beating yourself up over not getting a new personal record or getting a sick pump. This is an important mindset to cultivate in times of stress, and it’s overall likely healthier for your longevity.