The first time my physique and strength gains were slaughtered by stress, I didn’t see it coming. Instead of the kind of catastrophe that hits you like a brick in the face, this was a slowly tightening stranglehold. By the time I noticed I was stressed, the damage was done and I was already choking.
I remember my appetite was basically non-existent. When I did feel like eating, I only wanted junk instead of the type of foods I had been trying to eat more of. In the gym, I had been growing steadily weaker. On the scales, my bodyweight had shot up I was getting crushed by weights that had previously not been a problem, and worse, I was then consoling myself with pizza and beer. All in all, I felt like shit.
The real issue was that I had no idea what to do except to keep on pushing through it. When my situation didn’t improve, the frustration increased. This was almost always followed by program hopping, drastically cutting Calories, or limiting food choices. What seemed like my only option just compounded the problem.
Weight gain, poor training, and an altered appetite aren’t limited to my own experiences. I often speak to clients who are suffering from seemingly immovable weight during times when they are stressed, whether they know it or not, they are potentially their own worst enemy during this time.
An anecdote is all well and good, but looking into the literature shows that these kinds of effects aren’t a one-off.
- People with higher levels of stress will see less strength gains over 12 weeks of resistance training than those with low stress
- Stress results in emotional eaters craving more high-fat/high-sugar foods (chocolate and cake), and makes sticking to a diet harder.
- Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause water retention, which is what people usually mistake as fat gain or a ramp down in fat loss.
I often see this kind of water retention add as much as 2 to even 4kg of weight to my clients while they’re going through stressful periods. While this can be hugely frustrating, if a Calorie deficit is still in place it is inevitable that fat loss is still occurring despite what the scales say. In time, as the stress dissipates, so does the water. It’s not at all uncommon to wake looking visibly leaner after dropping all of the water weight overnight. A sudden loss of retained water like this is known as the “woosh” effect and happens without warning. It’s just a matter of waiting it out and hanging in there.
My mistake was to blame everything else except stress. Instead of realising that the weight gain was water retention, I assumed my newfound penchant for junk food had made me put on fat. If I had known more about energy balance, I would have known that it’s pretty hard to over consume Calories if you spend most of the day not eating.
It was normal to me to blame my training programme for the drop in strength, whereas now I have the self-awareness, I can tell that this is directly related to stress and there is no need to “jump ship” on my current programme.
Ignoring stress or trying to push through it will only make your physique and strength gains worse. Knowing when to pull back and bide your time is the best way to ensure improvement when things get tough.
Noticing stress, or admitting it to yourself can be difficult. Altered sleep and chronic tiredness, headaches and dizziness, or worrying and difficulty concentrating are all signs that you’re stressed and should be taken seriously. Acknowledging or recognising these signs is the first step to managing your diet and training.
The knowledge that stress can increase appetite and cause water retention gives you several options. You could:
- Take a diet break until the stressful period is over
- Concentrate on eating more satiating foods
- Stay off the scales until you feel better
Understanding that stress makes training slightly less optimal allows you to:
- Schedule a deload to use the time to aid recovery before hitting it hard again
- Cut a set of two from each lift to decrease the training stress while maintaining performance
- Manage expectations. Not everything has to go amazingly well all the time. Not expecting a PR every session is ok every now and then
The dream of living a stress-free life doesn’t fit with reality; there will always be times when we’re up against it. However, recognising when you’re stressed and making a change is a great way to get through the tricky patch, and come out the other side leaner and stronger.
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