How Stress and Sleep Affect Your Workout

    How Stress and Sleep Harm Your Workout

    I think we've all felt depressed or anxious at some point in our lives. Life stress has effects on recovery and muscle growth just the same as the physical stress of working out. Combining that with lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can introduce some confounding factors that no doubt will further stress you out if your goal is hypertrophy and strength.

    Stress Recovery Adaptation

    Many people have discussed the "Stress Recovery Adaptation" idea. Exercise introduces a stress to the body, which must first be recovered from, and then changes are made as adaptation in response to that stress. The thing about SRA is that lifting weights is only one of many stresses that must be recovered from and adapted to. Your life stresses will impact on that ability to recover. For most of my life, and particularly in the last few years. I've had an extremely high stress environment; sleeping two to three hours per night, working multiple physically intensive jobs, money problems—all of these things necessitated that I come up with a strategy to improve my ability to recover.

    The biggest first step is removing unnecessary stressors from your life. Whether those stressors be friends, family, relationships, hobbies, even your job. Whatever you can improve, do so. Anything You can't improve, remove if possible. Coping techniques are a great tool to have but just like with physical ailments, the best cure is to remove the cause. Unnecessary stressors will definitely impact your recovery. The key is to figure out what things you need to put up with, and what are optional. My experience is that a majority of life stressors are more optional than people realize.

    The Connection Between Sleep and Stress

    Sleeping well is crucial to maximizing your strength and size gains. We grow muscle when we rest and sleep, not while working out as some people think. Even with a calorie surplus to gain weight, the amount of sleep you get has an influence on how much of that weight is muscle versus how much is fat. The same holds true in the opposite direction; getting good sleep increases how much of the weight lost during a cut is fat, and reduces the amount of muscle loss.

    In some ways managing sleep goes hand in hand with the aforementioned removal of unnecessary stressors. Figure out what obligations are important, if you have a very busy life it's critical to properly manage your time, and emphasize your "sleep budget". It's like when managing your money. You make sure your bills are paid first, then focus on luxuries. Sleep matters a lot. Even if you don't lift, getting a good amount of sleep has significant beneficial effects on your emotional and psychological well being. Of course, if you work multiple jobs, it's not very realistic to try to aim for 8 or more hours of sleep per day. The body does have a sleep debt, and will priorities recovery to where it's needed most when the chance becomes available. If you get little sleep during the week, you can try to make up for it on the weekend. Take naps when possible if you can. Find some way to get extra rest.

    High Stress Will Hurt Your Gains

    What most don't want to hear, but ends up ultimately true, is that with a high stress lifestyle your gains will not be maximal or ideal. You have to work within the confines of your capabilities. At my most stressed point I lost 100lbs on my squat and my other lifts plummeted as well. Had I reduced my frequency or volume? No. Had I lost a significant amount of weight? No, I had gained weight. The biggest reason was I hadn't slept more than a few hours a day for months and had a lot of things to handle that life threw at me.

    But therein lies the key. If no other parameters can be altered, your training programming is where to turn. Reducing volume and frequency is necessary particularly if your goal is to gain strength during such a phase in your life. You may only be able to recover from two or even just one workout per week. You simply don't have the resources to recover from anything else. This can itself cause its own stress. If you accept that progress will be slower, and keep your long term goals in mind, you can still make gains even in such situations. Having the right mindset will take you far in all endeavors, and also work to alleviate stress. Lifting itself can provide you with a great opportunity for self development.

    Some loss of strength may be unavoidable. The best way I found around this psychologically is to keep increasing weight on the bar, then do more sets. That way although 1RM may decrease the number on the bar is increasing which helps keep me motivated to train. Mindset is everything. Even if you have to trick yourself into thinking about something a certain way. It can be disheartening but you have to keep in mind what your goals are relative to what your capabilities are. It's nice to be able to "maximize gains", but that's not always possible. Working within limitations can breed creativity as well. You might discover a routine that you can recover from better or find an exercise that is less fatiguing. Lots of little things that you may never have thought of other wise.

    I'm writing this article because I'm going through a period where I'm finding it difficult to recover. Third shift job with overtime hours. Long workouts and high frequency and high volume just aren't cutting it right now. I'm hoping some of my insights can help others get through rough periods without losing the motivation or desire to train. It's something that in the long run will have a lot of benefits so finding a way to get in a workout even if it's less than you'd like to do will always be preferential to no workout at all.


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