ARE YOU A STIMULUS JUNKIE?
Maybe you started going to the gym for physical gains, and somewhere along the way, you fell in love with how a killer session made you feel. On the positive side, you'll rarely lack motivation, consistency or work ethic. However, you are the perfect candidate to train excessively - pushing yourself too hard, for too long, too often.
The way my body responded to training in my 20’s is totally different to how it responds in my 30’s. Back in those days I loved “yang” style high volume and high intensity. These days I’m much healthier, happier AND LEANER when I’m combining “yin” style training with stress management techniques (yoga, pilates, calisthenics, power walking, infra red saunas).
If you’re training harder than everybody else at your gym, but all those expected gains just aren’t coming, it could be your body’s way of telling you to back off- what you need, most likely has nothing to do with set/rep schemes or the fact that your glutes aren't activated. An extra hour in bed may be better than an extra hour on the treadmill.
WHAT IS CORTISOL?
Hormones are essentially cellular messengers that deliver information about what’s happening outside the body to cells inside the body. Cortisol is the 911 hormone. Anything that poses a potential threat to the body (a stressor) will result in cortisol being called in to help. Training is a stressor. The body needs a certain amount of stress to cause adaptation. So while many people see cortisol as an "evil" hormone that stores fat and shrinks muscle, it is required for optimal health and actually burns fat under the right circumstances.
WHAT ARE THE RIGHT CIRCUMSTANCES?
During exercise, cortisol works with your other fat burning hormones, the catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) and growth hormone, to increase fat release. During rest, prolonged exposure to cortisol can disrupt the entire endocrine system, affecting important processes like sleep and digestion, and can make you insulin resistant which isn’t great if you’re trying to lose bodyfat. At the most basic level, we want cortisol higher while we’re training BUT lower when we’re at rest.
If you’re a stress puppy, here are my top tips to make training work for your body, not against it:
Lifting heavy loads allows you to maintain muscle and strength, and promotes release of cortisol balancing, fat burning hormones – GH, DHEA, testosterone. Intensity doesn’t impact cortisol release much compared to volume. Lower volume and increase rest periods. I like 5 x 5 or 6 x 3 protocols @75-85% of 1 RM (or 8/10 RPE) with 90-120 secs rest. 3 x 45-60 min training sessions per week is all you need for complete muscle recovery while enabling you to create a training habit that is sustainable.
Rather than looking at this from a HIIT vs SSC standpoint, look at it as a “train for your body type” situation. Generally speaking stress puppies respond better to short sharp intervals (try 60 rounds of 8 secs sprints on a bike at high resistance with 12 secs rest), than drawn out endurance sessions, BUT if the thought of going “all out” causes excessive anxiety, then a 45-60 minute power walk could be better for you.
Add a Finisher: Complete workouts with 20 minutes of “easy” movement like walking. This is one of the best approaches to lowering cortisol.
Avoid junk miles. Go hard on your hard days and easy on your easy days, even if you feel good. Avoid that grey area where you’re not working at a high enough intensity to elicit a specific response from the body, or at a low enough intensity to promote recovery.
Program Recovery. This can be as simple as performing an extended dynamic warmup promoting mind muscle connection, addressing any imbalances or weaknesses and reinforcing optimal movement patterns. This is also a great strategy if you’re really fatigued, as an alternative to a prescribed training session.