The Surprising Reason You’re Not Getting Stronger

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You’re doing everything right: eating a balanced diet, working out on the regular, all in an effort to feel overall better. But you’re not feeling a change commensurate with the amount of time you’re putting in. What gives? It could be that your stress levels are so high that it’s undermining your endeavors. To drop your stress, you’ll have to put in a different kind of work. 

What happens in the body when stressed? It’s all about cortisol. 

Cortisol is called the “stress hormone,” because it gets released when the body is in stressful situations. Exercise is stress on the body, and so is prepping last-minute for a big presentation, or trying to control a toddler having a meltdown in a grocery store. Together with the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and adrenaline, the adrenal glands which are atop the kidneys release cortisol, which signals the brain to make you “ready for battle.” What does that look like? Your blood pressure rises, the heart pumps faster, glucose is released into the bloodstream, and inflammatory reactions in the body are inhibited. 

“Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation,” write experts at Mayo Clinic. “It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.” As a result, you are more concentrated and feel more powerful. The release of cortisol is therefore a completely natural and vital process when you experience short-term stress.

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These physiological reactions are designed for self-preservation. If you were getting chased by an animal, it would allow you to run faster and have ultimate focus to save your own hide. However, we are in an unprecedented time of worry and stress. “About 53 million more adults were suffering significant worry on any given day in late March/early April 2020 than they were experiencing the same emotion back in July/August,” finds a Gallup poll. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a big part. Seventy-eight percent of adults said the pandemic is “a significant source of stress in their life,” and 67% said they’ve felt more stressed out during that time, according to the American Psychological Association

And that’s on top of the normal stress people feel: financially, with their families and relationships, at work, during times of medical hardships—the list goes on. 

What’s your body’s baseline? Find out with our Body Check! 

How does stress affect muscle building?

Short-term stress, like the ones we experience during a sweaty HIIT workout, isn’t a bad thing. Stress hormone release is the reason we can go full throttle on demand. And being able to get up to a level of high activity, and then pull it back quickly, is a sign of fitness. The problem is when that stress is constant, or what’s called chronic. And that hurts strength training, since chronic stress inhibits muscle regeneration and building. Increased cortisol inhibits the release of testosterone, which is an important growth hormone for muscle building. And remember how cortisone gives the bloodstream an influx of glucose, which is a quick and easy-to-use form of energy? Great for high-tailing it away from danger, but cortisol pulls that glucose out of muscles, and muscle building slows.

Not only that: excess cortisol can promote fat deposits, and change the ratio of muscle mass versus fat tissue. It can also cause issues sleeping, which also delays muscle regeneration. Beyond the gym gains, chronic stress can raise blood pressure, which increases your chance of heart attack or stroke. And studies suggest that stress can be a contributing factor for cancer. Bottom line: stress isn’t a bad thing, but chronic stress is.

Related: Stop stressing about this hormone

How can you decrease your stress and feel better in your body?  

For starters, if there are ways to consciously reduce the stress in your life, go ahead and do that. It might mean seeking individual/couples/family therapy, meeting with a financial advisor who can help with debt (there are nonprofits that can help, such as the Foundation for Financial Planning), and possibly switching up your job, if you’re in a position to do so. Of course, reducing your stress is easier for those who have more privileges. But there are a few things you can do that are more universal: 

  • Take a renewed look at your eating

There’s a correlation between cortisol release and foods we generally think of as unhealthy: moderated refined sugar, alcohol, and trans fats, like those found in fried foods. If you can add more leafy greens, mushrooms and mosses, fruits and whole grains, your body may enjoy lower resting levels of cortisol.

Refuel: Try our whey protein

  •  Avoid overtraining

You want to see results and are motivated to go to the gym or work out at home—that’s great! But don’t overdo it. Because overtraining causes your cortisol levels to rise rapidly. That means for you: A training session should not last longer than 60 minutes and three to four sessions per week are sufficient depending on the training split and training experience. Do a round of yoga in between or go for a walk as a form of active regeneration. Relax and recharge your batteries. Rest is important—especially if you want to build muscle. 

  • Get enough sleep

Sleep is extremely important for your health and for building muscle. While you rest, important repair and growth processes can take place and cortisol levels regulate. So make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Incidentally, it is not so much the quantity that matters as the quality. Read how to improve your sleep here.

  • Relax the mind

One of the most important factors to reduce cortisol: switch off your head! Easier said than done, sure. But try not to stress yourself too much with optimal training and the right diet. Both should be fun and not put you under crazy pressure. Try meditation and breathing exercises which you can utilize throughout the day, when you are experiencing moments of stress, or are ready to hit the sack and want to stop the wheels in the brain from spinning. This kind of relaxation training might be particularly beneficial for athletes—win-win!

Refuel: Try our energy bars

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Sources for this article

We at foodspring use only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  • Kim, E. J.; Pellman, B; Kim, J. J. (2015): Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review, in: Learning Memory, 22 (9), 411 – 416.