The fitness industry has become a marketplace for any pill, powder, or product bold enough to claim (no matter how illegitimate) to add additional muscle or drop unwanted fat. Thousands spend hard earned money on products that boast very little scientific backing, in an attempt to improve results and compensate for deficiencies. Yet, some of the most important and beneficial factors in an athlete’s success are the cheapest to address.

One of the largest contributors to an athlete’s success is simply better management of long-term stress levels. Take all the ashwagandha extract you want, but if you’re constantly stressed to the max without taking steps to manage it as best you can, no powder or potion can account for the impact it can have on your long-term performance and development.

Although some stress is unavoidable (and arguably an important driver for productivity), making sure we’re taking steps to better prepare ourselves to withstand all that a busy life entails can make it easier not only to progress in our fitness pursuits, but also to just flat out enjoy the process more along the way.

 

Stress & Fat Loss

Plenty of us are focused on adding muscle, and lots of it. Whether the pursuit is bodybuilding & powerlifting success, or simply just to look better, gaining muscle is a large priority for many of us here on BioLayne.com. That said, although chronically high stress levels can hinder our efforts in muscle growth too, perhaps of even more interest is stress and its negative effects on fat loss. Chronically elevated cortisol can hinder metabolic efficiency. In extreme circumstances, it can contribute to metabolic syndrome in otherwise sedentary individuals. In more day-to-day circumstances, that can mean reduced ability to lose body fat when dieting [1] and increased propensity to over consume high calorie foods. [2]

Anecdotally, I’ve seen its effects nearly countless times over my online coaching career. Athletes enter a dieting phase, we begin making diet and cardio adjustments to sput fat loss, and then…. nothing. Fat loss seems to stall no matter how many or what kind of adjustments we make. As we begin looking into possible causes, we find out they’re currently dealing with astronomically high stress levels. As we work together to improve their weekly scheduling, tweak the program to accommodate, and work on improved sleeping habits- seemingly overnight fat loss picks up and the dieting phase begins progressing much smoother.

Not only can stress hinder dieting success through chronically elevated cortisol levels hindering fat loss and muscle recovery, but also through increasing the likelihood of unhealthy coping behaviors that can compound the problem. [3] We’ve all been there. It’s not just the stress itself hindering our progress, but the mental toll it can take on us when we reach our boiling point. Too much for too long, and thoughts of dropping responsibilities altogether to assuage the problem, start to creep in more and more readily. The first of those to go on the chopping block is often adherence to our training and nutrition plan.

So, stress management is kind of a big deal. With a little proactivity we can get ahead of the problem and avoid reaching a boiling point in the first place. Below, I’ve touched on a few of the major stress management strategies I emphasize to my clients which tend to go a long way in reducing stress levels and improving the adherence and effectiveness of the programming we’re working on together.

 

Programming Considerations

Although we look to research-backed principles to base the foundation of our programming on, the reality of individual response and need is always present as well. The better athletes and coaches become at aligning their training with current stress levels and scheduling needs, the better we can maximize the quality of sessions and long-term results. In other words, this means using the generalized results of research and then making educated decisions on how to mold it to fit individual situations.

As much as on paper, there are certain progressions in volume and intensity which athletes are suggested to aim for. I’ve come to really appreciate the benefits of simply aligning training sequences with schedules as much as the textbook “next step.” A perfect example of how training may adapt throughout a year are the college students I’ve worked with both in the past and present.

For these athletes, periodization often entails having higher volume (often longer workouts and requiring more recovery) during less stressful stretches of time such as summer and winter breaks. Then, we often lower training volume or total sessions per week as students get closer to final exams of each semester- a period of time when sleep is often lacking, stress is at its highest, and time constraints make multi-hour training sessions all but impossible.

Even though technically longer or shorter periods of a given training volume may be “optimal” on paper, they may not be optimal for the individual athletes in their given circumstances. Instead, adjusting based on schedule and stress management keeps the athletes training consistently, recovering better, able to progressively overload, and continue avoiding the yo-yo start and stop that can come from forcing workouts that simply aren’t ideal for the given situation.

 

Deload Weeks

In an ideal world, I would love to only run de-load weeks on an “as needed” basis with athletes. If an athlete is in a great groove, progressing consistently, maintaining high energy levels and recovering well, I like to allow him or her the chance to keep riding that wave of momentum rather than busting up the momentum with a pre-determined deload phase. That’s actually my main issue with having pre-planned deload weeks too often in an athlete’s training. The fact is most take those scheduled deloads to heart and will often forgo staying in a great groove simply because it was “in the plan” to take the deload on X dates.

However, on the other side of the coin, once again some populations may not be best suited for this style of deload planning. By taking deload weeks on an as-needed basis, the need can sometimes sneak up on athlete and coach and the realization that it’s time to tap the brakes and allow for more recovery before pressing onward may not be recognized until the athlete is already pretty beat up.

As you probably expected, these considerations have lead me to take a sort of “middle ground” between the two thoughts. I’ve started to keep deload weeks in mind based on each athlete’s scheduling needs throughout the year.

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