It’s tough, isn’t it?
I mean, unless you live in some sort of reality show, every now and then the sh*t hits the fan.
Life throws it hard at you. Stress goes up the roof. And no matter how hard you try, your lifts pay the toll.
And the thing is, back when you first started, you could handle it just fine. No matter what happened outside the gym, you could easily get by and still break the frequent PR.
But it’s a whole different story now, isn’t it?
You feel like the bar is twice as heavy every single time that life gets tough. You start to feel weak and worn out. And just thinking of going to the gym is as appealing as doing three hours of cardio while eating a big, crunchy, unsalted bowl of broccoli.
Completing your sets becomes a daunting, near impossible quest.
What you’re experiencing are symptoms of overtraining.
You should be worried that failing to stick to your program and your carefully designed progressions will inevitably tank your strength and cost you all your hard earned muscle mass.
Now, can I be blunt for a moment?
Unless you do something about it, overtraining will, in fact, destroy your gains.
So let’s see what we can do and how you can turn the tables and keep your gains while the storm clears up.
Why stress and strength don’t mix well
Let’s set one thing straight.
Even though high, long-term stress is worse for your strength and muscles than deadlifting on a Smith Machine, stress per se is NOT a bad thing.
Stressful inputs are what makes your body react — and adapt — to your environment.
Let’s say you choose to ignore momma’s advice and decide to cross the street without double-checking. The speeding car’s driver notices you have no regard for your life, and horns away like crazy. The horn is an acute stressor, and your body quickly adapts by scaring the crap out of you so you stop just in time to avoid looming death. A good type of stress.
Each workout is an acute stressor for you, and your body adapts by making you fitter, stronger and overall sexier. An even better type of stress.
Now let’s pretend for a moment that you have a job that pays handsomely, but also makes you work 15 hours per day, every day of the week. Well for you, your job is a chronic stressor, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Your body adapts by making you more alert to keep up the pace — at the beginning — and then by lowering your energy levels and making you cranky and moody to see if you take a deserved break. Bad stress. Overtraining is already lurking in the shadows.
A calorie deficit, a poor diet, irregular sleep patterns, money issues, emotional distress and even your own perception of reality can all be chronic stressors.
Keep both concepts in mind, because they’ll tie up neatly after the next few paragraphs.
Stress and your gains: The GAS model
The easiest way to grasp this comes from the General Adaptation Syndrome model, first proposed by Hans Selye in 1936 (and brilliantly explained by Greg Nuckols, in this article called ‘Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress‘).
In the chart above, hitting the gym triggers the Alarm Phase. Your performance goes down (jello legs while climbing the stairs after a heavy squat day are an example). Then, your body goes into overdrive and works hard to adapt. So you go into the Resistance Phase.
Then, provided you’ve successfully adapted, you now emerge with bigger quads and stronger lifts, happy with your dear gains. And the baseline of the chart goes up a notch until you lift again and the cycle starts over again.
Now, the bad news is that your body uses the same “adaptative” reserves for handling both chronic and acute stressors. And that means that when chronic stress is high, there are NO reserves left to adapt to your heavy lifting and you end up feeling burned out and getting weaker instead of stronger, even after you recover. That’s when you go straight into the Exhaustion Phase.
So too little stress, nothing happens.
Too much stress, and you end up weaker and probably injured/ill. No bueno.
So what should a lifter do then?
Well, you’ll want to stay in the sweet spot right under your Maximum Recoverable Volume.
Your happy place: The MRV model
The MRV model is deeply explained by Dr. Mike Israetel in this video below.
TL;DR: your MRV is the maximum amount of work you can successfully recover from. It will be higher as your training age increases, but lower when chronic stress is higher.
Your job as a lifter (or as a coach) is to program around MRV, and consistently assess your environment to determine if you are still slightly under or if you are overshooting (which is not the same as purposefully overarching), so you can make the necessary adjustments.
Now for another moment, let’s pretend your pal Bob’s life stress is HIGH and he is also deep into a fat loss phase.
But he chooses to skip the adjustments of his training because he’d rather stick to Smarty McDouchey’s program to a T, because Smarty is well, smart and swole and his program is “based in science”.
So he forces his way into the program. He goes HAM each training session. He tries his best to do every scheduled increment. Heck, he even drinks an extra scoop of pre-workout and lifts as if the apocalypse was happening at the moment.
Here’s what will inevitably happen to Bob:
Within a few short weeks, he’ll start to feel as if the bar weighs twice as much with exactly the same load…
Then, he’ll start missing on small stuff like your grip strength or your lockouts. No biggie.
And yet, he goes on. Bob’s one stubborn folk, ain’t he?
Now he starts to fail on each set. He gets frequent cramps. Soreness is now his, every day. His mood is getting worse outside of the gym too.
Poor Bob now has to further decrease the weight just to make it through each session. And again, and again.
Congrats Bob, you’re now in exhaustion.
Luckily, you are smarter than he is. So let’s see what you’ll do with your program instead.
The smart lifter’s way to program around stress
So now you know your MRV shifts down with stress. You know when life’s worries are higher, you’ll be able to recover from a lot less than when it’s all quite normal.
But before you run and tear your entire program off, you first need to do a thorough, sincere and clear evaluation of the situation.
Ask yourself this:
“Is the stressful situation temporary and likely to pass by anytime soon, or will it be a long-term situation?”
So for example:
- If you are facing tax season and running around with your accounting, then the high stress will likely go on for little under a month and then things will get back to normal, so it’s temporary short term stress.
- If you are facing a 6-month long work project that’s putting you under extreme pressure, with your boss nagging you every day plus your spouse complaining that you are not paying them enough attention, then it can be categorized as long term Financial distress, heavy marital/emotional issues, all fall in this category.
And depending on the answer, then you’ll take one of the two following approaches.
Overcoming Short-Term Stress
This is the easiest one to cope with. Yet surprisingly, the following measures are the ones that most lifters refuse to take. They just choose to ignore and carry on. Not so fast, Jack.
Before you fall into a nice injury that will likely keep you out of combat for a longer time, try this three punch combo instead:
Make Recovery Your Number One Priority (Gym Wise)
For this brief period, recovery should be your primary focus.
Here are a few tools you can use to improve it:
Get to bed earlier.
- More (fiction) books and less TV
- Spend your free time with friends
- Take a walk outside.
- Deep tissue massages.
- Sleep supplements (melatonin leading the pack).
- Click here.
Take a Deload
There are several ways to do this. Pick the one you like the most and enjoy your week of easy peasy training. It’s also wise to dial back with cardio if you are doing any.
Do a Full Diet Break
This includes no macro tracking, no weird food restrictions. Just eat like a full grown adult for a week or two. Eat balanced as usual and eat stop when you feel satisfied. Remember, it’s a break, not a hall pass to binge (nor a cheat week).
Right after that, you go back to your previous training and diet and assess again. Is your strength back to baseline levels? Are you recovering properly?
If both answers are yes, then you have successfully made it through. And you are awesome.
If not, then you’d best move over to the next section of this guide.
Overcoming (or coping with) Long Term Stress
Here’s what you need to keep between the eyebrows when you are under long term stress:
“Life can be tough, but you are tougher.”
Yes, a little positivity goes a long way in this scenario. Perception of reality is sometimes more stressful than reality itself.
On the programming area, what you want to do is this…
Find out your MRV and then do your best to keep it steady during this rough patch.
The exact process I go about finding this out looks something as follows:
First make a 20% cut on your program’s volume and keep the intensity up.
Then assess. Are you still having a hard time recovering? Then make a further 20% cut.
Are you now recovering properly? Cool.
Then gradually increase it in a linear periodization fashion until you reach your MRV (you’ll know because you won’t be able to recover, again).
From there, cut back to a nice 10% and do your best to keep your strength steady (or even make small increments whenever possible) until the stressful situation has passed.
It sucks. But this way, you can keep the intensity up.
Now what you don’t want to do is let intensity freefall. And the reason why is that there’s a direct correlation between strength and muscle mass. So if you let your intensity and your strength tank, then your muscle mass will likely follow.
Remember, the name of the game is maintaining your strength at all costs
And that also means that you may have to put your diet on pause for a while. A maintenance phase is the best approach here.
Keep in mind that it’s not like you are going to make big progress during this period neither burning fat nor building muscle (remember the adaptive reserves?), so make sure your diet is neither a) making you lose weight and muscle, nor b) making you gain fat, which is easy during high-stress periods.
The third part of the puzzle
The third part of the puzzle is your recovery.
All the recovery strategies mentioned above are sensible and even more important if stress is now chronic. Also, feel free to add in a couple of yoga and/or guided meditation sessions to the mix if possible.
And if this is just too much on top of what’s happening (hey, life can really get tough so no judging here), then it’s probably time to reconsider your goals, take some time off the gym and focus on solving the stress source instead.
The “Optimal” Program Means Squab If You Can’t Recover From It
You know what? I get it.
You are exposed to well-educated coaches boasting about the importance of optimizing each and every single little area of your training and nutrition to what’s optimal on meta-analysis and papers and on vacuum-like, training-is-all-that-matters, I’m-an-athlete environments.
You are bombarded by books and shiny protocols sold by well accomplished lifters that are meant to be “perfect”.
You are surrounded by a lot of people who go on and on about the importance of adhering to your program.
And you are afraid that if you don’t follow suit, your short but happy powerlifting career will be ruined.
But in the end it all boils back to you.
What’s best for YOU.
What’s optimal for YOU.
And what will help YOU in the grand scheme of things.
So sit down for a moment after you finish this article and take a hard, honest look at your life right now.
If you’re walking the proverbial rocky road, then don’t be afraid.
Go ahead and tweak your program a bit.
Set it up to fit your life and not as an additional source of stress.
Let the optimal combo of sets and reps on the back burner ’cause you’ll get by this stressful moment eventually.
And when that happens…
In that very moment…
Your dreamed perfect program will be waiting for you to run it.
Your gains will be waiting for you to get them.
And your huge PRs will be waiting for you to break them.