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Stress and Training

Strength Gains after Resistance Training: The Effect of Stressful, Negative Life Events.

Bartholomew, John B; Stults-Kolehmainen, Matthew A; Elrod, Christopher C; Todd, Janice S. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 22(4):1215-1221, July 2008.


Purpose: This study was designed to examine the effect of self-reported, stressful life events on strength gains after 12 weeks of resistance training.

Methods: Participants were 135 undergraduates enrolled in weight training classes that met for 1.5 hours, two times per week. After a 2-week period to become familiar with weight training, participants completed the college version of the Adolescent Perceived Events Scale (APES), the Social Support Inventory, and one-repetition maximal lifts (1RM) for the bench press and squat. Maximal lifts were repeated after 12 weeks of training.

Results: Median splits for stress and social support were used to form groups. Results indicated that the low stress participants experienced a significantly greater increase in bench press and squat than their high stress counterparts. Strength gains were, however, unrelated to social support scores in either the low or high stress group.

Conclusion: High life stress may lessen a person's ability to adapt to weight training. It may benefit coaches to monitor their athletes' stress both within and outside the training setting to maximize their recovery and adaptation.

Some of my thoughts:

One thing we often under-estimate is our daily stress and how that affects our training program. Exercise is viewed as a stressor because we are breaking down the body, forcing it to adapt and ultimately grow stronger/bigger. The adaptation part of this is the critical key. We don’t grow in the gym; we tear down! Progress happens when we rest.

Stress, as shown here and in other studies, can impair our ability to adapt to the loads imposed on our body during our workout. We have a number of stressors that we deal with on a daily basis; everything from emotional stress to family stress, relationship stress, financial stress, work stress and so on and so forth. At times in our life, all of those stressors can be firing on all cylinders at the same time! This causes the water to boil and rise and sometimes the added stress of intense exercise may be just the thing to force the water over the pot and onto the stove. We then lose the ability to adapt to the workout, our bodies begin to break down and we get sick or injured.

If you are a strength coach working with athletes, a trainer working with general populations, or a general population person working out on your own, it would be helpful for you to understand exactly were you stand that day (or where you athletes/clients stand if you are the one writing the program) and be sensitive to it. Sometimes we write out our training program and we feel that we NEED to stick to it in order to be successful. In reality, it is this mentality that can push us into an over trained state, because those days when our body is beat down or when it “just isn’t there”, our bodies are telling us something! We need to back off a little bit and allow the water in the pot to cool off. This can often actually aid in our recovery from our last training bout (we are allowing our body to get the rest it needs) and in fact help us make continued progress and not risk burning out.

Dr. William Kraemer, a respected researcher in exercise physiology from the University of Connecticut, presented at the NSCA Nation Convention last week about Non-Linear periodization and took it a step further to talk about Flexible Non-Linear Periodization.

For those that don’t know, what Non-Linear periodization, sometimes referred to as undulating peridozation, is, basically it takes various fitness qualities and organizes them into a plan that allows us to modulate between these qualities over our workouts within the week. This is different than traditional linear peridoization. For example:

Linear periodization would look something like this:

Week1-3- 2x12-15
Week4-6- 3x8-10
Week7-9- 5x3-5

Non-Linear or Undulating Periodization would look like this:

Mon- strength (3x3-5)
Wed- muscular endurance (2x12-15)
Fri- power (5-8x2-3@50-70% intensity)
Mon- hypertrophy (3x8-10)

Obviously that is just an example, and if you were to try and use this, you would want to establish which quality you want to emphasize during a specific block of training (say 4-6 weeks) and then that quality would show up more often in the 4-6 week block of training than the other qualities (which at that time you are trying to retain, while focusing more on the specific quality in that block of training). Remember, we can not serve too many masters! Don’t try and get better at everything at the same time (it won’t happen). Focus on one quality and maintain the others.

Flexible Non-Linear periodization is the same as non-linear periodization, with the main different being you have the option to revert to an active rest day or a lighter day (or take a day off) should you not be feeling 100% to train. So, if your client has had a high stress day at work or your athletes just got done with an extremely hard practice, and today is your maximal strength day (which is extremely high on the stress scale) you may want to revert to an active rest day or a light day and put the strength day off until later in the week when the client/athlete is not as stressed out and fatigued, and will have a more productive workout and be able to recover adequately from the intense training.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas when planning your training and working around life stress and gym stress. Remember, sometimes life gets in the way, and you need to just back off the intense training for a little bit to allow your body to catch up.

Patrick