Stress and its application to training

By 2nd July 2019Stress

A little about stress

Our bodies are very good at keeping our internal environment in an equilibrium, it’s called Homeostasis. The body is a self-regulating organism that, at times, is altering a cascade of hormones and physiological mechanisms in an attempt to maintain a level of survival. Due to stressors in everyday life this can somewhat change this equilibrium and can disrupt internal conditions. Stresses can both physiological and psychosocial and are normally associated with an elevated level of stress hormone, cortisol. For example, when looking at the cornerstones of training and performance we can stress the body physically too much and experience negative returns in our training, whereas on the flip side too little physical stress and not enough adaptation takes place. This brings us nicely onto a principle which describes the above very well.

The concepts of periodization in training is based of Selye’s general adaptation syndrome or GAS principle. This Principe states that there must be a period of low intensity training or complete rest following periods of high stress (1). The diagram below depicts the stages of the principle which will be explained in more detail below.


Fig 1, A diagram illustrating the 3 reaction, training load and response, based on Cunanan et al, 2018, p. 792. (2)

Based on his research on stress, endocrinologist Hans Selye’s believed there were three distinct reaction when humans responded to stress, regardless of the nature of the stressor.

Alarm reaction – occurs when we are surprised or threatened. This can be encountered acutely through a training stimulus or something that can influence the nervous system, such as caffeine. Through a sympathetic reaction, adrenaline levels rise, spiking cortisol, causing a level above the equilibrium. This stage initiates a fight or flight response which increases blood pressure and heart rate until the stressor is removed. As illustrated above the accumulation block of training is usually aimed at targeted motor and technical abilities, such as strength and general conditioning, which typically involves a high degree of volume with reduced intensity. The alarm phase also involves a transmutation block, whereby sport specific areas are trained, here volume decreases and intensity increases (3).

Resistance – the second stage occurs if the stress continues, or recurs for a period of time. During this stage the levels of cortisol reduce and heart rate/blood pressure begin to normalise. Although your body enters this recovery phase, it remains on high alert for a period of time. If you don’t resolve the stress and your body remains on high alert, it eventually adapts and learns how to live with a higher stress level. In these events the body continues to secrete the stress hormone and your blood pressure remains elevated. You may think you’re managing stress well, but your body’s physical response tells a different story, which may lead to exhaustion. As mention, the transmutation phase intersects both alarm and the resistance. It then turns to a realization block and qualities such as; mental preparation, speed and tactics are worked upon. Volume here is low, but intensity increases further. A transition is also seen with the resistance phase, this allows for extensive muscular regeneration and mental recuperation. It normally doesn’t last too long, but if an athlete has been experiencing overtraining symptoms it may need to be extended.

Exhaustion – The final stage the occurs when long term chronic stress is not removed. At this point the body becomes fatigued and the body runs out of reserve energy and stress takes its toll. When excessive long-term stress persists, as in the case of overtraining, normally there will be a forced time out for recovery. The effects also include immune suppression and a higher risk of stress related illnesses. As for training in the exhaustion it should be minimal muscular damage, but keeping some plates spinning!

So how do these stages relate to training?

Since Selye’s GAS framework was built upon causing harm to subjects and then them recovering, it’s appropriate to use muscle damage from training as an example in this perspective. When looking at the alarm phase, hypertrophy training (higher rep ranges) at some point will muscle damage, in turn leads to loss of strength. Also, it’s important to bare in mind that some workouts will definitely cause an increased amount of cortisol (stress hormone), which can indicate that the HPA axis can been activated (4). Strength training will produce specific adaptations and these adaptations can help in future bouts of training to withstand larger doses of training. However, if there are additional stressors imposed on top of the training it reduces something called the adaptable reverse and the time taken to recover from bouts of exercise (5). Finally, I have met many that are in a state of exhaustion, not merely because they are over training, simply they are under recovered! Being here certainly increase muscle damage and in some strength training cases if its frequent enough can lead to muscle loss (6).

Most importantly, training programs that use these contexts can be modeled around the GAS principle, as they produce a stressor in some form which can be used. Additionally, workouts that involve high volumes, that are fatigue seeking and rely on high force generation tend to cause more muscle damage than workouts with low levels of the above.

So, what happens when you are either bordering the resistance stage or in exhaustion?

The graph below is something that I have used personally with clientele for some time. It was adapted from a world recognised physiotherapist named Douglas Heel and a book by Stephen covey. It illustrates that in daily life we go through peaks and troughs in our stress profile. Most of the things that individuals do on a day to day basis in training, nutrition and lifestyle stress the body to a point of no return without the understanding, this is where the borderline resistance and exhaustion comes into play. If we look at the green lines, the body reaches a peak in stress (highly sympathetic) and then the opposite (deeply parasympathetic). Once the stress is removed the body then reaches a baseline. However, if we look at the red lines, the body doesn’t return to the baseline, it returns to a new baseline not know! Consequently, the body is left fighting to find the baseline that it once knew. This once again leads onto the question of ‘what can be done in terms of programming or periodization’?


Reduction of other stressors – as already mentioned, when I delve deeper into some of my clientele’s lives most of the time they have never been told that its accumulative. For example, if a client is in a calorific deficit (catabolic state, cellular degeneration) for a period of time, then this is a stressor. On top of all the other stressors in that particular client’s lives, it definitely can’t be missed. Also, when looking at physical stressors through particular focused training programs (lower, full body) these can be used to reduce the overall stress on the body, whilst one area of the body is healing from muscle damage, the following session/day has another focus.

Recover smart – if we look back at the first diagram above (gas principle) during some blocks of training, accumulation comes to mind, especially if it’s an athlete that is new to strength and conditioning. The correct planning and recovery still need to take place between workouts. The best way to achieve this would be to place large stressor away from each other, reducing the amount of muscle damage and reducing the size of the generalized stressor. Undulating periodization favors this as it allows one to program high volume workouts further away from each other interspersed with low volume workouts. CrossFit is a great example of this due to it’s fatigue seeking nature. Much like anything when programmed correctly it can lead to athlete making a huge amount of progress!

Limiting exposure – For me the most important, why? Simply, because many aren’t very good at doing so and can push very quickly into the exhaustion phase! Sometimes it’s just a matter of wants over needs. To make sure exposure doesn’t take place, its best that during blocks of training that there is an inverse relationship with volume and intensity, meaning as volume is gradually reduced there an increase in the percentages near to 1RM loads.

To summarise

Stress is unavoidable. Our bodies are designed to react to the surrounding environment in an effort to preserve homeostasis. The body is very good at maintaining homeostasis but often we are useless at managing stressful circumstances. Therefore, when it comes to training you must consider the amount of muscle damage that workouts are causing and manage carefully. Periodization can reduce the possibility of entering into an exhaustion (overtraining).


1. Seyle H. “A syndrome produced by the diverse nocuous agents.” Nature 1936:32.
2. Cunanan, A., DeWeese, B., Wagle, J., Caroll, K., Sausaman, R., Hornsby III, G., Haff, G., Triplett, T., Pierce, K., Stone, M. “The general adaptation syndrome: a foundation for the concept of periodization”, Sports Med 2018;48: 787-797.
3. Assurin V. Block periodization versus traditional training theory: a review. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2008;8:65–75.
4. Crewther B, Cronin J, Keogh J, Cook C The salivary testosterone and cortisol response to three loading schemes. J Strength Cond Res 2008;22:250–255.
5. Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB, Sinha R. Chronic psychological stress impairs recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations over a 96-hour period. J Strength Cond Res 2014;28:2007–2017
6. Alves Souza, RW, Aguiar, AF, Vechetti-Junior, IJ, Piedade, WP, Rocha Campos, GE, and Dal-Pai-Silva, M. Resistance training with excessive training load and insufficient recovery alters skeletal muscle mass-related protein expression. J Strength Cond Res 2014;28:2338–2345.

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