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The stress response: How you can use it to break your plateau

Hormones are responsible for every process in the body. They are basically the instructions that tell the body how to operate, both body and mind. They are why some people seem to get tremendous results from the same thing that causes others to stagnate. You may train as hard as physically possible and eat perfectly, and take every supplement available but if you don’t have the right hormones telling your body to grow muscle and burn fat, you’ll only spin your wheels. Our hormones have an unbelievable amount of control to the point that too much of some hormones can actually kill you, for instance a drastic spike in thyroid hormones will race your metabolism to the point of death. While that is the extreme, even slight fluctuations in our hormones, including cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, T3, T4, insulin, serotonin, adrenaline, dopamine and others can make a big difference in how we feel, operate, perform in the gym, and ultimately how we end up looking. Hormones directly determine how much fat we hold and where and how much muscle we are able to build. When something in our body strays from what our programming thinks is ideal, it sends a stress signal, the body then adjusts its hormones accordingly and our bodies change. For instance, an influx of sugars causes a release of insulin, an impending physical threat triggers a release of adrenaline and rapid heart rate increase, and a physical overload (such as in the gym) triggers testosterone, cortisol and growth hormone changes. Our hormones all work synergistically, and our bodies are very good at using feedback from what is happening to adjust the levels to what it thinks is ideal, even though “ideal” to our genetic coding may not be “ideal” to what is optimal to our progress. Luckily for us, we can use these stress signals strategically to our advantage to manipulate our hormone levels to improve our performance and the way we look.

While too much stress over too long a period of time has a negative impact on the body and its hormone levels, the right amount of stressors at the right times often have the inverse effect and are extremely beneficial. This is known as hormesis. A large amount of stress or toxins will damage the body, however hormesis says that these same stressors or toxins at lower levels, or for short periods of time, actually create a favorable biological response. This is a well-known effect with both aspirin and alcohol. A large dose of aspirin, particularly over time, is very damaging to the body, and aspirin in general is in fact toxic to the body. However, when taken in small doses, such as with baby aspirin, it is clinically proven to promote heart and cardiovascular health. The same is true of alcohol, another toxin. In 2012, researchers at UCLA found that tiny amounts (1 mM, or 0.005%) of ethanol doubled the lifespan of round worms. Higher doses of 0.4% provided no longevity benefit. The same principles apply to different diet and training protocols when it comes to fitness and body manipulation. A recent study by the Department of Exercise & Sport Science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill tested cortisol levels post workout in three different groups of participants. The first group did 30 minutes of exercise at 80% VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake), another at 60% VO2 max, and the third at only 40% VO2 max. What they found was that the 80% group experienced a significant spike in post-workout cortisol levels (the stress hormone); the 60% group experienced an increase, but not as high as the 80% group. So, you would think that the 40% group would show an increase but even less than the 60% and 80% groups, however that is not what they found. The 40% group actually showed a decrease in baseline cortisol levels post-workout. In other words, the small, controlled stressor had the opposite effect. This is the reason that small amounts of light cardio post-workout actually elicit greater muscle growth.

As it applies to fitness, utilizing the stress response to our benefit is not only advantageous, but it is imperative to growth. The body is very big on homeostasis, that is, it does not want to change anything unless given a reason. Only through stressing the body, pushing it in different ways, and shaking up the status quo will this happen. We generally eat 5-8 times per day, allowing the body to have constant access to nutrients for growth. After a while, the body becomes accustomed to this and realizes that it does not need to store these nutrients as effectively as they are always readily available, and growth can stall. However, studies have shown that a temporary fast of 12-18 hours can dramatically spike growth hormone levels by 1500%, triggering the body to shift right back into growth mode. Long term calorie restriction has a similar effect. The body, realizing that food is scarce, adjusts its hormone levels to store and efficiently utilize every calorie it receives. This is the reason bodybuilders gain muscle and look so amazing in the weeks after a show. Their body finally received an influx of nutrition and being primed to use it all so efficiently, it channeled everything it got to the muscles and body functions as opposed to fat or simply dispelling it.

So what can we do to optimize this? First we must understand that the body does not want to be 4% body fat, it does not want to carry 20 more pounds of muscle than we have now and it won’t, unless we trick it into doing so and get it to work with us instead of against us. Regardless of what we do, if we do it regularly, the body will adapt, and find its homeostasis. Stress your body into growth using these techniques:

Targeted overload- Every week or so, do something the body is not expecting. For instance, if you are accustomed to just lifting weights, try running a mile. If you generally lift moderate weight, for one day or a whole week, go substantially heavier than you usually do. Alternatively, if you are accustomed to doing 15 sets per workout, every so often do 30 sets. The overload will trigger a response in your body that can alter hormone levels for weeks and elicit growth and change.

Workout periodization- Regardless of how great your workout program is, after a while your body will figure it out, adjust to it and progress will cease. For this reason, it’s important to make changes regularly. Rep range, rep speed, set count, days on/days off, cardio schedule etc. all should be changed periodically. As far as cardio goes, doing 30 minutes of cardio every day, at the same pace and same time of day will not yield results for very long as your body adapts to this quickly. Try doing cardio in spurts instead. For instance, instead of doing cardio 3 days a week, every week, do it 6 days a week, two weeks on, two weeks off, for example. The drastic change and sudden stress on the body will burn more fat in the long run with an equal amount of work done, simply because of the hormonal response and shock to the system.

Cyclical diet or diet spiking- In the same fashion as the workouts, the body responds in the same way to rapid and profound fluctuations in the diet. This is the science behind carb cycling and cheat days. Once you have been on a particular diet long enough for it to adapt (usually about 10 days) the body will adjust its metabolism and hormones accordingly to maintain its current state. A dramatic, short term shift will jolt the body to react and break the monotony of the baseline diet. A cheat meal, for instance, causes a rapid spike in thyroid hormones, insulin, and more. All of which will carry over long after the “cheat food” has been burnt off and subsequently we can lose more weight than had we not had the influx of calories.

Using the stress response is ultimately getting your body responses to work for you instead of against you. The body, being so adaptable and good at staying the way it wants, often needs a good bit of coaxing to break plateaus. Knowing what to do to get a particular response from the body is key to success. Stressing our bodies and getting your body out of its comfort zone in several different ways can give us the bump we need keep progressing.

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