How Anxiety and Stress are Killing Your Gains

In the fitness community when we refer to stress and muscle gains we’re thinking about physical stressors. Progressive overload, periodization, variations in training intensity, frequency and volume are some of the ways we like to believe we can control how our musculoskeletal and nervous systems adapt to the stress we put it through.

We assume that if we control all the necessary training factors. Add sleep and proper nutrition it should equal a given outcome. We expect our bodies to react like primitive machines; “if I input this, I should logically acquire this output.” The problem is biology is not primitive or predictable; it is messy and complicated. We cannot control it as much as we would like to believe we can; at most, we can influence it.

Predictable Routine brings Predictable Results

We often treat our health and training goals like a scientific experiment. I hear trainers, and fitness idols abound saying “consistency is key” to their fans, followers, and clients. Consistency here can also be used as a blanket term for “routine.” If you keep the majority of your inputs “constant,” you can get a pretty good sense how your body will react to a particular “variable” and thus give you the expected output; namely muscle gains.  If you maintain a predictable schedule with work, social engagements and avoid any diet or sleep disturbances the more predictable the result of that imposing physical training stressor will be.

However, what is often forgotten is how mental stress or strain that occurs when life circumstances are too demanding may impact that “input” and “output” equation. We all know what this feels like – whether it has been in your work environment, personal relationships or you’ve dealt with individual hardships. Mental and emotional stress can be exhausting. What we often dismiss when we’re training (as many of us use the gym and training as a stress reliever – a catch 22) is that if you increase the overall stress, the body is coping with; the ability to adapt to any given level of training stress is decreased. Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Model, albeit simple, does a good job of explaining how the body reacts in the presence of a given stressor.

General Adaptation Syndrome


Selye’s model essentially says that your body copes with any and all stress in a generalized way while the stress response is the same whether it is a mental stressor or a physical stressor. The body has an “adaptive reserve” in which it can use to elicit the adaptations necessary for responding to stressors while resisting against that stressor should it reoccur (Selye, 1950). This response is similar to how our immune systems build antibodies to protect us from viruses and bacteria and prevent us from catching the same strains of cold and flu over and over again.

In the case of training, the strain posed on the metabolic and musculoskeletal systems elicits a stress response.  We see neural adaptation and muscle gains with more ability to resist the strain that weightlifting produces.  We also see an increased metabolic capacity to handle exercise.

Stress Feeds into Your Adaptive Reserves

However, if other stressors are present, work stress, poor sleeping habits, drug or alcohol use, the death of a family member, or other types of stress, they too are feeding into that adaptive reserve reducing the capacity of the body to respond as efficiently to exercise (reduced gainz).

A study on chronic psychological stress on muscle function and somatic sensation in the 96-hour recovery period (Stults-Kolehmainen et Al., 2014) looked at the effect of perceived psychological stress (PSS) and how muscle recovery varied between those individuals with high PSS scores and those with low PSS scores.

The results of the study were as follows:

  • The rate of recovery following exercise was strongly correlated with stress. Keep in mind that there were no significant differences in the testing parameters (1 RM strength, jump height, cycling power, etc.) between the two groups at the beginning of the study; indicating results were not explained by one group being more physically fit or one group exerting themselves more than the other.
  • The low-stress group fully recovered by 48 hours post-exercise following the Maximal Isometric Force (MIF) protocol.
  • The high-stress group took a full 96 hours to recover to their pre-exercise MIF
  • The results were adjusted to account for fitness, training experience and workload and the pattern remained significant.
  • Perceptions of energy, fatigue, and soreness were affected by stress. The higher stress group reported they had less energy, more fatigue and prolonged pain in comparison to the low-stress group.

Training Takeaways

You cannot reduce the outcome of your training cannot be reduced to simple training parameters. Other factors affect how our bodies respond and recover from exercise. You must look at your training and lifestyle with a holistic approach to maximum performance and results.

Similarly, stress should not be ignored. Prolonged recovery from a single training session may not produce a significant loss, but in the face of chronic stress over time the reduction in the capacity to recover can have a substantial effect not only on your muscle gains, but your health. The same research group found that 12 weeks of training those people with high-stress scores had reduced strength increase in both the squat and bench press when compared to those with little stress. Likewise, many studies report the effect of stress on immune response and wound healing time. Stress significantly increases the time required for a wound to heal when high-stress scores are present (Miller, 2002).

We are not machines. Stop treating your body like one.

Unlike computers and robots, we are complex organic beings that require nurturing and optimal circumstances to thrive. As psychosomatic beings, we are of mind AND body. The two are married and need a holistic approach that addresses stress in both physical and mental aspects. The events in your life and how you perceive them affect how your body responds to any additional stressors.

A holistic view of training treats nutrition, sleep, stress management, happiness and motivation as conditions or variables just as necessary for muscle gains and improvement as the physical training regime is.

Now that you know go forth and get your muscle gains!

May the iron be with you,



Miller GE, Cohen S, Ritchey AK. Chronic psychological stress and the regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines: A glucocorticoid-resistance model. Health Psychol 21: 531–541, 2002.

Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British medical journal, 1(4667), 1383.

Stults-Kolehmainen, M. A., Bartholomew, J. B., & Sinha, R. (2014). Chronic psychological stress impairs recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations over a 96-hour period. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(7), 2007-2017.