Stress and the Physique Athlete

Stress and the Physique Athlete

With the release of Core HARD I have been getting a lot of emails from physique competitors and serious lifters about whether or not this supplement would be useful for them. Being that Core HARD is an anti-cortisol product this inevitably leads to a conversation about the roles of cortisol and stress within the human body. 

To help clear up some of the confusion about stress and its effects on the human body I am going to share with you an article written by Andrew Pardue. Andrew is an exercise science major with a minor in chemistry, he is the head of marketing and content writer with, holds a PT certification with the American Council on Exercise, and is one of the hosts of Inside Natural Bodybuilding. Andrew is also a client of mine so it is most definitely my privilege to share his article on my Core Nutritionals blog. Enjoy!

 You sleep through your alarm on a Monday morning and have to rush to get to work on time for a big meeting. On your break you realize you left your packed lunch on the dining room table so you had to estimate the macros of a local fast food joint. After finally getting home late from work you still have to cook for the kids and clean up right before going to bed to start the cycle over again. Alternatively maybe you’re cramming for finals or balancing school with two jobs. On top these responsibilities you still have to get to the gym for your workout, not to mention posing practice or extra cardio if you’re in a content prep. You get the idea, stress is all around us and none of us can seem to escape it. If you’re like me you may make it worse by becoming overly anxious or planning how you can fit even more into your day. We can’t escape stress, but we can do things to limit our response to it in order to not only ease our peace of mind but to also minimize the negative effects chronic stress can have on our physiques.

Science of Stress

Now before you say I told you being lazy was the key to getting ripped it should be mentioned that some stress in necessary. After all the stress on the muscular system through training is what initiates increases in muscle hypertrophy. Also simply being busy isn’t what causes the health problems and inroads into recovery and performance, but our reaction to a busy lifestyle and the many stressful events that accompany it. We’ve likely all heard it before, stress increases cortisol levels and cortisol levels are bad for athletes…but that’s usually where it stops. There is actually a lot more that goes into how stress alters hormone levels and why it should be of concern to us as we work to improve our athletic performance and appearance. 

As you already know our bodies use numerous hormones throughout life in order to keep us functioning properly. Hormones contribute to the function of everything from our sleep to the beat of our heart. One class of hormones called glucocorticoids, contribute to stress responses. When our bodies sense increased levels of stress, like when we oversleep and have to rush to a meeting at work, our hypothalamus releases corticotropin-RF which then signals the release of ACTH from the anterior pituitary gland and then finally the secretion of glucocorticoids from the adrenal gland. 

Okay I know, enough with the anatomy class right? You probably want to know why the heck cortisol levels matter to someone interested in improving their physique. You’re in luck because for the rest of this article I’m going to walk you through different ways chronic stress can impact performance and appearance as well as how you can adapt your habits to prevent it and maximize results. Let’s start by taking a closer look at the science behind the chaos caused by stress and how we can mediate the response for better health and performance. 

Trying to get everything done both at the gym and at home, we find ourselves working more and relaxing less. More work means more stress, and higher levels of stress hormones follow soon after. Once those glucocorticoids are released throughout the body they initiate several functions that are absolutely normal and necessary to remain healthy and alive. Some of the negative functions of stress that are of most interest to physique athletes are:

  • Increased protein catabolism
  • Increased gluconeogenesis
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Depressed phagocytosis (2)

Gluconeogenesis is the process of breaking down non-carbohydrate materials, including amino acids like those you probably drink between meals or around workouts, as a source of glucose. This process is often seen in a fasted state in order to prevent glucose levels from dropping too low. This is one reason I personally, and any physique coach worth a dime, never encourage fasted cardio. Fasted cardio takes two events that will raise cortisol levels and combines them, a clear path to muscle loss. 

Probably the most infamous aspect of higher cortisol is the loss of muscle mass it can cause. Excessive protein catabolism for the physique athlete means less quality muscle mass and decreased recovery. None of us want to spend months and years crushing it in the gym only to achieve a fraction of the potential benefits. The problem isn’t that these functions are evil in and of themselves but that we chronically increase the initiator (stress) that results in over-activation of the hormones.

Head Games

The drawbacks don’t end with physical effects; we can have mental side effects as well. We’ve all probably felt gym burn out at some point in our lives as athletes. Sometimes there are weeks where going to the gym is the last thing even the most dedicated gym rats want to do. Sure a scoop or two of Core FURY can get us through those tough workouts but over time constantly digging ourselves into a mental rut by “sucking it up” can be just as bad for our development as the direct physical effects. If we aren’t careful we will create an atmosphere where hitting the gym just isn’t enjoyable. This is usually when athletes stop pushing themselves in the gym and start performing poorly set after set. We can’t expect to reach our ultimate physique goals if we aren’t able to push ourselves in the gym. 

Sweating the small stuff can lead us to overeat as well. Stress related increases in cortisol, effect appetite hormones including neuropeptide Y, corticotropin-RF and leptin which then send signals to our brains that cause us to crave foods that often taste good but have a low nutrient density. This means it’s easier to overeat less nutritious foods and create an unwanted caloric surplus that can lead to additional body fat (4).


If mental distress, muscle loss, appetite control issues, and decreased performance isn’t enough of an incentive to avoid stress, chronic stress can also cause a decline in immune function. A 2004 meta-analysis by Segerstrom and Miller reviewed over 300 studies focused on the effect of stress on the immune system. By dividing stress into 5 different areas they were able to provide some very good insight into the issue. 

Acute stressors such as preparing to ask out your dream date or giving a public speech was shown to initiate an increase in natural immunity which is a more broad type of immunity in humans while it decreased humoral, or more specific immunity where cells target a particular type of pathogen. This makes sense since the body would need to be ready to address whatever issue is at hand rather than concern itself with a particular, slow growing disease. Knowing this, it’s pretty safe to say that small things like getting nervous when meeting someone new isn’t going to have a significant negative impact on your health since the stressor is brief, physiological changes are short in duration, and the decrease in specific immunity would be in a short period of time where it is unlikely you will be exposed to an harmful pathogen. 

On the other end of the spectrum chronic stress, equated to things like caring for terminally ill family member or balancing large amounts responsibilities like family and a demanding career was shown to negatively affect both natural and specific immunity(3). Athlete or not, it’s easy to understand why a strong immune system is something to strive for. However athletes often need a clear application to their own lives before they pay attention. Chronic stress can leave our immune system functioning poorly for weeks or longer, leaving us more susceptible to sickness. It will be pretty hard to hit that new personal record on deadlifts or add that much desired size to your quads if you’re hacking up a lung or your nose is running everywhere! 

Minimizing Stress

We all have stress in some form or another. The issue isn’t which of us have stress, but who handles it best in order to minimize its negative effects. The great news is that this is one area of our lives that can be improved for free. Training and dieting can have several costs associated with it but stress can be handled with no purchase necessary! Small changes in our daily lives can make a big difference:

Set a definite sleeping schedule. Aside from extenuating circumstances, forcing ourselves to stop at a set time each night and get enough sleep can help keep cortisol levels in check as well as improve mental clarity and improve recovery.

  • Take a 5-10 minute break between stressful events or projects and find somewhere quiet to unwind. Focus on your breathing, read the paper, or just sit quietly to clear your head and get an idea for the rest of your day’s responsibilities.
  • Take a short, leisurely walk during your lunch break.
  • Keep in mind that some things just can’t be changed. Knowing you’ve done all you can and that the rest is out of your control can go a long way in easing your mind and preventing you from stressing too much.
  • Program your training to include de-load weeks a few times a year to allow for increased recovery both mentally and physically. Also consider programming the volume and intensity of your workouts to coincide with your lifestyle. A very high volume, high intensity program may not be ideal during the busiest time of the year for your company.

Speaking of programming training, something else that should be addressed is the concept of overtraining. In the past several years the scientific and bodybuilding community have made a lot of progress in busting the myth of overtraining as it was previously thought of. The days of only training a body part once per week for optimal recovery and growth is not only outdated, but shown to be less effective than training a body part multiple times per week. Although improving training frequency has been shown to be very effective, athletes shouldn’t totally ban the word overtraining from their bodybuilding vocabulary. Not properly programming your training can still result in overstimulation of the central nervous system and just overall burnout. Training frequency can undoubtedly be a lot higher than previously thought by researchers and bodybuilders but the potential for sub optimal recovery and overtraining is still quite possible and should be taken into account.

Stress the Point

Before you quit your job or leave your family for the sake of more muscle I feel it’s important to reiterate once again that some stress just can’t be avoided. Life gets in the way, deadlines creep up, and family members get sick. The key is learning how to handle our stress appropriately in order to minimize the damage it does to us mentally and physically. So relax, take a deep breath, and let’s make some gainz!

About the Author

Andrew Pardue is head of marketing and a content contributor at Top Supplements Online. An ACE certified personal trainer, Andrew is currently attending the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in exercise science as well as two minors in entrepreneurship and chemistry. Andrew is also very involved in natural bodybuilding. Along with competing he works with Inside Natural Bodybuilding to bring fans interviews, news and show results from contests across the U.S.


  • Randall, Michael. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. (2010): n. page. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
    Saladin, Kenneth. Anatomy Physiology The Unity of Form and Function. 6. McGraw Hill Education, 2012. 647-649. Print.
  • Segerstrom, Suzanne, and Gregory Miller. "Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry." Psychological Bulletin. 130.4 (2004): 601-630. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. <
  • Teta, Jade. "How to Help Clients Beat Body Fat." IDEA Fitness Journal. Mar 2014: 45-51. Print.
  • Trexler et al.: Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the international Society of Sports Nutrition 2014 11:7.

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