By: Miami Beach Personal Trainer Ted Ryce
I have a confession to make: I used to train way too hard.
That may sound ridiculous coming from a combat athlete and professional personal trainer but it is the truth. My training programs were imbalanced and I’m afraid that many people out there are making the same mistake. In fact, I used to be known for pushing my clients through intense workouts whether they liked it or not without regards to their age, hormonal status or fitness level.
Granted, there can be some important psychological benefits from pushing yourself to transcend the pain and overcome that little voice in your head that is telling you to stop BUT training too hard for too long can also result in poor results from exercise, decreased fitness, and even poor health. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a proponent of hard workouts but what I want to talk about today is how to balance those hard workouts so that you get better results, less injuries and spend less time in the gym.
But I Thought Exercise Was Good For Me?
Yes, exercise CAN be good for you if you do it at the right amount and intensity for the right person but it can also be BAD for you. Why? Because Exercise is ultimately just STRESS. Exercise is stress on your muscles, bones and other connective tissues but, even more important, it is stress on your nervous system and causes changes in your brain chemistry and hormonal systems.
In fact, let’s talk about what stress really is….
“Autonomic Nervous What?”
I’m sure you know that you have a a nervous system that contains a brain and spinal cord.
However, there is another part of your nervous system called your autonomic nervous system. Even if this is the first time you have heard of this part of your nervous system, you already know what it is. That’s because the two parts of this system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, are responsible for the fight or flight and rest and relax responses respectively.
Your autonomic nervous system is completely automatic and subconscious. It totally runs on it’s own without you having to think about it. It’s responsible for things like breathing, controlling your heart beat, digestion, and metabolic reactions in your body like muscle building and muscle breakdown which your body does all on its own.
An important thing is that this system, which you already know from experience, will also respond to a stimulus outside of your body as well. For example, if someone jumps out from the bushes and scares you (like I used to do to my mom and sister *evil smile*) the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system reacts by releasing chemicals that increase your heart rate, dilates your pupils and gets your muscles ready to fight for your life or run like hell.
Conversely, your parasympathetic branch, which is also called rest-and-relax or feed-and-breed system, is activated during sexual arousal, digestion, and using the bathroom. IMPORTANT: if you have difficulty getting sexually aroused, using the bathroom or problems with digestion you should pay more attention to measuring and managing stress levels which I will go into below.
Even more important is that everyday things like what and when you eat, how much you sleep, the amount and intensity of exercise you do, getting upset at watching the news, obsessing about bills and road rage may activate the sympathetic branch and release all the chemicals that make you feel stressed, get you fat, decrease your sex drive, and decrease your results from exercise and general vitality.
Measuring Stress In Your Body
So far I’ve talked about some pretty strange concepts including your autonomic nervous system, hormones, ETC. but how do we take this theoretical knowledge and put it into practical application? GREAT QUESTION!
Many people in our fast-paced society are overly sympathetically activated (or simply stressed). Let’s go over some strategies you can use to assess your stress levels to make sure your exercise and lifestyle is putting you on the path to great results from exercise and good health. I’ll start with the easiest/cheapest then get to the more in-depth:
- Pay attention to the way you feel. Most people don’t understand that much of the way they feel emotionally is related to brain and hormonal chemistry. For example: if you’re grouchy from a lack of sleep, aggressive to other people because you just had an argument with your girlfriend/boyfriend, or irritable as a result from going too long without food, there are changes that happen in your body. Pay attention to the way you feel and govern yourself accordingly. Below, I’ll give you some exercise strategies for when you’re feeling stressed.
- Check your resting heart rate. Get a heart rate monitor and take your Resting Heart Rate every morning when you get up. Keep track of the number. As you get more aerobically fit, the number should get lower. Monitoring your resting heart rate will help you to adjust your exercise volume/intensity or take a day off when it is elevated. I’ve read that some athletes can predict when they get sick or a “bonk” exercise session by tracking resting heart rate. All you need is a heart rate monitor and you’re good to go.
- Check your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). I don’t want to get too in-depth about the science behind it, but HRV is a measure of changes in the rhythm of your heart and is used clinically as well as with athletes to measure acute stress on the body. As we talked about above, you autonomic nervous system controls your heart beat. This is what I personally use. To learn more go to Bioforce HRV. I don’t make any money off of this product, I’m just a fan.
- Get a full hormonal panel. I encourage all of my clients to do this. This should include sex hormones and cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone (glucocorticoids for any science geeks out there) and is a measure of stress in your body. Proper sex hormone balance can be compromised with stress (and other things too like aging but that is for another article). Having a qualified medical professional look at your cortisol and sex hormone levels can give you great insight into the amount of stress your under and general vitality. This can be expensive but well worth it as these tests give you the best indication of your health. I work with several doctors who look into hormonal levels for my clients.***IMPORTANT: I’ve found from experience that most doctors will NOT test your levels (unless you ask) or know how to interpret them. Make sure you go to a qualified medical professional who has an extensive understanding of hormonal physiology and experience in evaluating results.
Exercise Strategies For Managing Stress
Here are some easy-to-do changes you can make in your exercise routine to help manage stress:
- Deep Breathing. As we talked about above, your autonomic nervous system regulates heart rate and breathing. When you’re feeling stress, try breathing in for 4 seconds and out for 8 seconds. The longer exhalation is very important as it stimulates the parasympathetic branch to calm things down. You can do this anywhere; driving in your car, in your office at work, after you get home from a long day. Try it. An advanced example would be to wear a heart rate monitor and try to lower your pulse by deep breathing.
- Recovery Cardio. I’ve trashed aerobic exercise in the past but I’ve developed a new appreciation for it based on things I’ve recently learned. Here’s a study on the benefits of aerobic exercise on reducing sympathetic nervous system activity. Using aerobic exercise may be the best choice for people who are highly stressed. I use recovery types of exercise done in aerobic heart rate ranges in between hard workout sessions to improve recovery and decrease stress. An easy example would be to go walking outside or on a treadmill keeping your heart rate around 100-140 beats per minute range(aerobic heart rate range is highly individual and depends on age, fitness level, stress levels and heart size). If you don’t use a heart rate monitor, just pay attention to how you feel. You should be exercising at an easy pace and you should feel better after your session. Yoga is another good option because of the focus on breathing.
- Alternate Hard/Easy Days. I personally use Heart Rate Variability to take the guess work out of when I should go hard or back off in training. Another option is to just alternate hard workouts with easy ones. By using this technique you can exercise more frequently and actually improve your health and results.
- Track Your Exercise Progress. Another way to ensure your exercise program is not over-stressing you is to track your results. If you are not getting in better shape i.e. lowering your resting heart rate, lifting more weight, going harder in your intervals, or your heart rate recovering faster from intense exercise are all examples of metrics you can use to evaluate your progress. Mediocre results can also happen because of a poorly planned exercise routine as well.
- Have a Pre- or Post-Workout Drink. Having a workout drink that contains protein and carbs may help reduce post-exercise stress hormone levels and aid in muscle building and recovery. Simply put a scoop of protein powder in a fruit juice or make a shake with protein powder, water and fruit (I personally use whey from grass-fed cows mixed with organic white grape juice). If you are looking to build muscle, have both the carbs and protein. If you are looking to lose fat, just have the protein. I like using it before exercise but some people have problems with that. If that is your case, drink it immediately after.
The future of exercise and health is going to be using exercise and lifestyle modifications to induce favorable changes in a person’s physiology and monitoring those changes with metrics. Tracking changes in hormonal levels and general blood work, changes in stress levels via HRV and resting heart rate, and increases/decreases in performance are some examples of data that we can use to make better choices about our exercise programs and overall lifestyle.
By using these technologies, we can not only build muscle and lose fat, but improve our health overall to ensure that we continue kicking butt as we get older. Looking great and feeling great go hand-in-hand with our choices of how we live our lives. In short, we can get better results with less effort by using intelligent decision making based on measurements and individualization of the training process.
Do you need more help than what I offered here? If so, contact me for an online training/nutrition/hormonal optimization program that will get you results or your money back. Yep. That’s how confident I am that I can help you.
Berardi, John. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition, Inc., 2010.
Benson, Roy. Heart Rate Training. Human Kinetics, 2011.
Jamieson, Joel. The Ultimate Guide to HRV TRaining. Performance Sports, Inc., 2012.
Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers. W.H. Freeman, 2004.
Stanfield, Cindy L. Principles of Human Physiology. Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2009.