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Should I Stop Exercising During Times Of High Stress? - Tucson Personal Training Blog

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Should I Stop Exercising During Times Of High Stress? - Tucson Personal Training Blog

Today’s post is part 4 of an ongoing series where I will be answering some of your questions. Here’s what we will be tackling this week…

“Stress is stress is stress… emotional, physical, and mental. It’s all processed by the body the same way. This stress hormone can limit losing weight and actually cause more harm in some instances. When reducing stress, should weight training be one of the things that comes off the plate? Benefits/drawbacks? Sorry if you’ve already covered this in the past.”


Thank you for your question, Julie! This one’s important, so let’s get into it…

Since it’s a multi-part question, let’s start with the first thing you mentioned. The research seems to want to argue with you that all stress is processed by the body the same way. You can click here for the long-format explanation, but here is the TLDR version:

Some stress is actually good for you. Our stress responses evolved from a fight/flight response to the various stimuli around us. This is designed to be short-term. A lovely mix of adrenaline, adrenocorticotropic hormone, corticotropin releasing hormone, N-methyl-D-aspartate, and a bouquet of other things hit our central nervous system and allow our bodies to produce a brief, but critically important, reaction to what is happening in this particularly stressful situation. For our ancient ancestors, this was mostly used to capture live food, and/or avoiding becoming someone else’s food.

It’s been proven that small amounts of short-term stress are quite healthy and useful to our body’s chemistry. It makes us tougher, more resilient to larger amounts of stress, and, frankly, harder to kill. This is anecdotally evidenced by the soldier stationed in the middle east sleeping soundly in the midst of chaos, all while the overprivileged housewives of Orange County are completely losing their minds over the landscaper not trimming the bushes just right.

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The short-term stress response is actually kind of cool! It’s the reason roller coasters are fun, but stressing 24-hours a day about finances sucks. Between our jobs, kids, life, etc. we end up experiencing this thing that was designed to only last for a short amount of time for WAY longer than we’re built to handle it. This wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies, and an entire industry of medical interventions have come out of this.

To answer the second part of your question regarding whether or not exercise should come off the plate during times of heavy stress, we need to ask ourselves if exercised-induced stress is the good one or the bad one. Although I am, of course, a biased source of information, I would argue that it’s the good one. Speaking personally, exercise is actually HOW I deal with the stresses of my life (it’s cheaper than pills). Although not a runner, I get out at least once per week to jog slowly for a few miles just to clear my head.

With all of that said, let’s discuss some details about the exercise: My favorite way to describe this is the bank account analogy. Some workouts are deposits, other are withdrawals. Going full “beast mode” on a workout or attempting a one-rep max in a certain lift would be an example of a withdrawal, while a moderate workout or an hour of mobility work would be more of a deposit. Most situations when I’ve seen people getting hurt while training or just simply not allowing their workouts to be enjoyable are those whose bank accounts are perpetually overdrawn. These checks they are writing in the gym are NSF checks. I can’t count how many instances I’ve seen where people show up to compete and can’t hit the numbers on the platform that they easily hit in the gym. This is an example of an overdrawn account.

During times of high stress, most workouts need to be moderate in nature. Training for a race, meet, or other competition during these stressful times is (best case scenario) stupid, and (worst case scenario) dangerous. However, training in a ‘grease the groove’ manner serves several benefits: First, it helps to counteract the non-physical stresses, and second, will actually improve performance when volume/loads are increased later during more optimal training conditions.

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So, the next question here is HOW? I’ve learned long ago that judging how hard I should go in a workout based on how I feel is not effective. Turns out your muscles don’t care about your feelings! I’ve had days where I’ve felt terrible and actually had a great session. Other times, I’ve had days where I came in feeling awesome and couldn’t lift worth a crap.

Instead of relying on my feelings, I use/recommend several (more tangible) strategies to manage training stress:

  • Tracking morning body temperature – Keep a thermometer and logbook next to the bed and take your body temperature as soon as you wake up. Keep a log of these temps. The longer you do it, the better baseline you will have for judging future body temps. If on a particular morning your body temperature is running a bit high, it may be a good day for a lighter workout. Mind you, these are not fever-like temperature fluctuations. Small fluctuations are what we’re looking for. Obviously, if you’re running an actual fever that’s different.
  • Tap Test Pro – I use an app on my tablet called Tap Test Pro. It’s a method of evaluating your nervous system using a simple test of tapping your screen with your left and right hands as many times as possible for ten seconds. Similar to tracking body temperature, it’s important to use this app during a wide variety of times throughout the year. This will give you a better baseline to judge future tests. Tap Test is more useful for workouts that heavily tax your CNS, like heavy lifting for example. But, regardless of your chosen training modality, your nervous system still calls the shots. So, knowing how it’s doing can be helpful for any type of workout.
  • Sleep Tracking – I’m sure this one goes without saying, but if your sleep sucked last night, it’s probably not a great day for ‘beast mode’. With that said, it’s not just the night prior that we’re worried about (it’s common to have a rough night of sleep before a big competition). Tracking your sleep patterns in weeks, or even months can give you a cheap education on how your body recovers. With the advent of modern wearables, this is getting easier and easier to do. I use an app called Sleep Cycle, but there are tons of options out there. 

So, should exercise come off the plate during times of high stress? Probably not. However, HOW the exercise is programmed should be strongly considered.

Hope this helps,

Jerry Trubman is a coach, clinician, author, blogger, and powerlifting state champion. With over two decades of lifting experience, he has devoted himself to seeking out better answers, and distilling them into practical programs that produce great results. Jerry has coached "Team Protocol" to 4 National Powerlifting Championships in the 100% Raw federation. He writes the internationally-read blog, “The Healthy Addiction” and lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Marie and dog Sadie. To subscribe to his blog, click here.

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