Some people live a life that imposes more stress on them than their training. Some people are the opposite. They have a program that is the largest stressor in their life when it comes to the physiological disruption it causes. However, most people proceed as though they are in the latter category, changing their training program often trying to find something that works as well as they expect, when in fact, the problem is high levels of life stress.
That said, this is understandable. For many, training is an “add on” to life, something they have freedom to change and modify while their job, their relationship, their sleep schedule, their family commitments and their life habits are much more difficult to change. However, just because these things are difficult to change, doesn’t mean they are impossible to change. Also, before anything can change you must understand that your life stress is just as important as far as adaptation to training, as your training stress:
Indeed, stressful life events can slow strength gains. Also, insufficient sleep reduces fat loss and increases muscle loss while dieting. Depression and emotional stress even slows rates of healing and incredibly, high levels of academic stress among Division 1 athletes are more associated with higher injury rates than even periods of high physical stress!
Hopefully the above has convinced you that the way you adapt to your training is not solely dependent on your training program. Your ability to make gains is not just about the stress you impose, but how you adapt to it. If you get inconsistent sleep, have a lot of stress on the job, have tumultuous relationships, or are frequently in an emotionally charged state, I think there is a good chance that many of the times you thought there was an issue with your program, there probably wasn’t. The issues we’re outside the weight room.
Unfortunately, without any changes to a highly stressful life and/or poor recovery habits, you really only have one best option: doing a low stress program. If you can’t modify your life and you don’t modify your recovery, you essentially are left with the singular option of choosing as low stress of a program as possible that will (hopefully) still stimulate progress and lead to gains. You need to take a conservative approach that adds as little stress as possible, while still disrupting homeostasis appropriately (and specifically) to result in progress.
However, that is not the only option. While it is beyond the scope of this article to recommend you get a fulfilling job that makes you happy, or to maintain healthy emotional relationships with your friends and loved ones, or to spend less time engaging in social media if it primarily consists of arguing and getting angry…I do think you should do those things. More actionable, is modifying how you recover. You can improve your sleep schedule. You can set a consistent bed time. You can start dimming lights, and avoiding screens (or at the very least getting blue light filters) at least a half hour before you go to bed. Indeed, improving sleep hygiene and simply getting more sleep improves performance.
Post training massage, and wearing compression garments after high volume training can also help by limiting the fatigue from training if you can’t affect the fatigue from your life.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, how your perceive emotional stress greatly impacts what you experience, and subsequently, how it effects your body. What one person experiences as highly stressful might not be as stressful to another. Therapy, which not only helps one deal with stress after the fact, but also helps one reframe their perspective to better deal with future stress, may even plausibly improve performance in athletes.
This last point is important. The goal shouldn’t be to simply eliminate all stress in life, but to also become more resilient to stress. Sure, making your relationships more healthy, doing what you love more often and what you hate less, keeping consistent schedules, getting enough sleep etc. are all very important. But even more important is changing your perspectives, evaluating your reactions, investigating your fears and motivations, improving/changing your coping strategies so you can think clearly and make better decisions in the face of stress, and ultimately becoming less stressed by the same life.
You won’t always have control over your environment or the curves life throws at you, but you can take action to be able to deal with them more effectively.