Four Secrets to Beating Stress to Build Muscle

Stress can rob you of your gains. Here's how to prevent it.

Four Secrets to Beating Stress

If a guy isn't gaining muscle or losing fat as fast as he should be, we know we need to look for holes in his training or his diet. Pretty obvious stuff, right?

But there's something else that can dramatically – and we mean dramatically – affect his muscle-building and fat-burning progress: stress.

Take a dude who's hitting it hard in the gym, getting his peri-workout feedings, and making good gains. Now toss in a soul-sucking girlfriend, a dickwad of a boss, and a daily traffic jam. The same dude's gains will damn near screech to a halt.

That's why we asked Mike Roussell, nutritionist and doctoral candidate, to help us come up with a few strategies to beat stress before it can catabolize an ounce of your iron-earned lean body mass.

You want to be leaner, right? How about more muscular? Well, I can help.

Here's the thing: What you need most likely has nothing to do with set/rep schemes, or the fact that your glutes aren't activated.

What you really need to do is... relax!

But don't just take my word for it. Dr. Bryan Walsh notes, "There's probably no bigger cause of decreased muscle gain and fat loss than stress physiology. Whether somewhere in the HPA axis, further up in the hippocampus, or even more central in the paraventricular nucleus, stress physiology can damage virtually every other system in the immune system, endocrine system, neurological system, and gastrointestinal system."

It's true, stress has been shown to:

  • Suppress pituitary function (LH, TSH)
  • Decrease the conversion of T4 to T3
  • Increase liver burden (and thus metabolism of hormones)
  • Decrease binding of thyroid hormone to receptors
  • Decrease your body's ability to use leptin
  • Decrease secretory IgA (your immune system's first line of defense)
  • Influence inflammatory messengers (cytokines)

Walking around all day stressed out is wreaking havoc on your system. If you could de-stress a little bit, then it would be a whole lot easier to drop 15 pounds of lard or add 15 pounds of muscle.

Easier said than done? Actually it's not. Here are four surefire ways to help you reduce stress so you can more easily build muscle and drop body fat.

Green tea is often touted for its potential weight loss and anticancer properties due to its powerful antioxidants. However, antioxidants aside, green tea is also a key component to your anti-stress toolbox.

One recent study from Japan showed that drinking green tea was associated with lower depressive symptoms. And another larger study (49,000 men) found that drinking five cups of green tea per day made the men 20% less likely to suffer signs of psychological distress compared to people who drank 0-1 cups per day. (1, 2)

What's the secret sauce in green tea if it isn't the antioxidants? Theanine.

Theanine is an amino acid found in relatively high concentrations in green tea (and also black and oolong teas). Theanine can readily cross the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to stimulate dopamine, serotonin, and GABA while decreasing norepinephrine levels. (3, 4)

One researcher best described the effects of theanine as "toning down" the CNS. In addition to green tea's effects on stress reduction, you'll also find great benefit from taking a break, unplugging, and drinking decaffeinated tea several times per day.

Kava Kava (piper methysticum) has traditionally been used in the South Pacific region as a ceremonial beverage, but over the past few decades it has gained popularity in the U.S. for the treatment of mild anxiety.

An analysis of seven trials involving kava kava found that it can be an effective treatment for mild and infrequent anxiety. (5) But, in 2002 the FDA issued a warning regarding kava use due to report of liver problems. Since issuing this warning, several groups have examined the safety of kava kava. Here are four guidelines that you should follow:

  1. Avoid high dosage (>300mg/d)
  2. Avoid combining kava with hepatoactive agents
  3. Avoid using non-root preparation of kava
  4. Avoid exposure for longer than 24 weeks. (6, 7)

You can also get kava kava teas but the taste is only rivaled by cod liver oil, so I recommend that you find it in the capsule form.

Your kava kava use shouldn't be chronic but instead used during periods of increased anxiety and stress to ensure that your training sessions and physique don't end up in the gutter.

I find it rare to have a client that consistently sacks out for seven to ten hours a night. Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality greatly affects your health and your body's ability to deal with stress.

While eight hours is commonly touted as the recommended amount of sleep we should be getting, it may be the quality of your sleep that's more important than the quantity. So, if you can't always get eight hours make sure what you do get is very restful. (8)

It's been shown that hard training athletes (not unlike those who are doing extra cardio with their usual lifting) have sleep disturbances in part related to higher nighttime epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine concentrations.

As mentioned above, drinking green tea may help combat increased norepinephrine levels. So a cup of decaffeinated green tea before bed is recommended if you're one of the sixty million Americans who have some sort of sleeping problem.

In addition to the aftereffects of poor sleep, getting quality deep sleep is also important for what happens hormonally during the course of the night. While engaged in periods of deep sleep, your body's cortisol secretions are decreased while growth hormone levels rise. (9, 10)

A simple way to optimize sleep for muscle growth? Just get to bed earlier. Turn off the TV, shutdown your computer, make sure you room is completely dark, and try to string together fourteen nights of high-quality sleep to get your body back on track.

Rhodiola rosea is from a class of herbs known as adaptogens due to their ability to help the human body "increase resistance to a variety of chemical, biological, and physical stressors." (11)

In the case of rhodiola rosea, it helps you adapt to both stress and fatigue. Much of the initial research regarding rhodiola rosea was carried out in Russia, as it was readily used medicinally to fight fatigue starting in 1969. And in 2001 Denmark officially classified the SHR-5 extract from rhodiola rosea as an herbal medicinal product.

But how exactly will rhodiola rosea help you? It can help you function better while under stressful conditions. This is different from any of the other strategies that we've looked at so far in as it doesn't directly help you fight stress. It helps you to be better when stressed.

This is very important because stress leads to a decrease in performance. Because you're stressed you have a limited capacity for dealing with your poor performance. The end result is that you get more stressed. It's a vicious cycle. Rhodiola rosea will help stop that cycle.

Let's look at a clinical trial from Mother Russia involving rhodiola rosea. In this study, two different dosages were given to 121 Russian cadets. Two different dosages of rhodiola rosea (the SHR-5 extract) were given to the men prior to them undergoing a series of mentally challenging stress tests.

Regardless of the dose given (375mg vs. 555mg SHR-5), taking the rhodiola rosea supplement significantly increased the cadet's Anti-Fatigue Index score compared to those that took the placebo. (12)

An added benefit to rhodiola rosea supplementation is that its effects can sometimes be seen within 30 minutes of taking the supplement – this is a very practical benefit as it can be used at a moment's notice. (13)

Editor's Note: Be careful when choosing a rhodiola supplement. Potency and purity can really vary, with some extracts containing only 1% to 3% total rosavins. The better ones, if you're lucky, might contain 9% or 10%.

If you're frustrated with your physique and are stumped by your lack of progress, then you need to start focusing some of your efforts on de-stressing.

Take all four of these strategies and put them into action for 14 to 21 days. You'll be happy that you did, and maybe even shocked by the sudden improvements in performance and physique enhancement!

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  2. Hozawa A, Kuriyama S, Nakaya N, et al. Green tea consumption is associated with lower psychological distress in a general population: the Ohsaki Cohort 2006 Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90:1390-1396.
  3. Janet B. Psychological effects of dietary components of tea: caffeine and L-theanine. Nutrition Reviews 2008;66:82-90.
  4. Yokogoshi H, Kobayashi M, Mochizuki M, Terashima T. Effect of theanine, r-glutamylethylamide, on brain monoamines and striatal dopamine release in conscious rats. Neurochemical Research 1998;23:667-673.
  5. Pittler MH, Ernst E. Kava extract for treating anxiety. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2003:CD003383.
  6. Saeed S, Bloch R, Antonacci D. Safety of kava for patients with mild anxiety disorders. American Family Physician 2008;78:433-434.
  7. Teschke R, Schwarzenboeck A, Hennermann K-H. Kava hepatotoxicity: a clinical survey and critical analysis of 26 suspected cases. European journal of gastroenterology & hepatology 2008;20:1182-1193.
  8. Wright CE, Valdimarsdottir HB, Erblich J, Bovbjerg DH. Poor sleep the night before an experimental stress task is associated with reduced cortisol reactivity in healthy women. Biological Psychology 2007;74:319-327.
  9. Friess E, Wiedemann K, Steiger A, Holsboer F. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system and sleep in man. Advances in neuroimmunology 1995;5:111-125.
  10. Van Cauter E, Spiegel K, Tasali E, Leproult R. Metabolic consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Medicine 2008;9:S23-S28.
  11. Kelly GS. Rhodiola rosea: a possible plant adaptogen. Alternative medicine review 2001;6:293-302.
  12. Shevtsov VA, Zholus BI, Shervarly VI, et al. A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work. Phytomedicine 2003;10:95-105.
  13. Panossian A, Wagner H. Stimulating effect of adaptogens: an overview with particular reference to their efficacy following single dose administration. Phytotherapy Research 2005;19:819-838.
Mike Roussell's academic background in nutrition science, coupled with his broad range of experience with clients, gives him the unique ability to translate scientific findings into relevant, understandable, and actionable strategies that get results. Follow Mike Roussell on Facebook