how stress is killing your gains

I hate to break it to ya, but stress might be holding you back from those much wanted gainz you’ve been working so hard for in the gym.


The short answer is cortisol, but there’s a little more to it. Let me explain.

Cortisol is a hormone that functions to mobilize fuel stores for energy, regulate sleep cycles and support the immune system. 

Cortisol is often talked about in relation to stress because when you’re under stress, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands which triggers some events:

  1. Mobilize (or break down and release) stored fuel, giving the body a burst of energy from carbohydrates to use right away
  2. Stimulate the release of adrenaline to increase heart rate and blood pressure

Combined, these processes are called the “fight or flight” response. You’ve probably heard of it. 

Getting chased by a lion? No problem, that acute stress will stimulate the breakdown of carbohydrates so your cells can utilize that quick energy to run away fast! It will allow your heart to beat faster and harder so you can get blood to your limbs (run legs run!) quickly. 

Once that perceived threat has gone away (the lion stops chasing you), cortisol and adrenaline levels should go back down, which returns heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels to normal. 

But the problem is that the body doesn’t know the difference between needing to run from a lion and getting cut off in traffic – so the stress response in the body is the same, no matter the type of stressor we’re under.

And unfortunately, in today’s fast paced, high pressure culture, many of us remain in that “fight or flight” mode constantly, and this chronically elevated stress is what is associated with a host of downstream problems, which can lead to an inability to gain lean muscle.

Let’s talk about how that happens.

Increased cortisol makes recovery from workouts harder

Muscle fibers tear from the stimulus you put your body through during exercise. Microtears in the muscles are a good thing because what results after proper repair is stronger, bigger, denser muscles in response to that exercise. 

But, high cortisol leads to muscle tension, reduced blood flow to the muscles and lactic acid build up which, when taken together, will hinder muscle growth altogether.

And, cortisol leaves your cells starved for carbohydrates which is a primary building block needed during training and to repair and rebuild muscles. 

This combination of events makes it incredibly difficult to recover properly from workouts or set you up nicely for future training sessions. You’re going to be very sore, probably hungry, and unable to progress in your programming, which means you’re less likely to build lean muscle mass and develop a strong, curvy body.

Increased cortisol inhibits muscle growth

The presence of cortisol makes the environment of our body a “catabolic” one – as opposed to an “anabolic” one. This simply means that the body is focused on breaking down, not building up (cc the breakdown of stored carbohydrates to access in the event of a lion chasing us!)

In that “catabolic” process, not only are stored carbohydrates broken down for use, but stored protein is broken down too. Where is protein stored? Muscles – all our organs (like the heart) have muscle cells, and of course, our skeletal muscles like your quads, hamstrings and glutes are made of muscle cells, too. 

Think about it like this: your cells are starved! Immediate energy is needed. The body is going to do everything it can to mobilize the stored energy it has – doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of carb, fat or protein. It’s a smart process, but not ideal for someone trying to maximize muscle growth.

Elevated cortisol can inhibit sleep

Under normal, not stressed conditions, cortisol rises in the morning and falls in the evening. This rise and fall makes us feel awake and alert during the day and sleepy and relaxed in the evening.

When stressed, cortisol stays high all day, or does other wonky things like rise in the evening instead of in the morning. This can lead to issues falling or staying asleep. 

Not enough sleep leads to a host of problems that you may or may not realize:

  • poor recovery from exercise
  • poor performance in the gym
  • Increased risk for injury
  • increased chance of making unhealthy food choices (high sugar, high fat, simple processed foods)
  • excessive caffeine intake

Coupled together these problems could mean inhibited fat loss and lean muscle gain – not ideal!

So, while stress may inhibit lean muscle growth, also remember that not all stress is bad. Having some stress leads to motivation and the drive to do well – which is good! It is that chronically elevated state of stress that starts to cause problems. 

Do you think that stress is holding you back from lean muscle gainz?