When it comes to strength training, most athletes are worried about raising cortisol. In fact, if you program your strength training workouts properly, you can improve your ability to cope with stress.
Strength Training Is Protective
Because strength training stimulates lean mass and enhances fat burning it can counteract the negative effects of high cortisol. By improving overall endocrine function, strength training also pays off in psychological benefits such as improved mood and quality of life.
When looking at the impact of training on cortisol, there are two time points to be concerned with:
- Your acute response that happens immediately after training, and
- Your chronic baseline levels
Strength Training Lowers The Acute Cortisol Response
Training generally leads to an acute improvement in stress levels. For example, in a study that tested several different training protocols, including strongman exercises, heavy strength training, and combat sports, cortisol declined and the testosterone to cortisol (T/C) ratio increased.
The improvement in the T/C ratio and reduction in cortisol indicates strength training relieves stress. Weight training may be viewed as a “time-out” for players that could aid in coping with the stress and pressures of training and competition.
Strength Training Improves Chronic Cortisol Levels
A study of elite young tennis players shows that adding a strength training program in addition to regular sports practice improves cortisol over the long term. The study had tennis players perform 6 weeks of strength training (bench press and squats) at 60% of the 1RM.
Over the first 3 weeks of the study, cortisol levels and fatigue increased. By the end, cortisol levels decreased, even during week 5 when training volume peaked. By the final testing day, stress and cortisol had recovered to baseline. Mood levels in the strength training group were actually higher than in the control group, suggesting a positive adaptation to the training program.
Strength training is a tool to help balance cortisol and offset its negative effects. Volume of training has a much greater impact on cortisol than intensity, which means that heavy lifting is good. Instead of metabolically stressful high-volume workouts with tons of reps, opt for heavier loads, shorter sets, and longer rest periods.
Workouts should be limited to an hour including warm-up and cool down. Train 5 to 6 exercises, with 2 to 3 being big muscle lifts and the rest accessory or single-joint movements. Reps can vary from heavier (80 percent of max and up) sets that use 3 to 8 reps to lighter rep ranges (60 to 80 percent) for 8 to 15 reps. Rest periods should be 2 minutes or longer.
The key to improving cortisol is to avoid overly stressful workouts. With a well-designed strength training program, you can offset the ”wear and tear” of a lifetime of stress.