#152 – How to Manage Unproductive Stress
In the MED Toolbox and SRA episodes, Matt and Scott discussed strategies for managing stress: the good kind of stress — training stress. Unfortunately, for most adults training stress is not the only kind of stress they have to manage. There are the many curveballs that life is fond of throwing: financial stress, job stress, family stress, death of loved ones. These stressors can be grouped into the giant category of “unproductive stress,” yet they need to be accounted for and managed in your training program all the same.
Your body does not distinguish between productive and unproductive stress. As far as your body is concerned, the psychological agony of a loved one’s death is a stress that must be recovered from just like a heavy set of five squats, even though it will not result in any strength adaptation. To be fair, we all deal with various degrees of unproductive stress in everyday life, and most of the time these ought to be trained through. Sometimes the training itself can help us work through psychological stress.
At other times, stress can be extreme, or chronic, and we may not have any way to deal with it in the short term. Scott gives the example of negotiating the sale of his business, Data Storage Inc, which resulted in a very stressful 5 months of his life. The stakes were high, he could not confide in many people about the negotiations, and the due diligence process was long. In cases like these, we must temper the amount of training stress we acquire in the gym to avoid overtraining, or just as bad, introducing more psychological stress from the mere act of training.
Matt and Scott offer a few suggestions. For one, intensity and/or volume should go down. Matt likes to reduce volume first, to avoid detraining as much as possible. If his lifter is doing any accessory work, he would drop that first. Then drop sets on the volume days and, if necessary, some sets on the heavy days as well. Scott likes to drop workout frequency from three days to two days per week, or alternatively move to a four-day, one-lift-per-day model. In both instances frequency, and therefore tonnage, is reduced, giving the lifter more time to recover between workouts (not to mention more free time, which the lifter likely needs to handle whatever undue stresses have befallen him).
Matt also emphasizes having fun in the gym. The last thing you want to do if you’re already stressed out is add more stress to the equation because you dread your workouts. That only further depletes your already-scarce recovery resources, and makes you more likely to miss long periods of training altogether. Sometimes you just have to go to the gym to workout. Move some decently heavy weight, get hot and sweaty, get a “pump”, and move on with life. Approaching training like this makes you more likely to maintain the habit, and make progress later when normal training can resume.
To be clear, the examples above refer to the post-novice lifter. For the novice still in linear progression, it is best to continue grinding it out as long as you can. A novice, by definition, is not performing much work (and consequently does not have much work capacity), so reducing the workload by any amount is unlikely to help the situation. What happens instead is that LP ends sooner than it would otherwise, and the lifter must transition into post-novice programming. This is one of many reasons why an 18 year old lifter often is able to run novice LP for 5-6 months, for instance, while a 45 year old lifter may only last 3 months. Generally speaking, she simply doesn’t have the same degree of unproductive stressors in her life.