Stress is a misused and misunderstood word. Everything is a stressor to your body. But some types of stress are good for you.
There are two kinds of stress:
When you’re able to resolve your stress, it means your body has recovered and adapted to the stress. You’re now stronger or better because of the stress you underwent.
Example, if you can squat 300-pounds for 1-2 reps, it may take you a couple of days to feel fresh again. But if you were squatting 50-60% of that weight in a day, you could squat again the next day with a similar load and not feel exhausted.
But here’s something you need to accept — something that I know you don’t want to accept: you have limits. And far too often I see men and women trying to push themselves beyond their limits.
“Robbie, I workout hard every day. I push myself. I don’t back down.”
Look, pushing intensity is important. If you’re too far down the eustress barometer, you won’t create enough stimulus for your body to change. But, on the other hand, if you’re too far up that barometer and put your body into distress, you’re gonna be in for a world of trouble. Let me explain with some graphics.
The Stress Barometer
This is the stress barometer.
And this barometer is always changing. It never looks like the one above. Remember: everything is a stressor. So when you have a fight with your significant other, hear some bad news, or wake up and huff and puff that you have to go back to that job you hate, you increase your distress.
And if you don’t handle the things that cause distress, you’ll begin to see and feel the changes in your body, mood, and life. You’ll be more tired, increased cravings for shitty food, and overall more lethargic attitudes.
Of course, exercise and nutrition are good stressors on the body that can move your distress levels down. But at the same time, if you’re using exercise to help you deal with the distressors you have in your life, then you’re only kicking the can down the road. And that distress will become a dragon that only gets larger and larger over time.
Hitting the gym 5-6 days a week and pushing yourself to the limit every time isn’t helping you improve. In fact, it’s doing the opposite.
There is always a cost.
What Stress Costs, and Why That Matters
So let’s talk about cost.
And I’m not talking about financial cost, although, it could come to that if you act like a jackass and wind up having to get an MRI for a torn ligament. Your cost is nothing more than the price you pay to resolve your stress. And that cost could be sleep, nutrition, or low-intensity movement like walking.
Rule number one for life: seek to maximize the benefit and minimize the cost. That rule doesn’t say, “do more work and get more.” Our bodies are lazy little mofos.
They don’t want to do more work. They want to do the “right amount of work for the lowest possible cost of energy.”
Think about it: if you got the same results being in the gym two days a week vs “crushing it” four times a week, would you still go twice as often? Yea, yea, I love being “in” the gym myself. And you may too. But remember: everything has a cost. Are you willing to pay the cost?
Because what if your stress barometer looks like this.
If your barometer looks like that, hitting the gym 4-5 times a week is going to make you feel like dogshit. You barely have the time for that many days. And you can’t handle another stressor in your life. And I totally get that. You don’t need another stressor. But you know deep inside that you still need to flip your stress barometer.
So how do you do it? You choose the lowest cost option you can.
Don’t try and start a new diet that restricts your choices more. Instead, make sure you have one colored veggie to every meal you eat.
Don’t force yourself to hit the gym 4-5 days a week. Start with 50 bodyweight squats first thing in the morning.
If you’re already pretty active in the gym but life somehow is cutting into your routine, don’t try and double up the work you’re doing or cut your sleep short. Take a walk instead. It’s a lower cost activity and doing it outside has been shown by numerous studies to be benefit reducing stress.
“But Robbie, I’m prepared to pay whatever the cost, so I’m fine with training in distress.”
Look, I don’t want to tell you that you’re wrong or that you can’t do whatever you want, but, you’re wrong. You can still ignore my advice and do whatever you want, but I’ll leave you with this tidbit: results happen faster under distress, both intended and unintended.
When life increases your distress meter, don’t push back twice as hard against it. Instead, shift your focus to bring down that distress and move the needle the other way. And that may mean you need to do lower cost activities within your scope of eustress. There is always a cost.
If you can avoid working out in distress and you do as much of your training as possible under eustress, you’ll make better long term progress.
There’s an ebb and flow to this as well. Some weeks you’ll have little distress, others you’ll have a ton. But even if you’re constantly filled with distress, you don’t need to spend more energy to get what you want. Do the small things that over time stack up to less stress — drink more water, get 30 minutes more sleep a night, eat a veggie at every meal, and walk for 30 minutes a day.
Burning yourself out is the last thing you want.