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Stress - The Forgotten Factor of Fat Loss

When it comes to fat loss, we need to get the big rocks in place to elicit a result such as setting a calorie deficit, setting up a good training plan, etc. But to maximise our efforts, especially with a longer cutting phase, there's some other forgotten factors which can directly and indirectly impact our results.

As we move up the pyramid, we can check off adherence, energy balance, macronutrients, but then we reach stress management...

What if you're following the plan but not seeing the expected results?

What if the fat loss is being masked or stopped altogether due to stress?

We can define stress as a stimulus that disrupts our mental or physical equilibrium, and can include a multitude of factors which contribute; we can refer to this as ‘allostatic load'.

Allostatic load can include psychological, social, physical, societal, environmental and digestive stressors.

Stress is not necessarily a solely negative element.

Stress is a prerequisite for adaptation.

Muscle growth, fat loss, strength gains are all adaptations.

The adaptations can be positive or negative depending on the management and counter-measures of these stressors.

A positive response + resulting adaptation from stress can occur by recognising the stressor and applying appropriate interventions and the appropriate time:

Homeostasis > Stress disruption > Recovery > Positive Adaptation > Homeostasis

The more we can focus on the recovery, the more positive adaptations can occur, followed by more homeostasis.

We have a number of stressors that are in our control to manage, especially when in a dieting phase. These include: training fatigue, extended calorie deficit, sleep and digestion, as well as general stress (work, life, etc.)

Once we have our stressors, we can identify how to measure these, such as:

  • Resting heart rate

  • Heart-rate variability

  • Sleep duration and quality (using a tracker or subjective feeling)

  • Training recovery and perceived exertion (RPE)

  • Changes in weight/body composition.

With the awareness of stressors, and measuring of them, we can now look to inserting counter-measures to ensure we can recovery from the stressors and lead to positive adaptations.

Training Stress Management:

Training is a necessary stressor in a fat loss phase. We need it to preserve muscle mass in a calorie deficit, as well as for burning calories. However, the training itself is the stimulus…while the adaptations take place after.

To maximise both, we need to be in different states, with regards to our autonomic nervous system (ANS) which influences digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. and therefore our ability to recover.

We have 2 sides of the coin:

1 is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is the ‘fight or flight’ state for short term survival.

This is the state we want to be in when training, hence the use of stimulants for example to improve our performance.

On the other side of the coin, we have the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which is the ‘rest and digest’ state for long term survival, and a focus to thrive rather than just survive.

So during the stimulus part of the equation, from training, we want an SNS dominance, and post-training, when we want an adaptation, we’re looking for a shift in the balance towards PSNS dominance.

In the short-term, on a session-by-session basis, we’re looking at an acute stressor whereby shifting the balance of the ANS will ensure recovery and positive adaptations to take place.

How do we do that?

  • Change mindset to focus on relaxing

  • Meditation drills

  • Breathing drills - focus on 6-8 breaths per min for 3-5 mins to begin

  • Adaptogen/relaxant supplements e.g. ashwagandha, L-theanine, rhodiola rosea

  • Avoid eating until heart rate returns to within 10-20% of resting heart rate

Over the longer-term, we’re looking at preventing the acute stress of training, evolving into chronic stress. The 2 main ways we can manage this is:

1. Manage + measure current training volume, load and propensity to failure: Excessive volume and load will impact recoverability and therefore the resulting adaptations such as reducing amount fat loss achieved or affecting preservation of muscle.

Too much training close to failure can accumulate excessive systemic fatigue which may impact recovery for subsequent sessions’ performance and volume.

2. Manage overall training fatigue:

Fat loss phases can generally span over multiple months, therefore managing training stress over this period becomes imperative to ensure recovery, as well as performance remaining high to preserve muscle mass. In addition, it’s all occurring with a restricted calorie intake, and therefore restricted fuel for training performance and the ensuing recovery.

Periodizing the programming of training can be a great way to manage fatigue and stress. This will allow periods of pushing higher volume or lower volume, periods of training closer to failure or further from failure, and utilising deload periods.

Deloads are generally 1-2 week periods of lower intensity, and lower volume, with reduced propensity to failure, with a sole focus on recovery, reduced fatigue and stress.


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