The Importance of Continuing to Train Through Very Stressful Life Events

by Jordan Burnett, SSC | June 08, 2022

lifter driving out of the bottom of a squat

We train for physical strength. Our method has shown that being able to produce more force as we age is what grants us longevity in this life, and it is undoubtedly of critical importance. However, as I’ve gotten further into this process over the years, I am thoroughly convinced that the barbell provides the scaffolding for our mental and emotional health as well. I’ve come to learn that our mental and emotional health are so integrally woven together with the state of our physical existence that at a certain point it becomes nearly impossible to separate one from another. Much like our muscles and bones working together to perform a deadlift, these things operate together as a system.

Barbell training, for myself and many others in this community, builds the base of support for all three of these things. The wider the base of support, i.e. the more physically strong we become, the more resilient we become to mental and emotional distress when it occurs. Because it will occur. None of us gets out of this thing unscathed – loved ones die, break-ups happen, jobs get lost. Life as we know it gets disrupted in some way or another. My contention is that the person who has gone through the hard and grueling process of getting much stronger than they were before is more equipped to handle these things when they do happen. My experience is that training prepared me, often without me even knowing it, for what was to come.

I got married in November of last year, and was promptly divorced 90 days later. It was easily the most stressful experience of my adult life. I was having to deal with many things that were well outside of my control. I slept for less than 3 hours a night for at least a month. My appetite dropped through the floor. I was eating around 2000 calories each day, sometimes less. I need roughly 4000 to maintain my bodyweight, so I dropped weight very quickly. I ended up losing roughly 30 pounds after all was said and done. I’m prone to anxiety as it is, and with the stress of this event I was having regular panic attacks, which I hadn’t experienced in many years. The normal human emotions of being angry and sad permeated my day-to-day existence. I say all this not as a measure of self-pity, but because it’s familiar – everyone has been through something like this before. And if you haven’t yet, you will.

There is a physiological response our bodies undergo to accommodate higher levels of stress. The body responds to stress by releasing the steroid hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol is nature’s built-in alarm system, and is part of the fight-or-flight response. It is the body’s main stress hormone and it is produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol works with certain parts of your brain to assist with regulating things like mood, motivation, and fear. It also helps to manage how your body metabolizes its proteins, carbohydrates and fats. It keeps inflammation down, has a part to play in managing your sleep cycle, and assists with regulating blood pressure and blood sugars.

Cortisol is also catabolic – it is the opposite of the anabolic group of compounds that we all know and love. Cortisol not only inhibits muscle growth, but actively breaks these other types of tissues down. For this reason, if there is a higher imbalance in the system of catabolic hormones, it can lead to loss of muscle mass. It can also cause an uptick in anxiety and depression, insomnia, marked weight gain or weight loss, headaches, and a host of other issues.

Dr. Hans Selye, the man from whom Starting Strength distilled its Stress/Recovery/Adaptation framework, created the model for these types of stress events. His model, described as the General Adaptation Syndrome, states that an event that threatens an organism’s well being (a stressor) leads to a three-phase bodily response. Phase One is Alarm: upon encountering the stressor, the body’s fight-or-flight response is activated, and cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream to meet the perceived threat or danger. Phase Two is Resistance: many of the body’s physiological functions return to normal levels while it continues to focus resources on the stressor. Cortisol and adrenaline continue to circulate at higher levels, and the body is still on high alert, but the outward appearance of the organism seems normal. Phase Three is Exhaustion: if the stressor is beyond the body’s capacity to resist, the organism exhausts its resources and becomes susceptible to disease and death. We see this outcome in people with chronically elevated stress levels.

This is a natural process, and depending on how acutely stressful the situation is, cannot be avoided. There is no amount of physical, emotional, or spiritual work we can do to prepare us for when shit hits the fan. In other words, there’s nothing we can do here to make time move faster. As with all stressful and painful situations, we don’t have much choice but to let time run its course and to let the healing come to us when it comes. That is not to say that we should sit there helpless and afraid, and not take some responsibility for the parts of our well-being that we can control. That may seem like asking a lot. Believe me, I understand that in these types of situations it might be all you can do to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, let alone go out and function as a part of society, much less go to the gym and put a heavy barbell on your back. But it must be done. Why? Let’s break it down by each component.

The Physical

This one should be fairly obvious. The primary goal is to not completely wither away. In this situation, the goal is not to maintain top end strength performance. Not only is this impossible under the best of conditions, but it takes a huge wealth of resources to maintain anything close to peak strength – resources that you don’t have right now, such as plenty of calories, and sleep, and lack of stress. Fortunately, muscle mass is extremely resilient. Furthermore, it takes far less stimulus to maintain muscle mass that is already there, versus the big bolus of stress we need to elicit new muscle growth. Physiologically, heavy weight training will trigger the release of anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1. Repetitive training also teaches the body to release less cortisol over time, when equating for the proper application of the Stress/Recovery/Adaptation process. Heavy barbell training is the best possible thing we can do to actively counteract the influx of these catabolic hormones, and begin to reverse catabolism altogether.

The Mental

Heavy barbell training builds mental toughness. Anyone who has gone through the Novice Linear Progression knows this. Training during times like these develops a profound positive feedback loop. There is something very mentally impactful that happens when we take back the reins in a situation that has seemingly gone off the rails – when we stop being passive and letting life just happen to us. We take responsibility for what we have control over. We stop being bystanders in our own lives, and don’t allow ourselves to cower in fear in the face of something that we didn’t think we could handle. We already know this from the barbell.

This is life’s version of the last rep of the heaviest set of 5 you’ve ever done. You don’t know if you can do it, but you demonstrate some gumption and prove to yourself that you’re going to try anyway – you've already practiced this under the bar. You override the part of your brain that is at the mercy of your emotional response to pain and discomfort, the part of your brain that is begging you to stop pushing because it believes it can’t go any further. You do this by getting your ass into the gym, getting under the bar, and continuing to reinforce that feedback loop. This is life on your terms – you can't direct the flow, but you must guide the boat.

The Emotional

I’ve always believed that a large part of the net gain of going from very weak to very strong is confidence. We carry ourselves differently than we used to. We look people in the eye when we speak to them, when we didn’t before. We even start to perceive the world around us differently.

In some of these stressful situations, if we’re not careful, we can let this confidence be robbed of us. Or rather, we give it away of our own volition. Whether it is our confidence in the world around us as we know it, or our confidence in ourselves that starts to diminish, the end result is the same: despair. Continuing to stay as strong as possible, hard as it may be, throughout these types of events goes a long way in preserving that confidence that we’ve spent all this time and effort building.

I’m not saying that all of your emotional value or self-worth should be determined by how much you can squat, because it shouldn’t. But sometimes it is necessary to act our way into right thinking, rather than think our way into right acting. The processes we use to get strong under the bar – “5 pounds per workout, 3 days a week, even when it's hard” – apply to virtually all tasks that confront us. We cannot allow ourselves to graduate from being victims to becoming volunteers for suffering, and we don't have to.

For me, there’s something deeply meditative about lifting heavy weights. It’s just about the only thing I can do to drown out whatever thoughts or worries are circling around in my head. There’s simply no room for those when I have 405 on my back and I’m about to do the 5th rep. If I’m not thinking about the thing I need to do to make the rep, and that one thing only, I can miss it, or even end up hurt if I’m not careful. In the midst all of the craziness that was going on during this event, the gym became a haven for me. I could turn my emotions off for just a little while and do something that required me to focus on the process of lifting heavy weights. I felt at least a little better after I trained, every single time.

How to Go About This Practically

Here are some general guidelines for how approach training through a very high-stress event:

  • Keep your volume relatively low. High volumes of work are very hard to recover from, and it’s unlikely that you’ll have the recovery resources you need to keep from getting overtrained on a high-volume program.
  • Do each of the 4 main lifts at least once per week. You don’t need a lot of frequency to keep from detraining, as long as it all stays relatively heavy.
  • Keep the load for each lift as heavy as you can. My experience is that heavy preserves more muscle mass than volume does. Keeping things heavy will also ensure that training volume will be kept lower.

I also used some variations of the main lifts during this time. For example, I squatted once per week and I rotated weekly between a regular squat, a box squat, and pin squat. This helped keep my training slightly more interesting, and allowed me to set a few default PRs on the variant lifts, simply because I hadn’t done them in a long time. As for sets and reps, I would arbitrarily pick a rep range for that day (somewhere between 1 and 5 reps) and work up to a nearly max-effort set within that range. After the top set, I’d strip 10-20% of the weight off the bar and do another max effort set, usually somewhere between 5 and 8 reps.

Is this the most effective way to train under normal circumstances? Probably not. But my training situation was far from optimal, and this approach kept my training from getting stale and monotonous. The goal was not to drive an adaptation to get as strong as possible – the goal was to keep from losing too much muscle mass and to make my training enjoyable. It should be worth noting that the farther you are along the advancement spectrum, the more liberties you’re likely to be able to take here.

Training is the constant. It's the North Star. It is the thing that we have the ultimate control over, in a world where most things fall outside of the parameters of our control. It has the ability to both give us an escape from, and simultaneously keep us grounded in, reality. Training is the thing we always come back to in times of uncertainty, emotional turmoil, and the sometimes crushingly heavy burdens that life can hand us. We come back to training because training has the unique ability to – if only for a few seconds or minutes – give us some sort of reprieve. The perspective given to us by a heavy barbell in these times is unparalleled. Training offers us a respite, a brief and quiet moment, from the emotional maelstrom that certain life events can bring. By continuing to train through such events, we create a very quick and very effective positive feedback loop in our brains that teaches us that we are not powerless – that we do not have to quietly and passively succumb to despair.

The physical stress of training makes the emotional stress of personal catastrophe far more manageable. Training teaches us that stress can be adapted to, and this lesson applies outside the weight room as well.  

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