Stress, Cortisol & Deloads

By Daniel Sharvit



We’ve all felt stressed out at some point and probably relate it to a time of panic or anxiety. Your body is going to perceive stress in several ways and doesn’t tend to differentiate it the way we do. Whether it’s an acute or chronic response, it will be the same at the chemical level. Here are some examples:

  1. Physical – Physical damage from both bumping your leg or muscular damage from exercise will be recognized as stress in the body.
  2. Psychological – Misplacing your keys. You start searching, as more time passes, your body begins undergoing some form of stress and your alertness begins to rise.
  3. Nutrition – Eating a high sugar item will lead to an inflammatory response and therefore release cortisol to manage the stress of the rise in blood sugar.

Whenever your body identifies any type of stress, cortisol is released to combat that stress.



It’s important for our bodies to undergo stressors. Without any there wouldn’t be any spikes of insulin to uptake blood sugar. That sugar is fuel for the body. Not overdoing it is key. When you exercise, whether it’s aerobic or weightlifting your body will go into a state of inflammation in response. This is a good thing. Your body is adapting to the stimulus provided. It’s preparing to be able to handle stressful situations. The recovery process is just as important. You need to allow your body to heal from the damage created or else the stress will compound over time.

Importance of cortisol:

  • Mediates stress response
  • Suppresses inflammatory response
  • Manages the use of carbs, fats, and proteins in metabolism
  • Regulating blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Controls your sleep/wake cycle ONE OF MANY MECHANISMS Too much of or overly often releases of cortisol leads to higher blood sugar and subsequently elevated levels of insulin released. The body wants to use the path of least resistance, so when there is a constant elevation in blood sugar, the body starts to become almost numb or less sensitive to the effects of insulin. Sort of like someone building up a caffeine tolerance. With no filter for the blood sugar, there will be LOADS of negative effects as a result.



So how do you manage training when you’re in a stressful season of life? Typically, life prescribes deloads in the form of events, holidays, or vacations. If you are an athlete or an everyday warrior you may be in the grind every day. When that’s the case, here are three methods you can use to continue progress while restoring your hormonal balance:

  1. Reduce Volume – This is my personal favorite. A weight room example would be as simple as dropping reps. If your previous cycle demanded 5×4 @ 85% on a squat, then on your deload week you may hit 5×2 @ 85% to keep the intensity and strength stimulus without the added hormonal fatigue.
  2. Deload Relative Intensity – With this method you would lighten the load prescribed in the previous training sessions. Using the same squats as before, rather than dropping to 3 sets you would stay at 5×3 and reduce the load to 75% for example.
  3. Lower Neurological Demand – Altering the modality the exercise or movement is performed can help reduce the stress response in that session. Going from a floor clean to a hang clean will reduce the technical aspect of the lift but allow the athlete to maintain load and output for that session.



Now we know what stress is, how cortisol can impact recovery, and ways you can alter your training to make sure you aren’t overdoing it. What we do need to keep in mind is how the body doesn’t distinguish stressors as I mentioned prior. A college athlete’s end of term exams may span a period of two weeks. They also spend the two weeks prior cramming and preparing. Their bodies are in a constant heightened state with the nerves to make sure they pass. With all this stress compounding it may be taking a toll on performance. How will you know?

Every so often it’s important for you to take a step back and evaluate your performance and how you feel. If your sleep is being thrown off (I.e. waking up later or more tired than normal) that may be an indicator you are hitting that boundary of fatigue. When your performance is dropping a significant amount when you have been training. Even something like how hungry you are could be a way your body is telling you to get some rest. Developing healthy habits prior to the high stress times will help you be better prepared for what you can handle in these types of situations. On top of that, being mindful of your body and checking in is going to be key in knowing when it’s time to slow down for a few days or when it’s time to absolutely get after it.

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