Competitive Bodybuilders And Stress
By: Jeff Behar
Stress can be defined as a personal response to a physical, chemical, emotional or environmental factor(s). Stress does not necessarily need to be a “bad” word. Stress can act as a motivator or energizer. Stress can be the push we need to respond to a time critical situation, such as meeting a deadline, avoiding a hazardous situation.
Stress also creates a physiological reaction that tells our mind “to move” (fight or flight reaction). As part of this “fight or flight” reaction our bodies release adrenalin (aka the stress hormone), which can cause an increase in blood pressure, an increase in core body temperature, and heart rate. It heightens all our senses: almost a purely animalistic response. In a positive sense, the stress reaction can be a survival tool helping to keep our bodies strong and minds alert.
In a positive sense, the stress reaction can be a survival tool helping to keep our bodies strong and minds alert.
Symptoms of stress include, feeling anxious, feeling scared, irritable or moody. Stress can also affects thoughts, causing low self-esteem, worry, poor concentration, preoccupation with thoughts, and forgetfulness. Stress can also affects behavior.
Examples include: speech difficulties (stuterring, grasping for words, etc.) bouts of crying for no apparent reason, uncontrollable or nervous laughing, carelessness or inattentiveness resulting in poor work quality or accidents, binge eating, overeating, under eating and increased use of drugs and alcohol.
Impact Of Stress
Chronic stress however can have devastating effects. Chronic stress causes the body to produce too much cortisol and adrenalin that can result in physical symptoms that can vary from mild mood disturbances to severe stress-related illnesses.
The American Medical Association stated that stress was the cause of 80 to 85 percent of all human illnesses and diseases or at the very least has detrimental health effects.
Every week, 95 million Americans suffer some kind of stress related symptom for which they take medication.
The American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, New York (my birth place) estimates that 90 percent of all visits to doctors are for stress-related disorders.
* 75% of Americans see their lives as too complex.
* There is evidence to support that continuing work-related distress can lead to diseases ranging from cancer to mental illness.
It is estimated that American businesses lose an estimated $200-$300 billion dollars per year to stress related productivity loss and other cost. Interestingly enough the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that the United States deficit is approximately 300 billion dollars (the largest in the US history).
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 80% of health care is spent on stress related disorders. These ailments include cardiovascular disease, hypertension, headaches (including migraines), ulcers, anxiety, allergies, asthma, and cancer. and Constant, chronic stress can also suppress the immune system thereby making the body more susceptible to disease, even the common cold and flu.
Effects Of Exercise On Stress
There have been many articles written that has demonstrated that physical activity, be it running, sports, aerobics or weightlifting has shown to reduce stress.
Several studies conducted by such respected organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association have shown that physical activities can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, lower blood lipids, resulting in a better quality of life.
Reducing Stress Through Bodybuilding
Training in general can reduce stress. It can provide psychological benefits that can help improve physical health. It acts as a buffer against stress. When I am in the gym training helps me forget all the stresses of the outside world (deadlines, finances, family issues, relationship issues, etc.).
Training works for me because when I train I concentrate intensely on each rep, each movement. I become very attentive and extremely focused. I feel the weight, control my breathing.
Once I start my workout and feel the warm blood rushing through my veins and arteries feeding the thirsty muscles; I start to feel peace.
Any stress I had coming into the gym starts to wash away (like the fake Dream tan Creame in the shower after a show). As I feel the pump I start to smile, know matter how heavy the weight is, no matter how much lactic acid burn I feel.
Ask anyone that has seen me train. The harder the set, the bigger my smile. Why? I am in a zone. A zone where I know my efforts and the pain is directly proportionate to my gains. I know that the reps before the pain and before the burn mean basically nothing.
I know the difference between greatness and mediocrity is perseverance. As I picture my muscles getting bigger, stronger, harder, more striated, denser, and more mature, gone are the stresses, worries, the schedule and the mental demands that I came into the gym with.
Every successful bodybuilder knows the feeling of the pump and the “zone” you can transcend to. Can any of us forget this quote made famous by Ahhhhnold in the 1975 bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron.”?
When I am done with my focused, hard charged, 90 minute INTENSE workout, I am flushed, sweaty, tired, a little winded. In fact I usually need a cigarette (a bad joke, reference to sex; get it?)
Maybe Arnold was right when quoted in “pumping Iron” about bodybuilding being like sex (laugh). All kidding aside…the reason exercise can produce feelings that are often described as “as good as sex” is because exercise causes the brain to release endorphins.
Endorphins are opium-like substances that not only eases pain (which is why bodybuilders can continue to push through pain barriers), but also produces a sense of comfort, well being and what is often described as euphoria.
Exercise also encourages the nerve cells in the brain to secrete other important neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) which are known to have positive effects on well being.
If you have not experienced this sense of euphoria I suggest you get to the gym (or to the bedroom) and work your (you fill in the blank) off for at least 90 hard minutes with no rest. Actually my preference is cross training, and doing both (I may be smiling here, but I am not kidding).
Research has shown that exercise lowers blood glucose levels and may prevent mild cases of diabetes. Research as also shown that it may help protect the cardiovascular and immune systems from the consequences of stressful events.
Frequent exercise has also shown to be an effective treatment for anxiety and, according to some research, as effective as psychotherapy in treating mild to moderate depression (consistent with the studies showing increased levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine as a result of exercise).
Studies reported in the American Medical Association’s Archives of Internal Medicine have shown that when clinically depressed patients exercise their levels of these natural antidepressants increase. So, if exercise is so beneficial why do so many bodybuilders feel so much stress?
Competitive Bodybuilding – A Different Story
Author Disclaimer: I want to emphasize that competitive bodybuilding does not HAVE to increase stress. Each person handles stress differently. There are several a factors that effect how each person may respond to a stressor. Genetics, hormones, diet and overall health are just a few.
With that being said, I will discuss in general terms why competitive bodybuilding can increase stress levels. If you have never competed before or have been the “lucky” mate, close friend or family member of a Competitive Bodybuilder at pre-contest time, I believe you will find the rest of this article enlightening.
As we are all told since childhood, when anything is taken to an extreme the positive effects that were once observed can diminish (or be erased). In many cases the positive effect can turn negative.
As many people who have participated or are actively involved in the sport, competitive sports can foster extreme actions, and competitive bodybuilding is not immune to such behavior. Sad examples include competitors who have collapsed on the stage due to deliberate dehydration.
Whether you are a beginning bodybuilder getting ready for your first competition or whether you are Jay Cutler trying to dethrone Ronnie Coleman from his 7th Mr. Olympia title, competitive bodybuilders face a lot of stress. There is the obvious stress in the gym, but that is shared by all who lift a barbell.
There are many hidden stresses that are taken for granted by those who have never dared to step on stage. The following is just a partial list a competitive bodybuilder may face in no particular order:
* The desire to succeed.
* Expectations from others (friends, family, mate, bodybuilding community, the press, the gym rats, etc.)
* Balancing required increased time commitments for cardio, tanning, posing and training time with other work and family commitments/obligations.
* Getting the work out, posing and tanning in before the gym and tanning place closes.
* Preparing the food.
* Eating when someone else has prepared your food.
* Less sleep because of increased commitments (tanning, Posing, cardio, etc.).
* Reduced calorie effect on the body.
* The need to have to tan.
* Purchasing and taking large amounts of vitamins (and other supplements for the SERIOUS folks).
* Shaving areas you can not reach, and being too embarrassed to ask for help.
* Purchasing posing trunks and other needed supplies at the last minute.
* Trying to find the “right” music to pose to (and hoping that it han’t been played out before you get on stage).
* Choreographing and practicing the posing routine.
Mind/Mirror games – additional stressors
* Am I big enough?
* Am I lean enough?
* Am I holding water?
* Am I flat?
* I am symmetrical?
* Is my tan even?
* Do I look fat in these trunks? (A play on the question we have all been asked before and answer untruthfully…”Honey, do I look fat in this dress?”)
Stress And It’s Effect On The Body
Chronic stress affects your health in many ways (such as shortening your life, decreasing your quality of life, etc.). For the bodybuilder acute stress can also be a big concern. Stress can cause several unwanted reactions for the competitive bodybuilder (as well as for the everyday person as well).
Stress causes the adrenal cortex to release elevated levels of cortisol in response to stress. Cortisol impedes muscular repair and function, decreases testosterone production, inhibits protein synthesis, accelerates proteolysis (protein breakdown) and inhibits muscular growth.
Making matters worse it also reduces the body’s ability to use fat as an energy source, increasing the amount of stored fat within the body. Although cortisol release cannot be prevented, it can, and should, be controlled through moderate exercise, diet, supplementation and stress management (all topics that I will discuss later).
Stress also causes many to eat carbohydrates;” a feel good food” that raises serotonin levels. The problem here is not just the extra calories of the added carbs themselves but the fact that when carbohydrates are eaten excessively, insulin remains chronically high.
If this condition continues over time, the cells adapt to elevated insulin levels and become resistant to its function. This causes the body to need additional insulin to transport sugar into cells for energy.
The persistent and long-term elevation of insulin and glucose in the blood stream also has several other negative effects on the body. It causes decreased sugar breakdown resulting in increased storage as adipose tissue (aka body fat). High blood-sugar also makes blood vessels and blood components “sticky”.
Both effects reduce blood flow to all areas of the body especially to the feet, eyes and kidneys. It is also believed that insulin resistance may lead to the onset of adult (Type 2) diabetes and decrease blood growth hormone levels.
Authors note: 1 in 13 Americans develop adult (type 2) diabetes most will develop heart, kidney, nerve and blood vessel. Mood swings and dips in energy levels often accompany over-consumption of carbohydrates and sugars. Stress can also cause water retention, causing a bodybuilders fine chiseled physique to look flat, smooth and less defined.
Everyone experiences stress as part of their daily lives. Stress creeps into our daily life without us even realizing it. Be it waiting in a long line as you are late for an appointment, or maybe it is a deadline at work. What many people do not realize is that Stress is also one of our survival tools.
Stress is part of our fight or flight response that also raises our awareness level in potentially dangerous situations. So, is stress bad? this author believes that stress only becomes dangerous when stress becomes a way of life; when our positive outlook is replaced with a negative outlook (one of worry, anxiety and/or depression). Because stress is part of everyone’s life we must learn to manage stress, or we will get sick.
Managing Stress – Tools for the Competitive Bodybuilder
There are several ways to effectively manage stress, and many of these tools can be used by the competitive bodybuilder. The following is just a small partial list of tools I have used as a successful bodybuilder.
Avoid focusing on the situations where you have no control on the outcome (such as whether a specific competitor may compete, the length of a line, etc). Worrying about things we can not change will not make any difference on the outcome. Instead focus on the things you can do something about (like your training, and diet). Own this. Use the positive energies to make gains in the area you can control.
Learn Relaxation Techniques
Deep breathing is one of the simplest yet most effective stress management techniques that can be done anywhere, anytime. It can infuse the blood with extra oxygen burning up waste products (toxins) in the body, as well as recharging the body’s batteries (the solar plexus). In fact, most of our energy requirements come not from food but from required oxygen. How you say? Oxygen is a critical component for the production of a chemical in the body called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP).
Deep breathing also has the added benefit of stimulating the body to release tranquilizing endorphins increasing the feeling of well being.
Inhale deeply through your nose. Concentrate on pulling the air deep into the lungs. Hold the breath for a count of five. Exhale slowly through the mouth to for the same count of five. Practice this exercise until you can accomplish this for approximately five minutes, being extremly careful not to hyperventilate. If you become light-headed or dizzy begin breathing normally.
If something goes wrong with the production of ATP, the result is lowered vitality, disease and premature ageing. Oxygen is also essential for healthy cells. Lack of sufficient oxygen to the cells is a major contributing factor in cancer, heart disease and strokes.
Lack of oxygen is also believed increase the frequency and severity of colds and other ailments.
Authors note: Deep breathing is recognized as such an important technique that there is an entire science devoted to it (Pranayama). Also remember that stress can produce restricted or shall breathing which decreases energy and recovery due to less oxygen and ATP. So remember to BREATHE when you are lifting! There is a reason!!
Increased training demands along with needs to pose, tan, do cardio, etc., all cut into “free time” often resulting in less sleep. Less sleep inhibits body repair, muscular development and overall well being.
The reason being is cortisol is at its lowest and growth hormone is at its highest during slow wave sleep (deepest stage of sleep). Ensure that this stage of sleep is attained every night by getting good quality sleep.
Other Relaxation Techniques
An increasing number of main stream doctors are prescribing alternative relaxation therapies such as Yoga, Tai Chi, stretching, and meditation to lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Research shows that meditation also increases levels of melatonin, an important hormone that supports the immune system, promotes deep and restful sleep, slows cell damage and aging, improves energy and may even inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
Studies have shown that these techniques can effectively reduce has also been shown to increase blood flow, elevate oxygen levels in the blood effectively reducing the negative effects of stress.
Your diet can assist in the prevention of stress or it can be a source of stress. For example:
* Sugar which has no essential nutrients provides a short-term boost of energy through the body, but results in an immediate energy crash which can exhaust the adrenal glands, increase irritability, poor concentration, and binge eating. Items such a white potatoes (107 on the glycemic index) can also cause rapid blood sugar fluctuations and recent studies are causing nutritionists to acknowledge that foodstuffs high on the glycemic index, such as white potatoes can be equally as damaging as sugar.
* Salt increases the blood pressure, and depletes adrenal glands. Consider a salt substitute if you must have flavor. A balanced diet is the key. Since studies show that carbohydrates trigger release of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, eat small amounts of complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, vegetables daily.
Author note: certain foods and drinks (like those that contain caffeine) can be powerful stimulants to the body and can be a direct cause of stress and elevate cortisol levels. For this reason a competetive bodybuilder must understand and be aware that certain foods and drinks can also NEGATIVELY effect the body. Knowing and understanding this is half the battle on the way to competition success.
Because stress can deplete the body of needed vitamins and minerals, taking supplements can reduce (or eliminate) the body’s potential physical reactions to stress.
The B vitamins such as thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, are important because they play a key role in energy metabolism.
Research has also shown that glutamine may help to reduce cortisol by supplying cortisol with blood glutamine. Cortisol will not have to destroy muscle to obtain it.
Author note: Substances such as caffeine, epehedra (now banned in the US) and other themogenic cocktails commonly used by bodybuilders can increase alertness, activity in the muscles, nervous system and heart when taken in moderation.
However, when consumed in high dosages disastrous and possibly deadly results can occur. Be sure to carefully monitor all diet and supplement products to ensure that negative synergistic effects do not occur.
Increase the Water!
In addition to exercise, and a well balanced diet, it is important that your body gets enough water. Water, like oxygen, is essential for our body to operate efficiently. Water helps regulate our body in temperature. Water is also required for effective nerve impulse conduction, proper metabolism, food processing, waste elimination, and a healthy immune system.
Stress and caffeine (both common to the competitive bodybuilder) can affect the amount of water we lose (through excretion, respiration, perspiration) and the speed in which our body loses it. Any of these factors, alone or in combination, could cause a small but critical shrinkage of the brain which can impair neuromuscular coordination, decrease concentration, and slow thinking. For an AVERAGE person, not a competitive bodybuilder it is recommended that 8 to 10 cups of water be consumed daily.
Author note: It is recommended that an average adult consume 8 to 10 cups of water daily because the average amount of water loss per day is 10 cups (six cups through urination and bowel movements, two cups through breathing, two cups and through invisible perspiration). The total of ten cups lost per day does NOT take into account visible perspiration, excessively dry air, or excretion due to caffeine or diuretic consumption.
* Consider treating yourself to a massage. Massage therapy can relax muscles, easy muscle spasm, increase blood flow to skin and muscles and relieve mental and emotional stress.
* Consider a power nap. Studies show a 15 minute nap can recharge you and increase mental and physical performance.
* Consider an activity that makes you feel good. It could be a simple as a stroll in the park, a shower or just listening to some good music. Most people think they have to do big things, such as a vacation to relieve stress. This is a fallacy. Small activities that you enjoy can be very effective at relieving stress.
Remember, weight training can be a powerful method of relaxation, and it is a powerful tool to combat and prevent stress. In various studies, researchers have found that weight training and other forms of exercise can elevate mood related hormones, increase well being, and reduce anxiety and stress.
Some studies even suggest that the stress-reducing effect of exercises such as weightlifting has cardiovascular and mental benefits, and may help improve overall physical health. It should also be remembered that the old adage that “too much of a good thing, is not necessarily good” can also apply.
So, if you are a competitive bodybuilder, want to be a competitive bodybuilder, or you just love a competitive bodybuilder (everyone should love one, LOL)….just remember: How you respond to stress is YOUR choice. You can CHOOSE to be stressed or you can choose to be relaxed. If in fact you find yourself feeling the effects of stress, remember there are many ways to minimize its destructive effects.