Gain the most strength and muscle from training by using cortisol to your advantage. The stress hormone cortisol is commonly vilified in strength training world because it is well known for its ability to break down muscle mass and cause fat gain.
Of course, nothing is ever so simple.
New research shows that in certain situations, such as in the morning, or during an intense workout, an elevated cortisol level is a good thing as long as you clear it quickly after training.
A recent study that tested the acute hormone response during a 12-week strength-training program found that cortisol was associated with muscle mass gains and increase in type II muscle fiber area. Growth hormone (GH) was also associated with increase in type I and II muscle fiber area.
Although free testosterone was elevated twofold after lower body workouts, there was a wide variation in individual testosterone response. No associations could be made between testosterone and strength or hypertrophy results.
Researchers suggest GH causes a shared metabolic stress and neural drive/muscle activation that leads to dual body composition and strength gains. They have no definitive conclusions about the role of testosterone.
Cortisol has a gluconeogenic action and in certain nutritional environments, it liberates free fatty acids and amino acids to be broken down and used for energy.
For instance, in the absence of carbs and insulin, cortisol can increase fat for use as fuel. However, the gluconeogenic action of cortisol doesn’t explain why it correlated with hypertrophy in this study.
The study authors suggest hypertrophy and strength gains from training are actually related more to type and quantity of protein consumption post-workout, and the activation of satellite cells and gene signaling, not to hormone response.
Since greater post-workout cortisol may mean a greater anabolic response, the take away is to not worry about eliciting a large stress hormone response when training as long as you take action to clear that cortisol rapidly. Strategies to do so include the following:
1) Ensure hydration: Dehydration will significantly elevate cortisol and most people are chronically dehydrated. Shoot for drinking 37 ml/kg of body weight. For a 75 kg person this equals 2.8 liters.
2) Take probiotics—they’ve been shown to decrease cortisol and lead to belly fat loss in individuals with poor blood sugar management.
3) Get plenty of vitamin C. It’s been shown to lower cortisol post-workout and may elevate testosterone if taken daily in a high enough dose—try 6 to 10 grams.
4) Get extra B vitamins. For example, vitamin B5—a.k.a. pantethine—is commonly depleted in people with elevated cortisol, which leads to greater cortisol production and lower testosterone. Try taking 300 mg/3 times a day.