When it comes to cortisol and strength training, most athletes are worried about raising cortisol and exacerbating the stress response. However, studies show that if you program your strength workout properly, you may improve your ability to cope with stress.
Because strength training stimulates lean mass, enhances fat burning, and may improve the testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, it can counteract the negative effects that are typically associated with high cortisol. By improving overall endocrine function, strength training also pays off in psychological benefits such as improved mood and quality of life, both of which have implications for athletic performance.
When looking at the impact of training on cortisol, there are two time points to be concerned with:
·The acute response that happens immediately after training, and
·The chronic baseline levels
In terms of the impact training stress has on health and quality of life, we aren’t as concerned with the acute post-workout hormone measurement, but it is relevant for athletes or those who need to recover quickly and perform at their best day in and day out. Researchers theorize that the hormone response to training may play an important role in strength development and can serve as a marker of the stress of training.
The beneficial impact of strength training on stress and cortisol levels was demonstrated in a study of elite male rugby players. The players were divided into four groups and the acute endocrine response was measured: Group 1 did low load resistance training with 5 sets of 15 reps at 55% of the 1RM of the high pull, bench press, squat, and chin ups). Group 2 did heavy resistance training with 3 sets of 5 at 85% of the 1 RM for the same exercises. Group 3 did strongman exercises of high pull, battling rope, tire flips, and heavy carries. Group 4 did wrestling and boxing.
Results showed testosterone did not significantly change as a result of any intervention, whereas cortisol declined and the testosterone to cortisol (T/C) ratio increased significantly in both Group 1 and 2. When testosterone results were analyzed by individual participants, significant increases for Group 1, 3 and 4 were observed.
The individualized hormone response highlights the importance of recognizing a protocol-dependent approach to training athletes. Additionally, the improvement in the T/C ratio and reduction in cortisol indicates strength training may relieve stress, improve athlete’s readiness to perform, and set up the physiological parameters for recovery. Weight training may be viewed as a “time-out” for players that could aid in coping with the stress and pressures of training and competition.
A study of elite young tennis players provides insight on the impact of adding a strength training program in addition to regular sports practice on stress management and mood. In this study, a profile of mood states (POMS) test was given to measure feelings of depression, tension, anxiety, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion. The study had tennis players perform 6 weeks of strength training (bench press and squats) at 60% of the 1RM with 3 increasing to 6 sets. Results showed significant improvements in athletic performance in squat jump, countermovement jump, medicine side throw, and power and strength in the back squat compared to a control group that played tennis but did not engage in training.
Cortisol levels and fatigue increased, and mood decreased over the first half of the strength training intervention, but by the end, cortisol levels and mood had recovered and did not produce an excessive stress impairment, even during week 5 when training volume peaked. By the final testing day, stress and cortisol had recovered to baseline and POMS mood levels in the strength training group were actually higher than in the control group, suggesting a positive adaptation to the training program.
Sedentary people will also experience stress-lowering benefits of strength training. A review of studies that looked at the impact of training on cortisol and other stress-related markers in older individuals found a reduction in baseline cortisol. More research is needed but there was some evidence of improvements in mood and quality of life in response to strength training.
Researchers note that cortisol plays a role in aging, and stress levels rise as people get older, which has several negative effects on body composition and health. Higher cortisol levels degrade lean tissue and contribute to muscle loss and sarcopenia with aging. They also lead the body to deposit fat in the abdominal area and are major culprit in the visceral belly fat that is standard in most older adults. Higher cortisol also increases risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and brain degeneration. Scientists suggest that by improving hormone balance and counteracting many of the negative side effects of high cortisol, strength training can offset the ”wear and tear” of a lifetime of stress.
The key to improving hormone balance with training is to avoid overly stressful workouts. Volume of training has a much greater impact on cortisol than intensity, which means that heavy lifting is good. Instead of metabolically stressful high-volume workouts with tons of reps, opt for heavier loads, shorter sets, and longer rest periods.
Workouts should be limited to an hour including warm-up and cool down and should include 5 to 6 exercises, with 2 to 3 being big muscle lifts and the rest accessory or single-joint movements. Reps can vary from heavier (80 percent of max and up) sets that use 3 to 8 reps to lighter rep ranges (60 to 80 percent) for 8 to 15 reps. Rest periods should be 2 minutes or longer.
Gaviglio, C, Osborne, M., Kelly, V., Kilduff, L., Cook, C. Salivary testosterone and cortisol responses to four different rugby training exercise protocols. European Journal of Sport Science. 2015. 16(60): 497-504.
Kraemer, W., Ratamess, N. Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Sports Medicine. 2005. 35(4): 339-361.
Sarabia, J., Fernandez, J., Juan-Recio, C., Hernandez-Davo, H., Urban, T., Moya, M. Mechanical, hormonal, and psychological effects of a non-failure short-term strength training program in young tennis players. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2015. 45: 81-91.