Hi. I recently had some blood work done when I went in for my physical and my doctor told me that my cortisol levels are on the high end. Plus, I train hard 6 days per week, lifting and cardio together. Sadly, I haven’t seen much in terms of muscle gains the past few months. Now that I know my cortisol levels are high, I’m wondering if I might be overtraining? I actually have 2 questions for you. 1. How do I know if I’m overtraining? And 2. How can I lower my cortisol levels? Thanks in advance!
Hi, Nick. Let me start here. Intense weight lifting is great for boosting your body’s natural anabolic hormones, i.e., testosterone and human growth hormone.
Many people don’t recognize there is a threshold for the amount of intense exercise they can do. The right amount will optimize testosterone and human growth hormone.
Crossing this sensitive threshold means cortisol levels will rise. In turn, this will force testosterone and human growth hormone levels to plummet.
This type of hormonal climate will make it virtually impossible to realize any muscle or strength increases.
Many bodybuilders and athletes will take anabolic steroids to subdue their cortisol levels and increase their training threshold so they can train more intensely, much more frequently, and for longer periods of time. Unfortunately, the use of these drugs can result in a number of devastating health complications, so I strongly oppose exploring this route.
There a number of obvious warning signs that your body will give you when you’re overtraining. The first, most noticeable sign is that you’ll notice a cessation of progress in the gym. More specifically, you’ll stop getting stronger and your muscles will stop growing.
General fatigue and a reluctance to do your workouts are two obvious signs of overtraining. You’re not as passionate or excited to do your workouts the way you used to. In fact, you almost dread doing them to the point where working out feels like much more of an exhausting chore than anything else. You just grind through your workouts going through the motions with no real fire behind what you’re doing.
Some additional, less conspicuous signs of overtraining include: a reduced sex drive, depression, difficulty concentrating, increased viral infections, and difficulty sleeping.
Now we’ll talk about some measures that you can take to help combat cortisol. As I mentioned previously, doing too much exercise of any kind will drive up your cortisol level and reduce the levels of anabolic hormones in your body. While I don’t have the luxury of knowing what your ideal exercise threshold is, I can say with confidence that most people who train naturally will generally experience the negative repercussions of elevated cortisol if they allow intense exercise sessions to exceed much more than an hour.
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Some people with lower thresholds might not be able to train intensely much longer than 20 minutes. Another point I want to make is the stronger you become and the more intensely you train, the lower your training threshold will become as a result of the increased physiological stress placed on all of the subsystems of your body.
Please keep in mind that this also includes cardio training. Some people make the mistake of thinking that they have 1 pool of recovery resources for weightlifting and another pool for doing cardio. No, you have 1 pool of recovery resources PERIOD!
In other words, don’t lift weights intensely for an hour, then do 30 or more minutes of intense cardio right after. You would be much better off doing 30 minutes of intense weight training, followed by 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). THis is where you alternate both high and low-intensity intervals.
I’m so cautious about overtraining I won’t even perform weight lifting and cardio on the same day! That being said, experiment with your own training by cutting back on duration. Also, try reducing the frequency of your workouts to find your ideal training threshold.
Too much caffeine or other stimulants will also result in higher cortisol levels. I recall reading one particular study where some subjects ingested 800 mg of caffeine experienced cortisol increases as high as 44%!
I know 800 mg of caffeine might sound like a lot. However, I know plenty of people who slurp down 3-4 coffees per day that contain 200 mg of caffeine each. Then, they take a pre-workout formula with 300 mg of caffeine on top of that!
Sleep Is Critical
Another drawback to consuming too much caffeine is that it can make you restless and mess up your sleep patterns. Research shows that obtaining adequate sleep each night lowers cortisol levels. But, cortisol levels increase with lack of sleep.
Since cortisol is a stress hormone initiated by various forms of stress, it’s extremely important to explore various ways to manage stress. Research has shown that different types of relaxation techniques can reduce cortisol levels. Some of these techniques include: Yoga, aromatherapy, massage, listening to relaxing music, meditating, praying, petting a dog, and sipping on black tea have all been shown to help decrease cortisol levels.
One final thought worth mentioning is that there are natural supplements available that research has demonstrated are effective in reducing cortisol levels. Some herbs that are classified as adaptogens are notable for improving the body’s resistance to stress. As studies have shown, less stress equals less cortisol. A few of these stress suppressing herbs include— ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, and Eleutherococcus Senticosus (Siberian ginseng). Additionally, a number of different studies involving humans and rodents have demonstrated that supplementing with Vitamin C significantly reduces cortisol levels.
If you’re able to apply at least some of these applications, I believe you’ll begin experiencing lower cortisol levels and also more satisfying results in the gym!
I wish you all the best with your health and training!
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