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Sorrow and frustration inhibit strength training progression

Events that cause sadness and frustration, such as the death of a loved one, arguments or job loss, reduce your progress in the gym. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out, but until recently no serious research had been done on the subject. Sports scientists at the University of Texas were the first to do so.

Sorrow and frustration inhibit strength training progression
The researchers wanted to know more about the effect of life stress on the strength athletes' progression. They did an experiment with 135 students who they got to do weight training for twelve weeks. Life stress is the term used for life-changing events that cause stress in our lives. These include divorce, a serious accident, a big argument, failure while studying or a business going bust.

The students trained twice a week for an hour and a half. They worked on the big muscle groups, and did basic exercises like the bench press, incline press, overhead press, biceps curls, triceps extensions, dumbbell rows, lat pull-downs, squats and leg press. After twelve weeks the researchers measured how much muscle mass and strength the students had built up. They also asked the students about the life stress they had experienced during the previous three months. For this they used a standard list of questions, the Adolescent Perceived Events Scale. On the basis of the results the researchers divided the students into two groups: one with low life-stress and one with high life-stress.

On average the test subjects' 1RM for the bench presses increased by 13 percent. The 1RM for the squat rose by 25 percent. But the group with high life-stress made less progress than the group with low life-stress, as the table below shows.

Sorrow and frustration inhibit strength training progression

Although the effect is demonstrable, it is not so great that if you are under serious stress you're better off staying at home. The effect was pretty small: the 1RM of the low life-stress group rose by 15 percent for the bench press and 27 percent for the squats. In the high life-stress group the figures were 12 and 23 percent.

How stressful events reduce the impact of training the Americans did not investigate. They mention a couple of theories that others have come up with. One is that stress inhibits the growth of nerve and brain cells, so that the connections between the nervous system and the muscle cells are not optimal. Another theory is that stress inhibits the immune system and as a result damaged muscle cells are cleared up less efficiently. Yet another theory is that stress increases the production of cortisol, which restricts protein build up in the muscles.

The researchers did ask their subjects whether they were receiving support with their life-stress problems. Some were receiving support, others were not. Receiving support did not reduce the negative impact of life stress, however. It would seem that the old cliché that "in the end you're on your own" is true...

J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jul;22(4):1215-21.

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