Is CORTISOL affecting your gains?

What is Cortisol?

What is cortisol? Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It is often called the “stress hormone” because its levels rise following emotional and physical stress. This hormone is more than just a simple indicator of stress levels; it’s also necessary for the functioning of almost every part of the human body. Deficiencies or excesses of this crucial hormone can lead to various physical symptoms and disease states.

Common Cortisol Raising Triggers

  • Being stuck in traffic
  • Arguing with family members or people in general
  • Arriving late to work
  • Getting over anxious about an upcoming exam
  • Overtraining
  • Physically demanding jobs
  • Worrying about your next meal
  • Illness
  • Temperature Extremes

Cortisol levels are generally higher in the mornings and lower at night time as the amount of Cortisol released drops throughout the day unless of course the body releases more Cortisol as a reaction to Stress.

Benefits Of Cortisol:

Some of the benefits from this hormone include increasing short term memory and helping the liver to remove toxins from the body. The immune system works with the hormone to regulate the blood sugar levels with the body.

Disadvantages Of Cortisol:

Disadvantages include raised blood pressure and lower bone density. This will not be an issue with normal amounts of Cortisol production. It is only when higher amounts of Cortisol are produced by the body usually in relation to stress that these factors become an issue.

How Does Cortisol Affect my Training?


Gaining Muscle:

Now we all know that  testosterone helps us to build muscle, well Cortisol does the opposite! It is a catabolic hormone that reduces protein synthesis and prevents tissue growth.

It is after about 1 hour of lifting when testosterone levels begin to drop and Cortisol levels begin to rise. This of course is a bad combination and is why any good muscle building routine can be completed in under an hour. You should have a good warm up and complete your stretches in your own time but as soon as you hit the weights, that’s it – Stay focused… No chatting… Just lift and get your workout done in under an hour to prevent the effects of Cortisol from stopping your gains!

Burning Fat:

Let’s just remember the difference between losing weight and losing fat. The truth is you’re not going to look much better unless its fat you’re burning…. And quite often it’s not! If it were true that cardio just burns fat then you could just get on your bike and cycle all day every day and get ripped. But we all know it’s not that easy,overtraining causes the body to use muscle for fuel and to try and hold on to body fat instead of burning it.

Too much cardiovascular exercise will cause Cortisol levels to increase and as we know Cortisol will eat away at your muscle fibres and reverse the effects of your training. So remember sometimes less is more and limiting cardio sessions to 4-5 per week will be more effective than running for hours every day.

How to Control Your Cortisol Levels

1. Keep Your Weight Training Workouts Less Than 1 Hour

  • As stated already, if you workout for longer than 1 hour your testosterone levels will drop and Cortisol levels will rise therefore preventing muscle growth! Keep workouts short and intense!

2. Limit Your Cardio

  • Too much cardio causes more Cortisol to be released by the body so don’t over-do it on the treadmill and remember any cardio should be combined with a good diet.

3. Nutrition

  • Try to eat at least 5-6 small meals each day as it has been found that eating more frequently helps to control Cortisol levels keeping them lower than if you were eating larger meals less frequently. The most important meals are breakfast and your Post Workout meal. Make sure you eat in the morning as Cortisol levels are shown to be higher at this time and maintaining a proper diet including protein, carbs and essential fats help to control Cortisol levels.
  • A good post workout shake should include around 40-50g of protein and 50-70g of simple carbs that will provide an insulin spike – this helps to clear Cortisol levels and keep up those muscle gains!

4. Relax

  •  Cortisol levels are proven to rise dramatically due to the body reacting to stress. Try to chill out and not to let things stress you out!…. take a nice walk… have a bath… read a book, whatever helps you to relax and relieve the stress.

5. Sleep

  • 8 Hours sleep is ideal but try to get at least 7! Remember muscle doesn’t grow whilst you’re in the gym – it grows when you’re resting. Cortisol levels are at a low and growth hormones are at a high when sleeping so make sure you’re getting enough of it!

6. Limit Caffeine Intake

  • Cortisol levels can be elevated due to the stimulating effect of  caffeine and it has been shown that as little as 2-3 cups per day can cause Cortisol levels to rise.

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