5 min read

Why Stress Blocks Your Muscle Growth and How to Stop It

Content Editor & Certified Trainer
Lisa studied journalism and is a certified fitness and health trainer, as well as a meditation coach! She spent many years working for different lifestyle and fitness magazines, and she writes articles for us on the topics of working out, fitness, lifestyle and mind.

If you aren’t having success building muscle, even though you eat a balanced diet and train regularly, your problem might have something to do with stress. When stress levels remain high for a long period of time, it can have an impact on everything from body weight to your ability to develop muscle. Find out everything you need to know about the effects of stress on muscle growth in this article. Bonus: We’ve also put together the best tips for lowering your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone!

Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You’re Stressed

During times of extreme stress—like when you’re under a lot of pressure at work or have been training harder than usual—your body releases higher concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. Neurotransmitters norepinephrine and adrenaline signal to the brain that it’s time to prepare the body for battle, which causes blood pressure and heart rate to rise as well as activating fat metabolism and inhibiting inflammatory reactions in the body. This is known as the endocrine stress response because it’s controlled by our endocrine system. It’s a completely natural and vital process when you are under stress.

It’s only when you are under prolonged stress that cortisol starts to become a problem. When the stress hormone is released over a long period of time, the amount of cortisol may remain permanently above the normal level. This can lead to physical and mental health problems, and sabotage your fitness goals at the same time.

What Are the Effects of Stress on Muscle Growth?

Small amounts of stress have little to no repercussions on the body. In fact, a little bit of stress can be a good thing, especially during a HIIT session or a test when you need to be at the top of your game.

But when you feel more stressed than usual over an extended period of time, you may start to see the effects of stress on muscle growth in your life. Because recovery and muscle development are blocked by cortisol, chronic stress can even inhibit muscle development.

Cortisol blocks these bodily functions because it inhibits the release of testosterone, one of the most important growth hormones for muscle development. The stress hormone also draws on the body’s resources for quick energy, often breaking down the muscles by converting muscle protein into glucose in a process known as muscle atrophy. This prevents you from hitting a slump during crucial moments, but it may also cause your muscle development to stall or even backslide.

Additionally, cortisol encourages the body to store fat in the belly, hips, thighs, and butt. This may change your muscle mass and fat tissue in a way you weren’t expecting. Finally, high cortisol levels can cause sleep disturbances and even impact our immune system. Because so much of our recovery happens at rest, these changes can further prevent muscle development.

A white man holds a red coffee mug in one hand, his phone next to his face in the other hand, and has a folder tucked under his phone-holding elbow, learning about the effects of stress on muscle growth
@Westend61

Typical Stressors

We all know what it’s like to feel highly stressed—that wave of panic that washes over you when you feel like you’ve lost your house keys, or that rush of energy you feel during an intense workout.

But there are many other stressors beyond just the obvious. In order to combat the ones that may influence your progress, you have to take a closer look at yourself. Any (or several) of the following factors could be what’s creating prolonged muscle tension and stress for you.

  • You have way too much work lined up.
  • You exercise (almost) every day and panic when you don’t make it through your session.
  • You have a restrictive diet.
  • Your hormonal balance is out of whack.
  • You are overweight or underweight.
  • You are suffering from emotional stress from something like a death or break-up.
  • Your life environment has changed after you’ve changed a job or moved to a new town.
  • And many other things.

If you’re aware of what causes you stress, you can take concrete steps to minimize the issue, like seeing a therapist and practicing mindfulness. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole host of ways to feel better in your mind and body by helping yourself or seeking out professionals. Find 9 easy tricks to reduce your stress ASAP in this article.

Counteract the Effects of Stress on Muscle Growth: Tips to Keep Your Muscles Growing

If you think that stress may be blocking your muscle growth, here are a few tips to reduce cortisol levels and finally see some progress.

Tip #1: Eat a Healthy and Balanced Diet

Eating a balanced diet is essential for feeling your best both at the gym and the world at large. That includes consuming a sufficient amount of macronutrients and micronutrients to fuel all your bodily needs. These nutrients come from foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, and both animal- and plant-based proteins sources. Find out here what you need to know about the foods that promote optimal muscle growth.

To reduce cortisol levels, reduce the amount of refined sugars, alcohol, and trans fats in your diet. Swap sugar-free sweeteners like stevia and xylitol for regular sugar more often.

Tip #2: Avoid Overtraining

Being motivated is great, but there is such a thing as overdoing exercise. Overtraining can be anything from working out for more than 60 minutes to training every day of the week with no exceptions, all of which have shown to raise cortisol levels more quickly than normal.

Recovery periods are absolutely essential to ensuring muscle growth. That’s why you should try to keep your workouts below an hour and only do three to four sessions per week in general.

Supplement your days off with restorative yoga poses and brisk walks. These activities will give you energy while also calming you down. Find out more about active recovery in this article.

A woman of color sleeps in a bed with white sheets as she reduces the effects of stress on muscle growth
@PeopleImages

Tip #3: Get Enough Sleep

Sleep quality plays a huge role in muscle development. At rest, our bodies begin to repair damaged muscle fibers and build new ones, all while regulating cortisol levels. If you don’t get enough sleep, your cortisol levels will remain high and your body won’t be able to recover as quickly. Remember, the quality of your sleep is much more important than the quantity. Find out how to get a good night of sleep in this article.

Tip #4: Relax Your Mind

One of the best ways to reduce cortisol is to switch off your brain. Of course, this is easier said than done. But putting too much pressure on yourself to eat well and workout regularly may actually cause you more mental stress. The point of doing nice things for your body is that you get to enjoy the way it feels. Try not to compare yourself to people who celebrate their progress on Instagram or other social networks. Every body is different and progresses at its own pace. Have faith in yourself and your journey, and persevere!

Summary

  • The body releases larger amounts of stress hormones like cortisol under stressful situations.
  • This stress hormone is essential to life and was intended to promote concentration and performance in important or life-threatening moments..
  • Long-term stress increases cortisol levels on a long-term basis, which can have a number of negative effects like high blood sugar, physical stress, weight gain, and reduced muscle function.
  • Chronic stress levels can diminish quality of sleep, which can inhibit muscle recovery because so much of it happens at rest.
  • Identifying stressors will make them easier to manage.
  • Cortisol levels can be lowered by eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising at a moderate pace, getting enough sleep, and relaxing your mind.

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Article sources
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  • 1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4561403/

  • 2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24343323/