Training strategies when you’re stressed out

written by Philip Stefanov  |  MAY 17, 2022

Stress is an inevitable part of life. Lost your job? Stress. Had a new baby? Stress. Can’t find the scoop in your new protein powder tub? Stress.

Rather than avoiding it, we should learn to embrace stress and find actionable ways to keep functioning and working toward our goals during difficult periods. Of course, doing so might mean making adjustments, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be bad if we play our cards right. Let’s go over some tactics. 

1. Reduce The Scope

A tactic I love using during periods of stress is reducing the scope but sticking to my schedule as best as possible. For example, let’s say that I’m in the middle of a stressful few weeks, and I don’t have the usual amount of time for working out. One option is to take a break from training, but since the objective is to keep moving forward, a better approach is to do less but remain consistent.

Let’s say that you want to do a push workout on Monday, but unforeseen circumstances have left you with much less time or energy. In that case, you can reduce your overall training volume (sets and reps) or use lighter loads, which would allow you to do your workout quicker. Is it ideal? Well, no. But it helps you keep the momentum going, and it can still be beneficial for your bottom line.

2. Re-Arrange Your Schedule

Another option is re-arranging your schedule temporarily. For example, let’s say that you’re stressed out because you have a new job that often keeps you at the office late. By the time you finish, you have too little time or energy for a productive workout. In that case, you can start training before work to ensure that you’re attacking your sessions while you’re still fresh and recovered. Alternatively, save your training for the late afternoons or evenings if the early half of the day is more stressful.

The last option is to become a weekend warrior, though doing so would be easier said than done. Skip working out during the workweek and complete your sessions over Saturday and Sunday. For instance:

Saturday morning - train
Saturday evening - train

Sunday morning - train
Sunday evening - train

The tactic is by no means flawless, and you will still have to lower your volume and intensity. But, it allows you to do effective training and take your mind off the gym during your busy weeks.

3. Revise Your Exercise Selection

Each exercise comes with a stimulus to fatigue ratio. Some activities offer great stimulus and cause relatively little fatigue; others cause a lot of fatigue and a relatively small stimulus. The goal is to pick the exercises that provide a good stimulus without causing too much fatigue. Doing so is particularly important when dealing with more stress and suffering from recovery issues.

There isn’t a specific list of exercises to do and avoid, but finding easier activities isn’t that difficult. Pick movements that don’t require as much effort to complete and avoid those that leave you exhausted by the time you’ve done three or four sets. For instance, you can swap:

  • Pull-ups for lat pulldowns
  • Barbell squats for leg press
  • Bench press for machine chest press
  • Romanian deadlifts for hamstring curls

Replacing the more demanding movements with easier ones allows you to keep training and making some progress without feeling overwhelmed.

4. Lower The RPE

RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. The scale helps you determine how challenging individual sets are. For instance, an RPE of 10 means you’ve lifted a weight for as many reps as possible and cannot continue. An RPE of 9 means you left one rep in the tank; an RPE of 8 means two reps left in the tank, and so on. RPE of 7 is a bit challenging to estimate, and anything below 5 is nearly impossible to gauge.

An excellent way to keep training during stressful periods is to lower the overall RPE. You can still train and maintain your fitness, but you won’t stress yourself as much and run into recovery issues.

5. Take a Break

This is certainly not something most people would like to hear, but maybe it’s what you need. Sometimes, all we can do is take a break and hope that we can resume regular training and start making progress soon.

One option is to skip a workout or postpone it if you’re under a lot of stress and feeling drained. Alternatively, take a week or more off training, especially if you’ve been training hard for months.

Regardless of what you choose to do, it’s best to have a concrete plan for how long your break will be and when you’ll train next.

Thank you for taking the time! Until next week,


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