We often seem to neglect the impact that stress has on our training and results in the gym. In this space I will try and explain as clearly as possible the role the autonomic nervous system has in our pursuit to optimal results in the gym and what we can do to turn those hard efforts into gains.

Autonomic Nervous System.

The Autonomic Nervous System is basically how our body interprets the environment. Your body takes in everything that is around it and you will have either a positive or negative influence from it. What your body does is determine whether you will have a Sympathetic Nervous response or a Parasympathetic Nervous response to the influence. Your balance of each branch will determine the function of your body.

Sympathetic Nervous System

Think of the Sympathetic Nervous system as the negative stress in the environment. This could come from things like, looking at your phone, reading an email, someone cutting you off in traffic, a fight with your partner or kids, or for a lot of us, our finances.

If you have a lot of stress, the likelihood of getting the most out of your body is substantially diminished, if not, impossible. You could train as hard as you want in the gym and absolutely crush it, but you still won’t see any results. You become disheartened and stop putting in the effort.

How it works is this: Your brain first reacts to the influence, the event happens, the response then amplifies and how you react to it is massive. With a negative response, Adrenaline and Cortisol start racing through your body. These are two very catabolic (muscle breakdown) hormones. All your body wants to do now is mobilise energy for the “flight or fight” response to occur. Doesn’t sounds like the respond you want does it?

No one wants to break down their hard earned muscle or gains in the gym. The problem is, these negative influences are always running in the back of our minds. When these things are running, you are going to have a really hard time building muscle optimally. Learn to start paying attention to these different influences and how to get rid of them.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The Parasympathetic nervous system is more like the calming system involving resting and the digestive system. Deep belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, connecting with nature, people and sunlight, one of the big ones, sleep! These are great responses. Take advantage of them. These techniques lower our heart rate, reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels in our body and allow us to be in an optimal position for muscle growth.

Stress Eating

You are not what you eat. I would argue that you are what your body does with what you eat. Your Autonomic Nervous system is going to be one of the factors in how your body responds to your food. When you eat while in a Sympathetic state compared to a Parasympathetic state, your body will have two completely different responses. Think about this. When you are stressed and you go and get your chosen “comfort” food, there is going to be a problem. That food will literally sit in your gut. Your body doesn’t digest it. It puts all the blood away from your gut towards the limbs so that you can either “fight” or “flee.” That’s a big thing. What you can do to avoid this is to take a few steps back, breath and bring your heart rate back down before your meal so that you can give your body the correct response you need.

The Solution

What I want you to do is make a list of all the things that stress you out. Be honest with it. Make a chart of all your daily influences and these should balance out. Ideally you want the parasympathetic responses in your life to outweigh the sympathetic responses, but this unfortunately isn’t the case with a lot of people. Once you have given yourself a good idea of what influences in your life bring on stress or create a more calming environment for your body, you can then start to make changes. Everyone is different. You need to see what works for you. Meditation, breathing, better quality sleep, a good nutrition plan, a well planned training program are just some of the things you can start to implement.

There are so many environmental influences that we aren’t even aware of, but the thing is, we can control it. You can choose to accept that negative influence. It is your choice. Have a conscious awareness of what’s around you and slowly make those necessary changes so that you don’t stop your progress in the gym. 

Hopefully you can see what works for you and see how you can train and live, for you!

Taylor Ward
Strength & Conditioning Coach