July 22, 2010 posted by

Cortisol & Your Exercise Program

Since I just finished another pump-inducing WFH workout it seemed like a good time to post on cortisol. Back in the 80s it wasn’t a big topic. Well, it actually was a big topic but marketers had yet to catch wind of it so no one talked about it. But, if you’ll recall the no-fat phase that ran from the late 80s to early 90s, cortisol was a big reason behind what was going on.

First off I should explain what cortisol is. But I’m not going to. Denis Faye of The Real Fitness Nerd has done a perfectly good job in an article archived at Beachbody. Click on this paragraph if you’d like to know more about it and what you can do about it.

Cortisol has various tasks. It’s instrumental in controlling blood pressure, and it also supplies emergency energy to the body. It does this by decreasing insulin sensitivity and stimulating something called gluconeogenesis, the creation of new glucose from amino acids. Unfortunately, these amino acids come from the breakdown of body proteins through a process known as catabolism. In other words, during times of stress, cortisol aids in breaking down muscle mass for use as energy.

Most of you have only heard of cortisol due to marketing hype, which Faye also covers,

A few years ago, a wave of supplements hit the market vilifying the stress hormone cortisol, claiming that it caused an accumulation of excess fat. While this “fact” helped companies like CortiSlim® sell plenty “cortisol blockers,” there was a tiny problem. It’s complete hogwash. So let’s set the record straight, shall we?

What I’m going to discuss today, which the article doesn’t go into, is the bird’s eye view of cortisol and how it affects your workouts and your results. I mentioned it in a 80s post because one of the no-fat era’s poster ailments was anorexia. Most of you know what it is, I’m sure, and cortisol is a big part of it because when you don’t eat your body releases excessive cortisol in an emergency response to lack of calories. When this happens regularly you get into a vicious circle of chronic cortisol release, which keeps catabolizing your muscle tissue, not to mention throwing your body’s hormonal cycles off which can lead to major illness over time.

But cortisol issues don’t just happen to anorexics. Everybody beginning a new training program goes through a period where they produce excessive cortisol. One of the things that happens with excess cortisol is released is water retention. When we retain water we feel bloated and this bloated feeling can lead us into another Catch-22 situation where we either stop eating or stop training hard. It’s vital that you do neither.

Cortisol is somewhat of an emergency hormone. You are supposed to get more of it when you’re under stress because it enhances your performance (it’s a banned PED in sports). When you are training you release more in the adaptive phase of a program. As long as you stick to your diet and exercise program (assuming it’s of sound design) your body will adjust. You’ll stop retaining water and your performance will increase as will your results.

What often happens is that we react to this temporary weight gain and exacerbate the problem. Women often mistake this as building muscle mass and quit pushing their weight workouts or quit the program they’re on. This always infuriates men who only wish muscle could be gained in a matter of days! Men, however, especially fit men trying to gain some mass, sabotage their programs by getting scared about losing their ripped abs and stop eating at a time when your body needs more calories than normal.

So I guess the whole point of this post is to tell you to see your program through to its end. By cutting it off early you don’t give it a chance to work as it’s designed. It’s also an excuse to post a pic of some more great 80s fashion.


  • Steve, I'm new to the whole blogging thing but I didn't know where I could contact you. I usually go to you and Tony for my health and fitness advice, but recently I stumbled across a man by the name of Tim Ferriss. He wrote a NY Times best-seller called "The Four Hour Work Week," and has a website dedicated to it and the various studies he does. One study was about hypertrophy, and his journey to maximize muscle mass gains in the shortest and most efficient amount of time.He details his workout plan that he claims used to gain 34 lbs of lean muscle in only 4 weeks – with only a total of 8 gym sessions each only a half hour!Here is the post on his website (with photos): here is the details he listed on : you please make a post about this? or at least contact me back?my email is Superunknown2890@gmail.comThank you Steve,-Patrick, 2 Time P90X Grad

  • Thanks, Pat,Funny you metion this as I was just thinking about Ferris this morning. I knew he was talking about this but had forgotten it for a while and was making a mental note to check back into it. I have his blog bookmarked but don't check it too often.As with all of his stuff I find the numbers exaggerated but the theories sound even if the numbers aren't as small as he states. I like his style, which is all based around self-experimentation. I'm aware of most of the factors he's discussing, such as the effects of eccentric contraction and doing one set of one rep til failure. I suspicious as to whether most people would see near the same amount of varience in this period. In the original study you see a guy gain size back, which is much easier than getting it for the first time. I do often recommend the one rept to failure protocol for our customers who are in a maintenance cycle.Anyway, it's worth a try for sure and I'll put it to a test soon. I can't afford to gain much mass but I'll test it regardless, follow his non-mass protocols, and I'll post on it. Of course there is more to life and human performance than hypertrophy and he only addresses this one aspect of training. He also only discusses one four week cyle. It would be hard to keep these gains without altering the training to address other aspects of physiology. Also, the rapid mass gain should only happen once to the point he states, your pre-disposed natural limit. Other styles of training would need to be incorporated to keep gains.

  • A quick note on exaggeration. Here's an example from one of the links. Ferris says "Focus on no more than 4-8 exercises total " and then give a routine with 10 exercises. Reading through all of his stuff is similar. I saw a seminar with him where someone asked him about this point blank. He laughed and talked about it but never answered the question. In general, the key to his 4 hour work week is to find a way to do stuff for work that you don't consider work. Again, I'm fully on board with this concept but his legitimacy about time he to be questioned.

  • That is crazy, 34 lb in 4 weeks? A person on Dianobol couldn't even achieve that in such a short time. All these theories are great and testing them is even funner, but the best advice when it comes to hypertrophy is of Greg Valentino. Go by the body, everyone is different and not every technique will work for you. Maybe these gains could be what's called "newbie" gains. Interesting theory though.

  • It's apropos this is happening under a cortisol post because that is definitely part of his theory. We train too much and eat too little. Back to recovery again, and back to my recent short exercise is better post. Wish I wanted more mass because I'd test it further. Again, the more I read the more I find it doesn't quite add up. He proposes another workout suggestion with 12 exercises, yet he's basing the entire program on never doing more than 4 to 8. Strange. Regardless, there is something to be learned here.

  • I think I can go by the saying "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is" All these diets, ABCDE diet, high protein, high fat, I've tried all and to be honest nothing seems to work as good as it is advertised or portrayed in society.

  • How does intermittent fasting effect cortisol?Fasting for 16 hours. Then eating your required protein andCalories in a 6 to 8 hour window.

  • Steve, I'm new to reading your blog but find it very informative and entertaining. My issue is not with over production of Cortisol. My body does not manufacture any Cortisol due to Addison's Disease. My challenge is to plan my Cortisol dosages appropriately so they mitigate the physical stresses I experience while exercising while at the same time providing my body with its daily requirement. I will say that my performance gains, while steady, require more time to achieve, and I'm sure that it mainly due to the inability of my body to manufacture Cortisol.

  • Steve, I asked you about this in the chat a week or two ago. I'm always in the balancing act of how much to eat against how hard I'm training. My goal is to cut body fat…but always trying to balance that with not under eating.I guess the question remains: How can you tell your cortisol levels are too high? I assume that the inability to lose belly fat being part of them, but what are some other signs to watch for?

  • I agree with you.I think the product is helpful for people who answers to their health problems.Thanks for sharing.

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