Unlocking Stress: The Double Edge Sword

We’ve all been there: the alarm clock goes off, you start to roll out of bed but your body feels like it has been hit by a truck. Joints ache. Muscles are sore. Your brain is telling you to stay in bed, but you remember you've got the PAMC circuit today on Field Strong and are excited to crush it. Gains await!

You walk down stairs to get a pot of Buckshot brewing. Hell, you can’t get your mind right without an IV drip bag spiked with caffeine. You then realize you have a huge presentation due today at work, and to add salt to the wound, you just read Tyrese is threatening to leave the Fast franchise.

Talk about a stressful morning! This scenario depicts various types of stress: physical, mental, and emotional. You may find this hard to believe, but despite the source, our body perceives and reacts to these stressors in the same way.  Stress is our bodies’ way of responding and adapting to challenging situations. However, many people are unaware of what stress is and how it affects their mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

As you can see, how stress affects the human body is a complex topic! I could write a textbook on the detailed processes involved. However, the goal of this article is to define exactly what stress is, and help you understand the differences between acute and chronic stress and how these affect your training.

What is Stress?

Stress is a reaction by the body and brain to some challenge or threat. Whether a good or bad experience, those challenges lead to neurologic and physiologic adaptations. The actual or perceived threat to an organism is referred to as the “stressor” and the response to the stressor is called the “stress response.”(1.8)

In response to a stressor, physiological changes are set into motion to help an individual adapt to that stressor. This actual stressor is something you knowingly impose on your body, like hitting a heavy 3 x 5 on the back squat in Bedrock to increase the strength of the tissues in that position. However, you could unknowingly inflict an additional, unwanted stress related adaptation by squatting with your toes turned out like a duck (i.e NOT the Universal Athletic Position). The brain will perceive this toes out position as a desirable pattern, making it the default under other stressful situations - like when the game is on the line.

Training with poor posture and position will cause adaptations, but not the kind that will improve performance or decrease risk for injury. In the above example of the toes out squat, the body will adapt by laying down more bone that alters the alignment of your achilles tendon. Over time, this will reinforce faulty movement patterns on the field leading to possible injury, like an ACL tear.

Stress: Not Just Physical

Stress influences every area of your life, including your mood, behavior, movement, and overall health. It influences whether you are happy or sad, depressed or motivated, how your body moves through space, and how you are affected by illness and disease. While we all experience life the same, we all respond in our own unique way.. The body will react in a typical fashion to a stressor (think breathing heavy, a fast heart rate, and sweating), but stress related outcomes vary depending on personal genetic makeup, overall disposition to the stress, and environmental factors. Many people think of stress as the enemy, but it’s not that simple. Stress can be beneficial in many circumstances.

Stress falls into two general categories: acute and chronic.  Typically, acute stress in a young, healthy, driven individual creates a positive adaptation and imposes no threat to that person’s life. But, like anything else, more is not always better. Long-term effects of unremitting, chronic stressors can impair health. (3,4) Let’s now dive deeper into how acute and chronic stress responses potentially impact our body.

Acute Stress: The Catalyst  

Acute stress is an adaptive response that is essential for survival. It allows us to cope with stressful environmental situations. Acute stress alters hormones and shifts energy to working tissues and creates new neural pathways in the brain. (5) These are vital components needed to improve performance in any athletic endeavor. In the world of health, fitness, and sports performance, you must stress to progress. In Bedrock we increase weight lifted each week through a linear progression to get stronger.  

Weight training is a form of acute stress we willingly apply that  helps to build more muscle tissue, to improve strength, to develop power, and to expand overall aerobic qualities. Time under tension, moving weight quickly, and metabolic (cardiovascular) output are all stressors that force the body to adapt to the demands being placed on it. This is the process of training. We must break the body down to build it back up. However, training usually only encompasses about 6% of someone’s day. What people forget about is what they do the other 94% of the time. These lifestyle factors (sleep, nutrition, social habits, relationships) affect the way our body responds to the physical stressors of training, and can impact it in a negative manner. (6)

For instance, you are on the Bedrock program and crushing the weights each week, until something happens. You end up failing your 3 x 5 back squats. You may initially chalk this one up to not being strong enough to handle the load. However, it’s also finals week and Tyrese is definitely out for Furious 9. This once positive acute stress response in the body to improve strength has just been altered because of your environment and lifestyle.

It’s time to take a deep breath, regroup and Reload  during the next squat session - giving yourself one more chance to complete that weight. A week has gone by. It’s now summer break and you are sleeping like a baby. Those same weights you failed last week now feel easier and you have no problem getting all 15 reps. The previous scenario illustrates how stress can accumulates in a variety of ways. These acute stress responses are beneficial, but can become a problem if not managed properly.

Chronic Stress: Running on Fumes

When stress becomes chronic, it is maladaptive, and has adverse effects on the brain and body through dysregulation of many bodily systems. (2,3) Mentally, you feel fatigued and lethargic. Emotionally, you become that asshole that nobody wants to be around because you are always on edge. Physically, chronic stress impairs healing.7 What if you tried to back squat heavy every day? The damaged tissue from the the previous session will never fully remodel and will have a lower tolerance to stress than normal, producing excessive inflammation. You’ve applied the ‘stress’, but didn’t give your body the time it needs to recover in order to progress.  You experience this as achy joints, swelling, reduced mobility, and possible pain. Plus, it will throw your hormones out of whack, specifically increasing systemic cortisol levels, which will add on to those love handles you have been working so hard to shed.

You are now in week 10 of Bedrock. Life is good. You managed to graduate college, your new girlfriend is a dime (bringing joy to your life in more ways than one), and you have a month of uninterrupted time to kick it before having to adult full time with your big boy job. Yet, something out of the ordinary happens. You failed your 3 x 5 back squats…again! Everything seemed to be going great, but the situation is different. Until this point the progressive overload has produced a beneficial stress, i.e. a eustress.

The acute stress of the back squat sessions over 10 weeks has lead to an inflection point where you can no longer structurally or neurologically  handle the load. At this point, it is time to Reset to prevent chronic distress. You are probably thinking “but, wait a second. 10 weeks of squatting twice a week? That sounds like chronic stress to me.” You are correct, but the difference resides with how the stress was managed. You didn't have any life stressors to impact your progress AND you recovered properly between sessions, allowing your nervous system to recover, hormone levels to normalize, and remodeling of the tissues to take place.

Master Your Movement: Ain't Nobody Got TIme for Stress!

Stress is a central concept for understanding both life and performance, whether you're training as an elite athlete or a weekend warrior. These potent stressors must be met with an adaptive response. This adaptive response will either improve performance and allow you to thrive or it will beat you down to where you are just surviving.

Don’t stress! Invest in Bedrock. Bedrock will provide a Eustress that drives accelerated adaptation without the emotional Distress of having to design the program yourself.  

“How do I recognize when stress is good or bad?” . Well, take a deep breath, part 2 of this series on the difference between Eustress and Distress is up next!


  1. Brownley KA, Hurwitz BE, Schneiderman N. Cardiovascular psychophysiology. In: Cacioppo JT, Tassinary LG, Berntson GG, editors.
  2. Cannon WB. Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton; 1929.
  3. Dhabar FS, McEwen BS. Acute stress enhances while chronic stress suppresses cell-mediated immunity in vivo: a potential role for leukocyte trafficking. Brain Behav. Immun. 1997;11:286–306.
  4. Handbook of Psychophysiology. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge Univ.; 2000. pp. 224–264.
  5. Hilton SM. Ways of viewing the central nervous control of the circulation—old and new. Brain Res. 1975;87:213–228
  6. Selye H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1956.
  7. Schneiderman N, Antoni MH, Saab PG, Ironson G. Health psychology: psychosocial and biobehavioral aspects of chronic disease management. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2001;52:555–580.
  8. Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 607–628.

Matthew Zanis

Power Athlete Block One Coach at Power Athlete
PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS Former baseball catcher and an avid outdoorsman. Worked with Division 1 basketball, football, and track and field at the University of Pittsburgh, along with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Cardinals organizations. Received a Bachelors in Athletic Training from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Duke University in 2014. Is board certified in Orthopedics and a Fellow in Training through the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists. Currently owns and operates his performance therapy practice in Phoenix, AZ and became a Power Athlete Block One Coach in September of 2017.

Dr. Zanis utilizes the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and rehab his clients and athletes through movement assessment, coaching, and individualized program design.

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6 Responses to Unlocking Stress: The Double Edge Sword

  1. Great article brother. I’d love to see some stuff on stress Management, emotional and mental, if you have any good leads?

  2. Matt

    I’ve been following you guys since 2010. I’m in law enforcement and have loved the programming and made ripper gains. After wrestling a crook 18 months ago I tore my rotator cuff. That with having to back off training including the stress at work got to me. I’m slowly getting on top of it but suffer a bit of stress inflammation in my left hand which sometimes exasperates things.
    All doctors want to do is prescribe medication that have significant side affects.
    Would love some input on others who have experienced same.
    Any help would be greatly appreciated
    Great article thanks

  3. Matt, thank you for your comments. That is a very interesting experience you are having in your hand. Is this the same side as your rotator cuff tear? Did you have surgery? As stress increases from injury, physical exertion, demands of your job, family life, and overall emotional status about the entire situation, the brain will produce extraordinary outputs as a coping mechanism. I have seen this with previous patients – distal (away from your heart) swelling in areas away from the perviously damaged body part. It is important to understand that this reaction (pain experience) is a way for your brain to try and protect you, albeit from falsified information. Your “alarm system” is still ringing despite your body tissues being healed after all this time. If you are right hand dominate, I would recommend trying to use your left hand as much as possible – even for daily tasks like brushing your teeth. This will help your brain calm down the alarm system because it will view that hand and arm as less of a threat.

  4. MCK, the “Headspace” App is a great tool to use to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system in order to work on stress management. Some other low hanging fruit for entering that “rest and digest” state is through a breathing practice with a 4:4:8 count (inhale:hold:exhale). The longer exhale helps our brain recognize that we are is a safe place. 3 -5 minutes of this at any point throughout the day is super helpful! This breathing technique is also very useful in improving positional mobility. A great example would be to use this breathing pattern in the bottom position of your squat to help your nervous system accept that range of motion and own that pattern.

  5. Matt

    Thanks that’s fantastic and makes a lot of sense. I had surgery on my left shoulder three months ago and received 3 stitches in my suprespinatus. The hand swelling is on the same side. I must admit I initially nursed it a bit too much in fear of undoing the stitches. My middle finger was first to swell followed by thumb and index.
    It comes and gows intermittently. I will give all the advice a go much appreciated
    Thanks again

  6. Matt,
    Based on the information you just provided, I am going to shoot you an email so we can chat further.

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