One thing we all seem to have in common in modern society is our stress levels seem to be constantly through the roof.

Our lives are now so fast paced and relentless it can feel like there’s never enough hours in the day, one day blurs into the next and you’re constantly on edge, anxious, and just downright stressed about a million things in your life.

I get it. We need this stress to a certain extent, it’s often what drives us to do great things in our work lives, family lives and even in the gym. But chronic stress, or constantly being in that up tight and reactive state comes with a cascade of health and physique implications – I’ve witnessed both of these first hand to extremes.

Chronic stress can be the difference between you achieving your physique goals and you getting absolutely nowhere. Stress can affect digestion, sleep, mood and play havoc with your hormones – all things that negatively impact the way you look.

So if you’re the kind of person that can’t seem to unwind or let yourself relax and you always feel stressed – stay with this article to the end. I’m going to try and break down everything I know through study and practical experience about why we should care about destressing for the benefit of both our health and our physique, as well as some practical tips to put it into action.

But first, we need to understand some basic physiology.

The Sympathetic & Parasympathetic Nervous System

Now I’m not going to baffle you with terminology here but to properly understand stress, it’s important we understand the systems that govern it. This primarily concerns what’s known as the ‘Autonomic Nervous System’ – and is split into two sections: Sympathetic & Parasympathetic nervous systems. For simplicity – we can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the ‘stress response system’ and the parasympathetic as the ‘rest and digest system’.

Both of these systems are vitally important and we need to utilise them both at certain times of the day. We must understand that neither of these systems are inherently good or bad, they are just necessary in certain situations.

The sympathetic (stress response) nervous system is responsible for the what you might have heard referred to as the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Whenever we are put in extremely stressful situations the sympathetic nervous system is called into action and produces a bunch of stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) so we are alert to any potential danger around us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this has been vital for humans in the past – as we were much more likely to be attacked by bears and lions and shit. Nowadays (especially in the UK), we’re less likely to be attacked by wild animals and more likely to be stressed out by some dude cutting us up on the M1. Clearly these two events are nothing like each other in terms of actual danger – but the body’s response can be the same if we’re already in that ‘reactive’ state. There are ways to combat this which I’ll cover later, but first it is just important to understand why you’re reacting like this to a relatively minor event, from a physiological standpoint.

The parasympathetic nervous system is, by contrast, the system that governs all things to do with essentially us chilling the f*ck out. It’s responsible for the proper digestion of foods, sexual activity and lowering the stress hormones that can make us so often feel anxious, on edge, panicky and super stressed. This is the system most people don’t properly utilise at the right times of day, which can cause huge issues with health and the development of their physique.

So now we know the systems governing what we’re talking about – we can look at when to best use each one. Let’s start with when to welcome stress into our daily lives as a means to improve our health and physique.

When To Welcome Stress

As noted earlier, stress can be a really useful tool at certain points in our life. If you’re standing in the middle of the road and a bus is about to turn you into a pretty unpleasant piece of roadkill – the stress response and ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is pretty useful in telling you to move the out of the f*cking way.

In more practical terms, we can plan to utilise the sympathetic nervous system’s magic by deliberately elevating our stress levels going into our training sessions. We must remember that training in itself is a controlled stress, so it’s OK to be a little intense when you’re in the gym. In fact – I’d argue that it’s quite necessary to be intense if you want to actually make a good amount of progress. You can’t stroll into the gym in a super chilled out and lazy frame of mind and expect to do enough damage for your body to produce an adaptive response (put on muscle). You’ve got to get in there and be prepared to put in work.

On the flip side of this, we can push pre workout stress levels too far to the point where we start to feel anxious and panicky in the gym. This is often through over stimulating – I’ve experienced this when taking too many shit quality pre workout products in an attempt to get myself ‘up for the session’. If you have an issue getting yourself motivated or feeling awake and alert enough to train, it’s likely an issue with your sleep or other areas of your recovery which I’ll cover later.

For this reason (among others), I have personally, (and it must be said, purely anecdotally) found a certain type of pre workout routine that works really well for me and the majority of my clients. This depends on what time you train, but for me – up to around 1.5-2 hours before I plan to start training my mental focus starts to switch from my work or whatever I was focusing on before, to my workout. I have a pre workout meal (I find a small amount of protein from tuna or white meat and some coconut oil is more than enough) and I’ll have a strong pre workout coffee but very rarely will I touch any pre workout supplements (unless they’re of very good quality).

I often find music helps in this pre workout window to get me hyped up for the session – personally my preference is something hard & heavy, but whatever gets you in the mood to train.

Lastly, the content of your workout matters! If you’re doing things you hate in the gym you probably won’t ever look forward to it. Yes, I do preach a lot about the do’s and don’ts of training but above all you need to enjoy what you do. There’s certain days I’ll flick through my workout plan and be absolutely buzzing I get to squat, press, pull or whatever it is on that particular day. If you’re not enjoying your training it’s very unlikely that any of these tips will help you walk into the gym in the right frame of mind – you’ll probably still be dreading your workout. Find something you enjoy doing.

When To Minimise Stress

As far as I’m concerned, when you’re not in the gym intentionally putting yourself into a stressful situation, you should be concerned with minimising the amount of stress on your body and mind.

Yes, I know this is far easier said than done and we all lead very stressful lives. But if you take one thing away from this article that helps you to be a little less stressed and see improvements in your health and physique I’ve done my job.

So with this in mind, here are a few little tips to try and implement into your daily routine to increase the parasympathetic activity and help lower your stress levels throughout the day.

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I used to dismiss the idea of mindfulness/meditation as absolute horse-shit if I’m being honest. The idea of sitting cross legged and singing kumbaya my lord struck me as a ridiculous waste of time. But that really isn’t what it’s about at all. In fact, when done properly, meditation or mindfulness is just a way to calm the mind and get yourself out of that toxic reactive state that can cause so many issues.

I’ve personally just started using the app “Headspace”, which is available on all good app stores I believe, and actually guides you through 3, 5 or 10 minute meditations and breathing exercises. I do a 3-5 minute meditation about 15-20 minutes after waking up in the morning, and then again if I get chance or remember as soon as I’ve finished my workout to get myself out of that sympathetic stressful state. Don’t dismiss this one as I used to if you’ve never tried it – it can really help lower your stress levels and help you slow down to make more informed and considered decisions in your life.

Optimising Sleep

Now this is an entire series of blog posts on it’s own – but I can’t leave this out because it is so important to so many aspects of health and physique development. If you’re getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night you’re going to struggle to function optimally during the day. Without delving too much into the ins and outs, why’s and but’s (purely because the topic is way too big for the scope of this article), here’s a few practical tips to make sure you’re getting more sleep:

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every night and morning.
  • Eliminate any blue light for an hour before going to bed (that means getting rid of your phone, TV, laptop, iPad and try not to expose yourself to too much light full stop.
  • Stay active during the day so that you actually feel tired when it comes to the evening.
  • Have a night time routine that signals to your brain it’s time to start winding down (mine involves getting rid of all my electrical devices, putting the dog to bed, taking a shower and reading in bed for half an hour, simple as that).

There are a ton of nuances and person dependent variables that could lead to going down all sorts of rabbit holes with nutrition, supplementation and different lifestyle factors but for the scope of this article, that should be sufficient.

Changing Your Perceptions

From a physiological perspective, the event happening in front of us is irrelevant. It’s how we perceive the event that influences whether it’s the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system that is stimulated.

What we must remember in situations that have the potential to cause a massive stress response from our body is that perceptions are not reality. Just because we perceive something to be negative or threatening doesn’t mean it necessarily is. A great example of this could be if you say hello to someone you know and they barely even grunt as a response back to you. In a lot of people (me included) this could set your mind racing as to what you’ve done wrong to upset this person, why they’re being such a dick towards you, what’s wrong with them, what’s wrong with you – just a cascade of meaningless thoughts that only serve to cause a sympathetic stress response and make you feel like shit.

The reality of that situation is much more likely to be that the dude is just having a really bad day and it’s nothing to do with you. So the entire stress response was not only harmful to you but completely unnecessary. Of course, unless we were to ask this hypothetical man there’s no way of knowing. But short of asking him – what good are we going to do by stressing about it anyway? Challenge and change your perceptions and you’ll see your stress levels come down significantly.


I’ll be honest – I don’t know an awful lot about this. But from the research I’ve done and the people I’ve listened to about it, and anecdotally with myself, I’ve found it to be quite beneficial to lowering stress levels.

The idea is essentially that at some point every day, you get in contact with the earth. Whether that’s walking barefoot on some grass or whatever it might be, the idea behind it is that by being in contact with the earth we are able to absorb many of the minerals contained in the soil which can help with all different aspects of health. The worst thing that can happen is you waste 5 mins and get dirty feet.

A rather obvious sidenote here is that it works much better during the summer months. I for one certainly ain’t going barefoot walking in December in Doncaster.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully some parts of this article resonated with you or at least gave you some ideas of how to reduce the stress in your life in order to be healthier, happier and have a better physique.

Stress affects us all and no matter what we try to do to counter act it, it’ll always be there in some aspect. We don’t need to eliminate it completely – we just need to try to minimise it a little. If you can get on top of that, you’ll notice your moods, physique, performance in the gym and overall health come on leaps and bounds.

I hope this was helpful in some way – if it was please share it with a friend.

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