Managing Stress

Training is about managing stress.

From a physical standpoint, what this boils down to is sets, reps, intensity, total volume, amount of training sessions, etc.

However, there is so much more to it than that.


I’m fascinated by stress. I’m not sure when it started, but my passion for understanding what causes stress and how it can affect your everyday life has been going on for years now. I strongly believe this passion is closely intertwined with my own struggles with depression and anxiety, and most likely stemmed from my pursuit of knowledge in an effort to understand and manage these better. Along the way I have learned a lot, but also stumbled upon more and more questions that I have a relenting desire to answer.

One of the questions I ask all new clients is how stressful their work and personal lives are. Sometimes they look at me funny when I ask this, wondering how this could possibly be something their trainer needs to know. Besides, I’m not a therapist, what could I possibly know about stress?

The answer to that question is, actually, quite a bit.

As a trainer and a coach my job is quite literally to manipulate and manage the stress in your life. Granted, in a perfect world I would be able to manage all the different stressors in your life, both inside the gym and out. I would also make a lot more money if I could do this. Like I said, in a perfect world….

Unfortunately, I’m limited to just managing the stress that you put into your training sessions. I do this by manipulating things such as volume and intensity to make sure that you are getting enough of a stress stimulus to drive adaptation, but not too much that you can’t recover. To be honest with you, this is the easiest of all the different sources of stress in your life to manage.

Where things get tricky is managing the stress that stems from your relationships, your mental state (I’m a lost cause), your work, and so on. Although you can’t necessarily take care of these in the gym, there are a variety of proven ways to make progress on your own.



If you get one thing out of this article, please let it be that you need enough sleep (7-9) hours, and at a high quality. I won’t get into the amount of sleep you need too much, as the guideline provided by most professionals of 7-9 hours a night isn’t something that needs to be changed. However, you also need to take into account that this number may change based on the other stressors in your life.

Suffering with some mental health issues? You may want to be closer to the 9 rather than the 7 hours that are recommended. Not sleeping enough? Same story. On the flip side you may be able to get away with being closer to the 7 end of the spectrum if you dialed back your training a little bit, and nailed your nutrition. You get the idea.

Sleep hygiene also plays a huge role in the quality of sleep you get. I won’t get into that today, but stay tuned for more information than you would ever want to know on sleep in the near future.


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Nutrition is another critical aspect of stress management. If you eat like an asshole, you stress your body more. It’s as simple as that. Well, not really. As always there’s a bit more to it…

I’m starting to become a huge fan of the Paleo Diet, and I’ve seen it do some pretty cool things for myself and those I’ve worked with. My biggest fascination with this diet, and I should say lifestyle, is the emphasis on healing the gut. Over fifty percent of the seratonin in your body is produced in the gut, not the brain. Think about that for a second. Seratonin is a chemical found in your body that helps regulate mood. Normal seratonin levels leave you feeling happy and content. Low seratonin is linked to depression, increased anxiety, and a variety of other mental health disorders as well as insomnia. So if fifty percent of the seratonin in your body is made in your gut, wouldn’t you think that it is a good idea to promote gut health?

When your gut is unhealthy and riddled with inflammation and lacking in good bacteria, less seratonin is produced. Less seratonin means less happiness, which means less gains. Long story short, fix your gut health people.

Do some research on the interaction between seratonin and the gut, as well as some research on the Paleo Diet and how it affects gut health. You can be sure I will have some posts on these topics rolling out in the near future, but a little initiative to learn on your own never hurt anyone 🙂



People are naturally a social species. This means that in order to be healthy and live our lives to the fullest, we need to have social interaction. We also need to feel like we belong. This is why crossfit does so well. They have created a system of exercise, diet (usually paleo), lifestyle factors, and community that fits so well together.

The last part may be the most important though. This community and sense of belonging not only increases compliance, but also benefits the members from a social standpoint as well. A well run CrossFit gym has successfully managed almost all aspects of stress including training, nutrition, sleep through lifestyle changes and education, and relationships. It’s almost a thing of beauty if you ask me.

Another way relationships can influence your stress levels is how individual relationships affect you on a personal level. Have you ever gotten into a fight or an argument with a spouse or a loved one before going to the gym? How did you feel while training? My guess is drained, exhausted, tired, or any combination of those and more. This is just one example of how relationships can have a huge effect on both acute and chronic stress in your life.

Everyone seems to have that one person in their life that drags them down, and limiting the time spent with that person may go a long way towards managing your stress and improving your performance in the gym. Sometimes you don’t really have a choice, but you can always try to find ways to make these relationships healthier or distance yourself from those people.

On the contrary, surrounding yourself with like minded people who motivate you, challenge you to be better, and bring happiness into your life will always improve your mental health and stress levels. In turn, this will lead to improved performance in the gym
So there you have it, a little primer on how outside stressors can have a huge impact on your training and performance. I hope this helped to get you thinking about how you can better manage the stress in your life to improve your training and, more importantly, improve your overall happiness and sense of well being.


The Mobility/Stability Relationship

Mobility seems to be the new cure all for any of your fitness problems. You miss your snatches? Must not be mobile enough. Knee pain? There must be a mobility restriction either up or downstream of the problem area. Can’t squat 400 yet? Well obviously you must not have the requisite hip mobility to perform the movement most efficiently.

In some instances, in fact many instances, mobility truly is the limiting factor. Most people know how to train hard, have a good idea of how to eat for their goals, and have a basic understanding of how to recover between training sessions. However, many people don’t put nearly enough time as they should into improving their movement quality. I think there are a variety of reasons for this.

First and foremost doing mobility sucks. It’s not fun, it’s not sexy, it’s uncomfortable, and it won’t get you many likes on instagram. It’s like the planks at the end of your training session. The chances that you will enjoy them are slim to none, but in the back of your head you know that it will be of benefit.


foam rolling hurts

The second reason I think people don’t put enough time into mobility is that they lack the knowledge to efficiently do so. Notice how I said efficiently. Anyone can go online and find a variety of mobility drills to do and simply perform as many as possible in a hope to make some changes. It takes knowledge and experience to diagnose a mobility restriction, identify the structures responsible for this limitation, and choose a mobility drill that will effectively solve the problem. This is something I have been working on myself quite a bit lately, and I’ll be the first to admit it is quite overwhelming. However, like everything else in life, if you put in enough time and effort, eventually things will start to make sense.

Lastly, I think that people don’t do enough mobility simply because they don’t have time. They work, train, have school, have to take care of family, and have a variety of other responsibilities besides getting a lacrosses ball on their TFL. This is where the efficiency aspect comes into play again. Learn to focus on the things you need to in order to make the biggest changes to your movement quality. Find the limiting factor in performing a movement that is required by your training program, and attack that until you make a change. The good news is that your performance will improve, but the bad news is that something else will become the new limiting factor. If you don’t have enough time to learn this on your own, check out the large amounts of mobility wod videos that have been posted which will help you address certain areas of the body.

What people often overlook is that stability and mobility have a strong relationship when determining movement quality. One without the other is, in fact, quite useless. If the overall goal of performing mobility is to improve movement quality, then neglecting stability is like taking the steering wheel out of your car. The potential for movement is there, but without being able to control that movement you’re at a loss.

Think about it. What is the point in creating greater range of motion around a joint if you are incapable of simultaneously exhibiting stability throughout this range of motion? Not only is this not ideal, but it also could potentially set the stage for an injury as well. I think that butt wink in the squat is a good example of this. The initial problem that causes butt wink is almost always a mobility related issue. The hips are too tight, the hamstrings may be tight, the gluteal complex is lacking in mobility, and sometimes it may even be an issue of hip socket depth, which is an anatomical difference that simply cannot be changed.

However, after that requisite mobility is acquired, sometimes the butt wink persists. This may simply be that this person lacks the stability in this new found range of motion to prevent their pelvis from tilting in the bottom of the squat. The fix for this issue then becomes teaching this person how to maintain trunk stability and a neutral spine. This is usually mostly a lack of awareness in maintaining this position, rather than a lack of strength. Drills that simultaneously strengthen a neutral spine position while teaching the limbs of the body to move independently of the trunk such as dead bugs are critical here.

The joint by joint approach, as popularized by Mike Boyle, is a perfect example of the relationship between mobility and stability in the body. This approach states that each joint from the ground up alternates in its need for mobility and stability. For example, the ankles need mobility, the knees need stability, the hips need mobility, the lumbar spine needs stability, the thoracic spine needs mobility, the scapulo-thoracic joint needs stability, and the shoulders need mobility.


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This relationship between joints is also why the source of your pain may not exactly be the issue. Lower back pain typically results from a lack of mobility of the hips, which may be causing the butt wink issue we talked about earlier, which is causing the lumbar spine to move from extension to flexion during the squat. Hence your lower back pain. A mobility restriction in the thoracic spine may be also be causing pain in the shoulder joint, and so on.

It is also important to recognize that there are two different types of stability. Static stability is the ability to resist movement while other areas of the body are in motion. An example of this is maintaining a neutral spine during the squat. Dynamic stability on the other hand is the ability for a joint to move throughout a range of motion while maintaining proper alignment relative to the surrounding structures. An example of this would be the hips in the squat. Although the hips require mobility while squatting, they also require the stability to control that range of motion.

During a squat the hips go through flexion, extension, and external rotation. Many athletes are constantly working on their mobility so that they can properly externally rotate their hips at the bottom of the squat. This is important for a multitude of reasons, including maximizing the musculature used around the hip, increasing tension around the joint which results in increased stability, and preventing the impingement of the femur against the acetabulum. However, an athlete who lacks stability in this externally rotated position will not be able to maintain this throughout the entire movement. As a result, the hips will internally rotate, causing the knees to drive inwards. This is evident in some trainees as they drive out of the hole with heavier weights.

When you start looking at the movement patterns of yourself or your athletes, remember that there is a strong relationship between mobility and stability. Progress in one without a requisite amount of the other may actually be counter productive. However, that’s not an excuse to skimp on your mobility work. Implement some of the previous tactics such as mobility wod or improving the efficiency of your mobility sessions to make improving the quality of your movement more bearable. But do your due diligence and take the time to learn some drills which increase stability.

So you understand now that not only do you need mobility, but stability as well. As previously mentioned, stability needs are on a joint by joint basis. However, before I outline some exercises that are good for targeting stability around a certain joint, I would like to make this statement. Properly performed compound movements build stability in the areas you need it, as well as improve mobility in the areas that you need as well. I’m not here to tell you that your squat will not improve your ability to stabilize your body. That is nonsense. A properly performed squat is a good example of your body exhibiting stability throughout the entire range of motion of one of the most basic human movements. Notice how I said properly performed. Some people lack the ability to perform the movement properly, and as a result issues arise, such as butt wink or knee valgus, which can lead to injuries down the road. This is when the movement should be analyzed to see just where the stability limitations are, and these limitations can be eliminated by either drawing awareness to these areas, or performing drills or exercises to increase stability. Below are examples of some exercises to increase stability around the lumbar spine and shoulder, two of the areas that most athletes need to increase stability in the most.

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Lower Back: Maintaining stability in the lumbar spine while other segments of the body are moving is key. However, there are a variety of movements that this area of the body needs to be able to resist. Therefore, exercise groups can be broken down into anti-flexion and anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, anti rotational, and those involving maintaining a neutral spine during hip flexion, which is essentially what happens during a proper squat. Some examples of each are listed below:

Anti Extension: Ab Wheel Roll Outs, Dead Bugs, Farmers Walk

Anti Flexion:Back Extension, Deadlift, Good Morning

Anti Lateral Flexion: Single Arm Farmers Walk, Suitcase Deadlifts

Anti-Rotational: Pallof Press, Half Kneeling Cable Lift

Hip Flexion: Hanging Leg Raise, Stability Ball Pike

Obviously there are plenty more examples. These are just a few to get you started.

Shoulder: Maintaining stability in the shoulder is mainly about teaching proper scapular movement, as well as strengthening all of the positions you will end up in. It starts with awareness. After all, how can you consistently hit a position that you don’t even know the feeling of? Learn how to retract your scapula and “pinch” your shoulder blades together. Then learn how to push and pull from this position. Think of a properly performed bench press where you retract your scapula and “build a shelf” with your upper back to press out of. You also want to be able to do this without too much scapular elevation.

Most athletes are quite trap dominant, meaning that most of the movement around the shoulder comes from the upper fibers of the trapezius muscle. This is true for the lats as well. Train the scapular retractors as well those muscles that depress the scapula such as the rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius fibers, and the external rotators which includes the infraspinatus, teres minor, and posteror deltoid. This will help you set your shoulders in a healthier, stronger position and maintain this position throughout the required range of motion. Thus, shoulder stability. Here are a few exercises to help you achieve this:

Face Pulls

Band Pull Aparts

Prone Dumbbell Press

Banded Shoulder External Rotation

Activation of the serratus is also key when it comes to improving shoulder stability. Here is a good drill that helps with this courtesy of Eric Cressey.

Serratus Activation

There you have it, a good primer on the importance of stability, as well as some ways to increase stability around the shoulder and lumbar spine. Hopefully this information helps you get stronger, move better, avoid injury, and hit some new PR’s.

Weekend Reading

I’m pretty happy with this weeks list, and I hope you like it as well. Let me know if you have any topics you would like me to cover in upcoming posts in the comments below. -Proper recovery is often overlooked when it comes to developing and following a training program. You can’t train hard day in and day out if you haven’t recovered from the stress of the previous session. This article talks about some of the simple ways to monitor your own recovery so that you can get the most out of your training. -This is a great article that talks about lousy periods of training leading up to a meet, and why you will still be ok on the platform. If you’re coming up on a meet soon and unhappy with your current training, make sure to give this one a read. -This is the last part of a 3 part series on how to keep your shoulders healthy by Eric Cressey. Cressey is one of the leaders in the strength and conditioning field when it comes to properly implementing corrective exercise, and this stands especially true when talking about the shoulder joint. If you have issues with your shoulders, make sure not to miss this one. -This is a short one, but the message is very important. Glenn Pendlay talks about how although some people can train for weightlifting by just focusing on the clean and jerk and snatch with very little assistance, most won’t find success with this method. The majority of us are not genetically built for weightlifting. We have limbs that are too long, torsos that are too short, and other anthropometric features that are not in our favor. Our way of tipping the scales back in our direction is assistance work, and usually lots of it.

Weekend Reading

As always, your reading to look forward to during the weekend. Let me know what you think about any of the articles.– I’m a big fan of using visualization when training. I strongly believe that if you can’t close your eyes and imagine yourself performing a movement effortlessly, you have not truly mastered it. Make sure to give this article a read and learn about one of the most powerful tools you may be missing from your training. -This is a short and to the point article on ten steps to implement to become a good coach. For those of you with aspirations of coaching, make sure you don’t miss this. -This is a very interesting read that offers a formula for you to find out how committed to training you are. Yeah I know, it’s math, but if I could do it I promise you can manage.

Weekend Reading

Here is your weekly list of good reads. Once again, this list is also posted on iron prescription. Make sure to check these out, and enjoy your weekend.– Mark Rippetoe sure knows how to get people riled up, and this article does not disappoint in that regard. Rip states that the major flaw with physical therapy is that PT’s rehab the injured area in a way that it does not originally function. It is a fascinating read, and certainly should not be missed. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and have a seat.– This is the first of a two part series on lifting belts over at 70’s big. This write up mostly delves into the physiological effects of wearing a belt, and leaves more of the practical application to the next post.– This is the second part of the series on why you should be belting up. This post breaks down why you should wear a belt, what belt to use, and the importance of wearing a belt if you have lower back issues. Many people are misunderstood as to how belts work and whether or not they should be wearing one, so hopefully these two articles help to clear up any misconceptions.– The last two articles were about belts, and this third one is a compilation of the information already stated in an easy to read format. For the sake of thoroughness you may want to read this as well.

Weekend Reading

From now on these lists will also be posted on iron prescription. If you haven’t yet, make sure to check out the site. Great articles, great information, great coaching and nutrition programs, and great products. The site is also run by great people who are passionate about what they do and live the lifestyle that they promote.
1) -Fitness is frustrating. Whether it’s the industry as a whole or your own personal training, frustration is bound to show it’s face on a regular basis. This is a list by Tony Bonvechio on his site, Bonvec Strength, about many of the things he finds frustrating. It’s a great list and an even better read, so make sure to check it out.
2) -This is an article written by Greg Everett about overhead stability in the snatch. It talks about the many possible factors that could prevent an athlete from having a strong and stable overhead position. Make sure to check this one out if you are an olympic lifter or implement the snatch in your training or the training of your athletes.
3) -I’m a big fan of the Texas Method, although I admittedly cut my experiences with it far too short because I switched my focus to Olympic Lifting. However, it is a tried and true intermediate program that is also a logical next step from the starting strength program, which many novice barbell athletes are familiar with. If you are just finishing up a novice linear progression, or are looking to put some more plates on the bar, give this article a read.
4)– It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Dan John, and this article is no exception. It features a list of 9 training tips for dedicated lifters and is an informative and entertaining read. Dan John has been lifting since 1965, and employed as a strength coach since 1979. He has a ton of information to share from practical experience, and his articles are always worth checking out.

Weekend Reading

Here’s some quick reading to brighten up your Sunday. – This is an article written by yours truly for iron prescription. Long story short it’s about how the answer isn’t always so black and white when it comes to training. -Here’s a good article on why sometimes the answer isn’t always to add variety to your training. I like the idea of changing things up every once in awhile, but many people never stick with something long enough to truly get the most out of it.