Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

Graphs showing relation between training and stress levels

Graphs That Give You Gains: One of the lovely curves you’re about to become familiar with.

“It depends.” I hate giving this answer, but in so many cases that’s the only one that can be given. Unlike with the coaching, when people ask questions in the comments I don’t know the person and their situation, so in order to be helpful I need to either ask a follow up question, or explain a bit of theory, and by that point the person is often no longer interested and thinks I’m just being awkward by not giving the single answer that they so desperately want to hear.

Sometimes you need to read a little theory to get the answers you want…

Why should I cut back my training volume in a calorie deficit? By how much? Are 3 sets better than 5, or 5 better than three? How does training experience affect optimal training volume? How little can I get away with yet maintain my gains?

It all comes down to stress: Training is a stress that we put on our bodies to force adaptation. You need to manage stress and recovery to make optimal gains. This article provides a framework to help show you how to answer those questions.

This is a chapter from Greg Nuckols’ book, ‘The Science of Lifting’. As I was proof-reading it for him this just stood out as a section that I felt you (the discerning reader) would find useful, so I asked if I could pay to feature this here on the site. While I had my hand in suggesting tweaks to the graphs and extending it to cover calorie deficit circumstances, consider this all Greg’s work. Seriously, I hope you enjoy it – this one totally tickles my inner nerd, while still remaining practical and applicable.

Enter Greg Nuckols…

Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

The Conceptual Groundwork

When thinking about stress, it’s always useful to start with the General Adaptation Syndrome in mind. Very small amounts of stress won’t provoke a very robust adaptive response, but more stress increases adaptation.  However, too much stress – to the point that you can’t cope with it physically or psychologically – also decreases the rate of adaptation. An important factor to keep in mind is that your body doesn’t differentiate between different types of stress to a great degree. Although the specific adaptations to different types of stress (lifting weights, a car crash, tight deadlines at work, etc.) differ, your body’s general response when it encounters and copes with any stressor is very similar for any stressor you encounter. This means (to simplify things a bit) that all the stressors in your life pool together, and dip into the same reservoir of “adaptive reserves” that are available for recovering from those stressors, allowing you to adapt so you’ll be better equipped to handle them next time. In the case of strength training, that means bigger, stronger muscles, more resilient tendons and connective tissue, and bones that can handle heavier loading.

Your body needs a certain amount of stress simply to function normally. Remove all the stressors from your life, and your body begins to deteriorate. For example, if you won the lottery and spent a year laying on the couch, watching reality TV  – facing no stressors that challenge you physically or mentally – you’d be much weaker and in much worse health than you are now with some baseline level of physical and psychological stress in your life. [Greg and I seem to have very different ideas on how to best spend lottery winnings.]

Past that baseline level, further stress causes beneficial adaptation, with diminishing returns and eventually negative returns.  The first input of any sort of stress tends to cause the largest beneficial adaptation, with further stress having an additive effect, though each additional unit of stress doesn’t add as much additional benefit as the first one did. However, once the total amount of stress you’re coping with (physically and psychologically) exceeds the threshold of what your “adaptive reserves” can handle, additional stress begins having a negative effect.

Here’s how this concept applies to training

The easiest way to visualize this concept is by looking at the integral of a skew right normal distribution with x-intercepts at 0 (for an untrained lifter – more on that later) and some arbitrary positive number.

Here is one such curve sketched out, with intercepts at 0 units of stress (no stress means no adaptation) and 4.5 units of stress (the maximal amount you can handle without reaching beyond your ability to cope).


Stress 1

Below I’ve sketched out the integral (area under the curve) when the body is presented with 1 unit of stress. This would be a small-to-moderate stressor.  The magnitude of adaptation is represented by the shaded area.


Stress 2

Here is the integral for 4 units of stress. As you can see, the shaded area is larger than it was for just 1 unit of stress. This means a larger adaptive response. This would be near the maximal amount of stress the body can respond to productively, and the maximal amount of benefit you could possibly get from training (maximum would be around 4.5).


 Stress 3

Below you see what happens when we have 8 units of stress. This represents a stressor larger than that which the body would respond maximally too. Area in quadrant 4 (below the x-axis) represents a reduction in the magnitude of the adaptive response. In this case, the area under the curve between 4.5 and 8 represents the magnitude of benefit that’s been nullified from doing too much, so that you’d get slightly more benefit from 2 units of stress than you would from doing 4x as much work.


Stress 4

This is roughly what occurs when dealing with training factors that add stress.

So just to sum all of this up, in case you’re still a little confused about what exactly you’re looking at:

  1. the x-intercept on the left (for the graphs above) represents the minimum amount of stress necessary to start having a positive effect.
  2. the x-intercept on the right (4.5 for the graphs above) represents the maximum amount of stress the body can respond productively to.
  3. the positive area under the curve, minus the negative area under the curve, is the total amount of positive adaptation you get from your training.
  4. the curve itself represents marginal gains or losses as the stimulus increases.

Training Volume, Training Intensity, and Cardio

Let’s look at three examples: Training volume, training intensity, and cardio training.

Training Volume

James Kreiger’s wonderful meta-analysis about the effects of doing more sets in training illustrates the first part of this concept beautifully. 2-3 work sets will give you significantly better gains than 1 work set, and 4-6 sets will probably give you better gains than 2-3 sets (it didn’t reach statistical significance, but there is a larger effect size). However, there was a much larger difference between 1 and 2-3 than there was between 2-3 and 4-6. The former would represent going from maybe 2 units of stress in the graphs above, to 3 units of stress. The latter would represent going from 3 to 4 units of stress – increased gains, but not nearly to the same extent.

However, that relationship of increased work leading to increased gains only holds true to a point. Once you accumulate too much volume, you start regressing; you enter the realm of overtraining.

This is a direct message to anyone who says overtraining doesn’t exist: run a marathon every day, lift weights HARD for 4-5 hours every day, eat as much as you want, sleep as much as you want (and shoot, take whatever steroids you want), and tell me at the end of 6 months if you still think overtraining is imaginary (if you survive until the end).

That represents the curve dipping below the x-axis, and the detriments of the stress in excess of the maximal amount you’re capable of adapting to overwhelming the benefits you’d have seen from lower levels of stress.

With training volume, more is better until you reach your limit, at which point further increases don’t just fail to produce better results, but instead lead to worse results.

Training Intensity

Training intensity is similar to training volume. Research has shown that using loads of at least 60% of your max are necessary to cause robust gains in hypertrophy under normal conditions. From that point, there’s a range from about 60-85% that gives you the most bang for your buck in terms of strength and hypertrophy gains.

When you start training above 85% regularly, especially if you’re taking a lot of your sets close to failure, the benefits start decreasing. This is because training volume is priority #1, and you simply can’t handle very much training volume with 90-100% of your max. Training that heavy has its place when peaking for a meet, or if you have the rest of your program adjusted accordingly to allow for appropriate training volume, but it doesn’t allow you to simply do enough work to make your best strength and size gains year-round under most circumstances, if that’s the only intensity range you use.

To see this in practice, you can simply look around at almost every successful strength training program in existence. You’ll see that the vast majority of successful powerlifters and bodybuilders throughout the years have made the intensity range of 60-85% the bread and butter of their training, because it allows for adequate training volume without unduly increasing psychological stress; constantly training too light doesn’t give your body enough reason to grow, and training too heavy has more of the downside (mentally stressful, and doesn’t allow for adequate training volume) with very similar upsides (muscle, bone, and neural adaptations that come with strength training) to training in the 60-85% range.

Cardio Training

Doing some aerobic training will have a positive impact on your lifting, because picking up heavy stuff is an energy-intensive endeavor. If your conditioning isn’t good enough to knock out set after set, you’re not going to be able to handle enough training volume, and your recovery likely won’t be as good.

However, for a strength athlete or bodybuilder, all you’re really shooting for is an adequate base of aerobic fitness. Benefits accrue to the point that you attain that sufficient base level of aerobic fitness. However, once you start training like you’re going to run a marathon, strength and mass gains suffer.

Proper structuring of training is key here, too. It takes more dedicated cardiovascular training to build aerobic fitness, but relatively little to maintain it. Since it’s a stressor you have to account for, a training block dedicated to building more aerobic fitness necessitates reductions in lifting volume. However, once you have an adequate base (a resting heart rate in the low 60s is a good indicator), you can dial back your aerobic training to allow you to ramp your strength training back up.

How Genetics, Drugs, Training Experience, Recovery Modalities & Calorie Balance Affect Our Gains

An important thing to keep in mind with this concept is that your training status shifts the curve. As you become more highly trained, the y-intercept would become farther and farther below 0, representing the fact that it requires a certain amount of stress simply to maintain your current adaptations. If you’re untrained, no stress means no gains and no losses. With more training, no stress whatsoever means larger and larger losses – it takes more work just to maintain performance (though maintenance is considerably easier than progress).

How Training Experience Affects the Curve

Furthermore, as you become more highly trained, the apex of the curve shifts down and the curve as a whole stretches out.


Stress 9

In non-nerd speak, this means that the total possible gains you can make decrease, the amount of work you have to do to maintain your strength increases, but the total amount of productive work you can do increases.

How Life Stressors Negatively Impact Our Gains

Life stressors can shift the curve down. The minimal amount of training stress necessary to make gains increases, the overall magnitude of adaptations possible decrease, and the maximal amount of training stress you can handle before overreaching/overtraining decreases.


stress 6

How Better Recovery Modalities Positively Affect Our Gains From Training

More attention to stress management and “recovery” modalities (sleep and meditation are two I would recommend for example) can shift the curve up, meaning beneficial adaptations to a lower threshold of training stressors, greater total possibilities for adaptation, and a higher ceiling for the amount of training stress you can handle before overreaching/overtraining. (See figure 7)


stress 7

Genetic factors and steroids work in a similar manner, with better genetics/more drugs shifting the curve up, and worse genetics/fewer drugs shifting the curve down.

One final note = to make the normal training range easier to see on the graphs above, none of the curves went very far past the right intercept (when excess stress starts eating into your gains). As the stress increases further, there’s an increasingly negative effect. A bit over optimal isn’t much of an issue, more than that drives you toward overreaching/overtraining, and then past that point really bad stuff starts happening.


stress 11

How Calorie Deficits Negatively Affect Our Training Response, How Surpluses Positively Impact It

[From here consider the article is a joint-effort. I hijacked Greg’s conceptual model to illustrate a point I wanted to make about calorie balance affecting training. – Andy]

This concept is also crucially important for planning your training in a calorie deficit versus a surplus. A calorie deficit is a stressor that competes for those adaptive reserves by itself, meaning less are left over to respond to the stress of strength training. Add to that the simple mechanistic fact that building new muscle requires energy, and when you’re in a calorie deficit, you have less energy left over to build muscle after the energetic needs for survival are taken care of.  These things shift the curve down.

Let’s look at how energy balance affects the training stress response curve of the novice trainee:


stress 8

In the graph above, the red curve may represent maintenance calories.  The blue curves below it represent deficits of different magnitudes, and the blue curve above it would represent a surplus.

We can see that even for the novice trainee, as the calorie deficit increases, the y-axis intercept drops further and further below zero. – Training is required in order to maintain muscle mass.

The takeaway: in a deficit, you can’t gain muscle at the same rate as you can in a surplus, and you can’t handle and benefit from the same level of training volume – it takes less total work to dip below the x-axis and migrate from productive work to counter-productive (not just unproductive) excessive work.

In a surplus, those factors are exactly reversed. Eating a surplus of calories is an inherently stress-reducing activity (a major reason so many people stress eat – eating extra when you’re stressed helps you cope physically and psychologically with the stress), and leaves more energy left over to be used to build muscle after essential life-maintaining functions are taken care of. For this reason, you can and should increase your training volume when in a surplus – you can handle a significantly higher workload to build strength and muscle at a faster rate.

Now let’s consider how a deficit affects more advanced lifters:

Recall from figure 5 that an increase in training experience shifts the curve down. With a calorie deficit, the response curve shifts down further.

What this means is that the training amount required in order to not regress increases, the overall potential for adaptations is greatly reduced, and the amount of training that can be handled before over-training occurs (and thus marginal losses have potential to accrue) is lower (though you will notice still higher than for the novice trainee).  In many instances, for an advanced lifter, simply maintaining strength and muscle mass during a deficit may be the most you can hope for – the area below the x-axis on the left equaling the maximal positive area under the curve.


stress 10

If we shift the curve down once more to consider a highly advanced trainee, we would see that the margin for getting positive adaptations to training while in a calorie deficit are minimal, and the margin for error with setting the training stimulus is small – too much or too little and regression will occur.

Concluding Thoughts

In order to make the most of your training efforts:

  1. Eat well.
  2. Sleep well.
  3. Do your best to minimize stress in your life.
  4. Accept that if your primary goal is fat loss, you’ll need to be in a calorie deficit, and that does mean a reduced rate of gains. You won’t necessarily recover from the same level of training anymore, and you may very well need to reduce it in order to not shortcut your own efforts.
  5. Do not seek a one size fits all routine with your training. No one can tell you where you are on the curve – you have to play with it and see how you go.
  6. Don’t do drugs but have a mindset that you’re on them. – Believing in yourself will shift your gains curve up.


Greg Nuckols Deadlift

Greg’s book, ‘The Science of Lifting’ is packed full of chapters like this. It’s perfect for the trainee that has 6 months of real lifting under their belt, helping them to conceptualize things so they can answer their own questions and become independent.

I’m not sure whether I am letting my inner geek get the better of me here, but I feel it is the best book I have ever read on training, period, and I’ve already been recommending this to people for months.

You’ll find it bundled with an excellent but less geeky companion book, ‘The Art of Lifting’ which is perfect for the beginner and something I plan on sending to my 19 year old self when they invent the time machine. They are available here. (Not an affiliate link.)

Both Greg and I are available in the comments if you have questions. Thanks for reading!

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About the Author

Greg Nuckols

Greg Nuckols has over a decade of experience under the bar, and a BS in Exercise and Sports Science. He’s held 3 all-time world records in powerlifting in the 220 and 242 classes. He’s trained hundreds of athletes and regular folks, both online and in-person. He’s written for many of the major magazines and websites in the fitness industry, including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness,, T-Nation, and Furthermore, he’s had the opportunity to work with and learn from numerous record holders, champion athletes, and collegiate and professional strength and conditioning coaches through his previous job as Chief Content Director for Juggernaut Training Systems and current full-time work here on Strengtheory. His passions are making complex information easily understandable for athletes, coaches, and fitness enthusiasts, helping people reach their strength and fitness goals, and drinking great beer. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

90 Comments on “Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress”

  1. Luke says:

    Hi Andy,

    Firstly, thank you very much. I’ve found out about your website around a month ago and now I’m completely obsessed with it. Reading as many articles as my time allows me. The knowledge you input here is ridiculously high and I am grateful for the opportunity to read concise and precise information. I am also reading your books and they are all amazing, true eye openers.

    How do you adapt Martial Arts into your weightlifting training and your diet? I’ve heard you mention in Greg’s Youtube channel that you practice Karate. It looks like a reduction in training volume would be appropriate as I believe Martial Arts (MA) training would be another stressor to the body across the week. Let’s assume we are talking about mild training and nothing close to a fighting championship prep. Would you consider this type of training similar to a “cardio” training?

    Since the MA training levels would be kept relatively constant throughout the year (as there is probably little ups and downs in intensity), I am not sure in which ballpark I should classify this type of training. Definitely nothing like training for a marathon but also not a “warm up”. I got to be really honest here and admit that I am curious on how you adapt it to your own routine as well, given your experience.

    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Luke, thanks for the question.

      “How do you adapt training when doing Martial Arts training concurrently?”

      1. Arranging the positioning of certain exercises (lower body especially) across the week to minimize the effect of the MA training on the lifting performance, and vice versa. Which you prioritize depends on which is your priority. Based on what you have said, I’d say the lifting is the priority and you should just “embrace the suck” when you’re in the dojo.

      By way of example, Karate can be hard on the legs, especially certain stances and katas. Thus, you wouldn’t want to put a Karate session prior to a leg training session if you can help it. (Prior in this case is dependent on individual recovery time.) You could argue it the other way of course, but as I say, it depends on your priority. Compromise is needed.

      2. Reduce training volume (choose either, or a mix of both) when the above isn’t sufficient. (Related article.)

      Hope that helps, Luke.

  2. Drew says:

    Hi Andy & Greg, if you’re still reading this.

    Why does stress/lack of sleep affect fat loss detrimentally?

    Does stress/lack of sleep just cause increased hunger, poor workouts (leading to more weight lost being muscle), and water retention (which would likely affect someone psychologically), or are there other factors that I’m missing?


    1. It interferes with recovery and calorie partitioning (how well calories are used for recovery and muscle building vs fat storage). I’m not sure of the physiological reasons for the latter.
      Thanks for the question, Drew.

  3. Muita says:

    This is the first time I have read about Stress: In The Gym It is really interesting.

  4. Mike says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thank you so much for this great resource. Question about stress/recovery from a sport outside of resistance training: I train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 1-2 times per week in addition to 3 resistance training days. Obviously, things differ between people, but on average if you had to compensate somewhere would you prefer to add in more calories (typically carbs) in the meal after BJJ class, or cut back to two resistance training sessions per week? Or is this simply too much for an average beginner/intermediate gym guy to handle, typically?

    I don’t mean to be too specific to my situation – it can really apply to any type of exercise/sport on off days (outside of resistance training) where some short duration HIIT work is performed. Thanks for any advice you can provide in advance!

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for the question. I’d increase carbs on those days and just split it however it best sits with your preferences/comfort. Make sure you don’t eat so much that you get an upset stomach while on the mats.

  5. Adam says:


    Stupid question: Let’s say my current total volume on squats is 10,000lbs. Does this mean if I switch to an IF cut that I want to aim for 60%-85% of that total volume?

    Here’s the long version of the same question with potentially irrelevant information.

    I’ve been working these past few years on building overall strength and am only now thinking again about cutting again. However, I’m not sure how exactly to calculate the best training to maintain muscle but minimize CNS stress. This article helps, but I’m confused about how to find the right target volume.

    For reference, here are some squat stats and how I’ve increased total volume over time to help break through plateaus (based on your other article with Greg).

    July 2014 (RPT): 255×6 + 230 x 8 + 210 x 10. TOTAL RPT VOLUME = 5470
    Nov. 2014 (8×4): 225x8x4 TOTAL 8×4 VOLUME = 7,200
    Nov. 2015 (Wendler wk 3): 225x5x1, 245x3x1, 275x1x1 + 155lbsx10x5. TOTAL WENDLER VOLUME = 10,130

    As you can see, I’ve roughly doubled my total volume over this last year (largely thanks to the low rep high volume programming of Wendler’s boring but big routine), but I haven’t increased PRs per lift. I’d like to cut and then return to RPT perhaps to bring up PRs.

    For the duration of the cut, I was planning to switch to an 8×3 / 3 day split routine. Am I shooting for 60%-85% of recent work capacity? In this case 6,000-8,500lbs. Or is this the wrong way of thinking about it?

    Thanks Andy! Deeply grateful for all that you do!

    1. Adam, thanks for the question. You’ll probably need to reduce volume a little so that you can still recover. It’s not possible to put a percentage on how much.

  6. Martin says:

    Hi Andy,

    a bit late to the party, but maybe you are still reading this:

    Are there any other training adjustments I should make during a caloric deficit aside from cutting down volume? Should I still push for linear progression? My strength will usually be decreasing a few weeks into the deficit, so that would mean I’d eventually be going to failure quite often (which I usually avoid). Or should I (gasp!) lower my weights?

    1. Hi Martin, thanks for the questions.
      1. Make sure you are sleeping well and work to reduce any stress.
      2. Work to still make linear progressions as you would if you were in a calorie surplus, just know that there are limits to this (and a balance to be had) when in a calorie deficit. You can see that by the curves above – though they shift down, they’re still have areas above the x axis.

  7. Allen says:

    Hey Andy

    Thanks for the response. I measure the food after I cook it except oatmeal.

    I use a digital measurement tool as well.

    Is there a way to test if stress is an issue?

    Is it possible if I am eating at 2k calories but training that much I need to eat more?

    1. Allen, thanks for the follow up questions.
      “Is there a way to test if stress is an issue?”
      – There is HRV testing, and there are apps for it, but it has mixed reviews from colleagues that have attempted to use it with clients concerning accuracy, so it’s not something I currently use with clients.
      – There are ways to rate your stress based on current life events, such as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, but this misses an important component which is inter-individual variation between how people respond to life events. (Example: The family pet dies – to one person this will be far more stressful than another.)
      – In summary, I would’t bother with either of the above. The fact that you’re having to ask whether you are stressed tells me that you know the answer already.

      “Is it possible if I am eating at 2k calories but training that much I need to eat more?”
      – Absolutely.

  8. Allen says:

    Hi Andy

    If you’re maintenance calorie levels are 3000 and you are eating 2000 calories day but your waist is getting bigger is this a sign of stress wreaking havoc ?

    I’m currently 27 yrs old at 189 at around 15-20 body fat.

    Train 5 Days a week hitting each muscle group once with 30 minute cardio at 3,5 speed and 15 incline 5 days a week.

    Thanks for the response.

    1. Hi Allen, thanks for the question.
      Water retention can happen when we’re stressed, but it’s not going to lead to an increasingly expanding stomach line when in the presence of a calorie deficit. What you’re describing is typically a down to either mis-measurement, counting incorrectly, or mistaking a temporary water weight fluctuation for fat gain.

      If you have a lot of stress in your life then work to reduce it. Probably a good idea to reduce overall training volume while you get that under control.

  9. choccydreams says:

    Hello Greg!! I love this article. I have a question though. When you say “Your first set or two each day will generally be your highest quality sets” does this include the warm up sets?
    I am guessing the question is no.. but I wonder how does the body know this? If I start with squats for example I wouldn’t want my first set (warm up) to be my quality set obviously, and of course for protein synthesis.

    1. Hi Dani, let me answer as I doubt whether Greg is checking back in these comments any more.

      “Highest quality” because you’re the least fatigued at this point. As the warm-up is light it won’t contribute to overall training stress/stimulus in any significant way.

      1. choccydreams says:

        Thanks Andy that makes a lot more sense to me now 🙂

  10. Isaias says:

    Hi guys, great article. Hope you can help me out with this as I’m really in suffering…
    Been having problems with my sleep lately (wake up after 5-6 hours) and after searching intensively for the reason, some sources seem to suggest that a caloric deficit may cause this by additionally stressing the nervous system.
    Sleep is basic to reduce stress/overtraining and recovery, but is it possible that my deficit (combined with my training) is stressing my body/nervous system enough that I’m getting this response? Have you ever encountered this with any clients? In that case, what would you recommend? Do you think adjusting my training (reducing intensity/volume or removing one of the exercises) would be a good option? I was practically having no problem before, i’ve been increasing my deficit gradually…
    I’ve also thought it might be related to the change of seasons: all of a sudden it got significantly hot after a very cold winter. Any thoughts on this?
    Is it possible that IF is not for me? I find it really useful having a feeding window as I usually go overboard with eating and was always used to not having breakfast, i’m afraid that by doing so i might screw up my deficit.
    Any suggestions/techniques on how to reduce stress?
    Help will be highly appreciated!

    1. Hi Isaias. Yes, all are possible, though it’s most likely the first one – the calorie deficit combined with training stress and other stress in your life is affecting your sleep. The first thing to do is to test this by taking a diet break and seeing if this clears things up. If not, start to test the other variables one by one.

      1. Isaias says:

        Thanks for your reply Andy. Will do.
        One last thing before I head to your archives: is keeping up with the cutting/bulking cycle a personal decision or something forced by nature?
        I know you posted an article about this but I also recall that maintenance was described as something temporary and not long lasting (permanent), which is possibly how I’d like it for me, as bulking can be real tough economically with keeping a high protein intake and also having to raise the other macros. I live by myself and I don’t think I could keep up with it. In case is something forced, are there any suggestions you should have for someone living by themselves and bulking on a restricted budget?

        Thanks again, hope you have a great off time. You are really an inspiration.

        1. Sure, answered in order:

          There are two ways to think about this, maintenance in the caloric sense (bodyweight regulation), and maintenance of training adaptations (roughly – muscle vs fat mass).

          As you’ll have seen from the article, training adaptations require a training stimulus in order to be maintained, increasing with how highly trained someone is. Muscle mass maintenance works very much on the basis, use it or lose it.

          Caloric maintenance – where we maintain body weight – is something that most people achieve without counting at all, as our bodies are exceptionally good at regulating it. Consider this, the vast majority of people do not count calories, yet the average person gains or loses less than 1lb of mass per year. Maintaining weight is the norm, so if you go far over or under the ‘set-point’ your body is used to, your body will fight it. It will take months for your body to establish a new set point, so after dieting or bulking people need to still monitor their calorie intake for a while before they are able to maintain it with ease. (For more on this see Set Points, Settling Points, and Bodyweight Regulation.)

          The cheapest way to hit your protein intake is going to be protein powder, dairy and chicken breast, in most countries. It’s down to you to figure this out though.

          1. Isaias says:

            Just to clarify the maintenance point, this would mean that once I get to my desired looks, I could keep them as long as i continue monitoring my caloric intake (without going over or under) but also continue advancing with my training?

            1. Isaias says:

              I will read the article you posted. Thanks!

            2. Yes, you can keep your desired look if you are at maintenance. This will depend on a few factors, see section, “What is the Maximum Level of Leanness That I Can Reasonably Expect to Maintain?” from this article:
              How Do I Find Maintenance Calorie Intake After Dieting?

              However, to advance with your training you will have to gain muscle. That may require a strategic gain in body fat depending on the method you wish to choose for bulking. Sounds like you’re after the lean gain style, but just be aware of the pros and cons of it. Very detailed article covering this here:
              How To Adjust Your Diet To Successfully Bulk

          2. Isaias says:

            Very helpful, thanks again!
            Let me know if you need help with spanish/italian translations;)

            1. Most welcome Isaias. I believe someone is doing Italian translations currently. If Spanish is something that you personally wish to work on then please feel free, though publishing on this site in multiple languages is not something I am looking to do. More regarding translations here:
              Don’t Make It About The Money

  11. martin says:

    thanks for the article..very insightful

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  17. Vincent says:

    Hello Andy & Greg,

    Another great post between the two of you. I just have a question concerning counter-productivity and being in a deficit. Either you or Greg can answer, I will gladly accept either answer. How would one know if their training (volume & intensity) is counter-productive? I am in a calorie deficit and still increasing weight, though it is taking more sessions to increase than before. I believe that may be a sign that I’m close to my limit. Also, to find the 60-85%, should I find my 1R-Max again? I knew what they were before this program, and believe they may have gone up.

    Thank you again.

    1. Strength acquisition will naturally slow as you get stronger and can’t be taken as a sign that you are into the ‘counter-productive but still achieving positive adaptations’ territory. See Greg’s response somewhere in the comment thread about HRV though as that can be used as a gauge. Still, it requires self experimentation and there certainly isn’t a concrete way to tell.

      “Also, to find the 60-85%, should I find my 1R-Max again? I knew what they were before this program, and believe they may have gone up.”
      No need assuming you’re using the same or similar sets-reps patterns as you’ll still still be in that range.

  18. CJ says:

    Great conceptual model! – it helps to put a “face” on the effect of proper recovery/ diet to training.

    One question: in the book, do you discuss the time rate of adaptation? I could recover from any training stress that doesn’t permanently deform me with enough time, and the difference between productive and unproductive stress would necessarily involve the time allowed before the next session, right?

    Also, do you bring up non-caloric dietary influences in the book (say, the impacts of a hyper caloric diet with a protein deficiency?)

    1. Hi CJ, thanks for the questions.
      Yes to both, though the training elements are covered with graphs and the latter is just a written explanation. – Limiting protein intake will hamper your gains. It’ll look something like this graph I’m using in my next post on bulking, except less severe of an effect as this represents the effect of Calorie intake being insufficient (which is higher in the importance hierarchy for muscle growth):

  19. […] Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress – Greg Nuckols @ RippedBody Another great article by Greg. A short excerpt from his upcoming book. Definitely worth a read. […]

  20. Another solid entry, Andy. The graphs are a great visual tool here. I think to a greater extent what people experience is not enough intensity, even though there has been more talk in recent years of Rhabdo. For the average person overtraining is not even on radar. What’s valuable is understanding that their 40 minute cardio session and 5-hours of sleep may by the big holes their program.

    1. Glad you liked it Adam
      Agreed entirely. Rhabdo is the boogyman – a creature so rare it is simply not something people need to be concerned about. The only reason that people have heard of it is because:
      1. Someone reportedly developed it doing Crossfit,
      2. which people love to love or hate,
      3. which was then shared all over social media, blowing it out of proportion.

      Let’s not pretend that people haven’t been pushing their limits with training for years before this and being fine. – Sore as fuck, sure, but not getting Rhabdo.

      1. Spot on.

        Down with social media! Burn your Facebook page… maybe that wasn’t what you meant.

        I have a theory that all the press around Pukie The Clown is pushed by those working in Big Fitness. It’s a theory, but I’m going off who I know, and who is sharing that content on social media channels.

        Thanks again Andy.

  21. […] Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress — Greg Nuckols, RippedBody […]

  22. Martin says:

    I don’t understand how to get into this optimal 60-85% range. How do I know when I’m working out at 60% vs 85%? Right now I’m doing 5×5. As an example, my max for deadlift is 96 kg (I failed the last rep in the last set). I guess that’s what you call training until failure, right? Anyway, how do I adjust the weight to work out in 60-85% and how do I progress?

    Should I drop the weight to ~60-85 kg? Change the number of sets or reps? When should I increase the weight? If I drop it to, say, 80 kg now, a few workouts from now I’ll be approaching 90% again (if I keep increasing the weight by 1 kg per workout). I have no idea how to find the sweet spot. Training to failure is simple enough – if I can’t increase the weight, I stick to it until I can. But how do I progress if I have no idea how many more reps I could do if I didn’t stop sooner?

    1. Nick says:

      I may be corrected here, but I believe working in the 60-85% range is based on your 1 rep max. So if you have a 100 KG 1 rep max. Your rep ranges should be in the 60-85 kg range. Rep range would of course be based on whether on how much you are lifting, with heavier weights being quicker to lead to failure.

      1. Yes that’s right. I don’t think Greg will have a lot to add to this, unless he wishes to go into the PRE (perceived rate of exertion) discussion, which is almost another chapter on entirely. Thanks Nick.

      2. Martin says:

        Thank you Nick and Andy. So let’s say I’ll lower the weight I lift to 60 kg. How do I progress then and how many reps should I perform? As far as I know, deadlift doesn’t really work well if you’re doing more than 5-6 reps per set. If I keep adding 2.5-5 kg each workout, soon I’ll start training to failure again. Should I focus on adding more reps or just increase the weight by a small amount like 1 kg? Now that I’m training to failure, I know I’m pushing myself too hard. My problem with 60-85% is that I have no idea how to judge whether I’m training hard enough or taking it too easy.

        1. Ah, I get it. I think you’re confusing a single rep max with a multiple-set, multiple-rep maximum effort (which is what your current program is).
          A 5×5 workout or a 3×8 workout will use a weights that fall into the 60-85% range, without you needing to think about, nor calculate it. – That advice is just something that a coach would need to bear in mind when making a program, or an intermediate trainee when making their program.

          For you the trainee right now, you just need to focus on lifting the most that you can with your target number of reps for each set as per your program. This will be 100% (or close to) effort, but 60-85% of any single rep max.

          Does that make sense?

          1. Martin says:

            Thanks, Andy. Yes, that’s why I was confused. It makes sense now. I guess I’ve been doing everything right. I just need to be more careful not to train until form failure and possibly switch from A/B split to full 3 day split as my back is sometimes killing me.

            1. Sure that sounds sensible.
              Welcome Martin.

  23. Understand stressors | Marcus Herou says:

    […] think every coach and thinking athlete should read up on this brilliant article. GAS is not something new but I like the illustrations Greg makes. So simple. Sleeping more and […]

  24. Hey Greg, you should make a brazilian portuguese translation of your book “The Science of Lifting”! My friends would definitely buy it.

    1. If you know of any translators, I’m certainly interested.

      1. Rafael Ferreira has translated the majority of my site into Portuguese. I’ve had it checked, it is said to be good quality work. You can see it here. That’s a labour of love and I’m not sure whether he makes any money off of it coaching people, so I assume he has a full time job.

        Translating a book is a very big undertaking, but you can of course ask and I’m happy to put you in touch.

  25. César. says:

    Hi andy, i had a problem in my lower back last year ( 2 slippered discs, and 3 disc degenerations ) i felt bad for a long time, But i’m better now than before ( stretching everyday helped me alot ). But i still think i can’t do heavy squats ( i do front squats only,with not much weight ), deadlift not sure if i can do, i never did it before, and neither after my back issue, i1’ve started to do some front rows with barbell and till now its fine… but not sure about deadlifts. And bench i can do normally, but i preffer to put my feet on the bench ( not in the ground ).

    I mean, how to do the big 3 exercises if:
    can’t squat heavy
    can’t deadlift heavy

    any other option for me?

    1. It’s too simplistic in your case to just say that you’ll want to do the same exercises with a much lighter weight. I’m sure there will be a work around with other exercises, probably avoiding spinal loading for many exercises, but this is a question for a sports specialist doctor César.

  26. Pete A says:

    I love the graphs — finally someone quantifies the effect of stressors in a way that makes intuitive sense.

    I personally like being at or near the peak where the marginal rate of return is really high. I’m a big fan of the the 80/20 principle.

    Otherwise, toiling for those final few percentage points on the x axis just doesn’t seem worthwhile for most of us average joes, especially when you risk inadvertently dancing into negative territory and negating some of your hard work.

    1. Thanks man. That’s probably prudent for most people. A good chunk of my clients are competitive athletes so walking the line between productive work and overreaching makes sense for them – if you have 12 weeks between meet or a 10 week offseason for your sport, you want to make as much progress as possible in the limited time frame. For most people, though, more moderate is the way to go. Low risk, high reward.

  27. Wilson says:

    Thanks for the article, I’m really looking forward to this book. I’m from North Carolina, so I like to think I’ll be stimulating the local economy by purchasing it.

    Anyways, I’m pretty new to lifting (~4 good months after an initial 3 half-assed months). I’ll just be honest about my awful failures here, but I think I listen to voices on the internet too much and as a result I’ve been increasing my volume more for no real reason other than people on the internet saying that it’ll make me more swole. How do I “know” if I’m putting too much stress on myself? What are the typical signs? I don’t know my body quite well enough, and it’d be hard for me to distinguish between ‘a couple bad workouts’ and ‘a downward spiral into exhaustion and failure”.

    1. Hi Wilson. The most obvious sign would be regression in your training. Given what you’ve said you’re probably best to just stick to a linear progression program for now:
      How to Progress from ‘The Big 3′ to Split Routines

      Sure Greg can chime in further…

    2. Hey Wilson,

      Where in NC are you? I’m in Asheville. If you’re within driving distance, feel free to swing by for a workout at some point.

      There are a few different tools you can use. The gold standard is Omegawave, but that’s probably overkill for you. A few cheaper options are HRV (heart rate variability. I use BioForce. Ithlete is great too, and cheaper) and Mike Tuchschere’s TRAC system. They quantify how much stress your body is under by looking at autonomic nervous system activity (fight or flight vs. rest and digest). If you’d like some resources on that, I’d be happy to send them your way.

      1. ^ Excellent point, thanks Greg.

  28. Nick says:

    Here is a simple rule, that could be used:
    After a good train you should be tired, when you feel good to train again, wait for day more even if you are confident that you are ready to train

    1. Hi Nick, past a certain point of training advancement, due to the volume per week, you’ll (nearly) always be training with some residual fatigue. This is covered in the next two chapters of the book.

      I’ll let Greg continue here when he check back to answer comments.

    2. Like Andy said, when you get more advanced you’ll usually be carrying some residual amount of fatigue the whole time. Fatigue from a hard session can sometimes take 4-5 days to dissipate entirely, but in advanced lifters, muscle protein synthesis is usually back to baseline within 24-48 hours. If you wait until you’ll fully recovered and then give it that extra day, any supercompensation from the prior session has usually gone and you’re back where you started.

  29. Ark says:

    Hi Andy and Greg,

    I’ve pre-ordered the book(s) a couple days ago. Looking forward to reading it.
    Thank you for posting it here.


    1. Sure you’ll love it Ark.

      1. Ark says:


        I am reading it now. It is very good read. And besides all the good information in the books..It should remind us most important thing that gets lost in the life mix:



  30. Paloma says:

    Congratulations, this is the article that best explains the stress-gain relationship!
    The curves examples are perfect to illustrate this matter that was before obscure to me.
    Maybe I liked it because I am an engineer 🙂
    PS: I actually clicked on that link, Andy!

    1. Excellent, great to hear. Which link are you referring to, the book? You’ll love it Paloma.

  31. Raynard M says:

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this book (pre-ordered yesterday).

    The one thing that I don’t see much of in this article is the time period over which the training stress is being considered. I’ve had this burning question in me over the past few weeks regarding trying to maximise the training frequency (within a week for example) but keeping the volume the same. But this obviously reduces the volume in each individual session. So, the question for me is: Do you get to a point where the volume in individual sessions is too little to make for a significant training effect over a week?

    As a practical example, say I were currently doing back squats 4×[email protected]% on Monday and front squats for 4×[email protected]% on Friday. I now split this into 4 (or five) days over the week. I’m only doing two sets per day, a much lower daily volume, but over the week the volume remains the same. Am I still getting enough acute stress to make progress like this? Does the answer change if I take it to the extreme (seven days)?

    I suppose this is going to be an “it depends” question and I should probably test it out myself to find out, but I was interested in hearing your thoughts. I suppose it also goes back to one of Greg’s other articles about diminishing returns after going to greater extremes. Training twice per week is better than once, and 4 times better than twice, but the improvement is not as much as it was when going from once per week to twice.

    Thanks for all the hard (and excellent) work you two,

    1. Oh man. That’s a bag of worms. In *general* higher frequency is better, for a few reasons:
      1) you hit peak muscle protein synthesis within 12 hours of when you finish a workout, and for well-trained lifters, it’s still elevated at 24 hours post, but back to baseline within 36 hours.
      2) Each subsequent set you do during a workout has diminishing effects on muscle gain. So, just to use rough numbers, if you have “x” elevation of protein synthesis and muscle gains from 1 set, you’d get more like 1.4x from 2 sets and 1.6x from 3 sets instead of 2x and 3x. So by splitting up your workouts more, you get more “first sets” that give you the most bang for your buck.
      3) More opportunities to perfect the movement. Your first set or two each day will generally be your highest quality sets, and the best for ingraining proper motor patterns, with the benefit decreasing slightly as your form is somewhat altered due to fatigue. So with more frequent training and lower volume per session, you both get more opportunities to practice the movements, and the practice tends to be higher quality.

      However, there are a few caveats to throw in there.
      1) This hasn’t been studied just a TON directly – only 3 studies (equating for volume) that I’ve come across. All three of those studies did show advantages for higher frequency, but with such a small body of literature, a fair amount of it is still theoretical.
      2) There is also the chance that more frequent exposures blunt your body’s adaptive response quicker. So, let’s say your responsiveness to a given stimulus is “x” to the first exposure, .9x to the second, .8x to the third, etc, you “burn through” those sessions where you’re more responsive quicker. That’s also theoretical, and probably misplaced (further reading: but it is a possibility.

      1. Raynard M says:

        Awesome Greg, thanks! Will have a look at the Norwegian lifter article, don’t think I’ve read it before.

  32. Pintolo says:

    Hi Andy ,
    So, if our main goal is the fat loss the deficit, training with 60%-85% of RM and 4-5 sets with the 3 principles exercise (deadlift, squat, bench) are the key of successful?


    1. Hi Diego. Given what you’re asking and the way you’re asking it, while far from the only way I would imagine that will suffice for you yes. A much fuller answer and guide here:
      Which Routine Is For Me?

  33. Grant says:

    Great writeup. Thanks for sharing.

    Could you clarify the following statement? It looks like a word may be missing.

    “What this means is that the training amount required in order to not regress increases, the overall potential for adaptations is greatly reduced, and the amount of training that can be handled before over-training occurs (and thus marginal losses have potential to accrue).”
    “..can be handled before over-training occurs /increases/?”

    1. Grant, thank you. That may well me my fault. I’ve corrected it to the following, let me know if this makes sense:

      “What this means is that the training amount required in order to not regress increases, the overall potential for adaptations is greatly reduced, and the amount of training that can be handled before over-training occurs (and thus marginal losses have potential to accrue) is lower (though you will notice still higher than for the novice trainee).”

  34. Nick says:

    Excellent article gentlemen. With volume and recovery, do you feel that there could be any advantage to full-body splits, assuming progression is made, and training is not to failure every workout, within different rep ranges, in comparison to a traditional “body part” day, that puts a more acute stress on that particular day, but no other stimulus within the week?


    1. Absolutely. Most lifters will make faster progress from hitting a muscle more frequently than once a week. Volume is what drives progress, and past a certain point you will struggle do enough volume to drive adaptations if you’re always training to failure (because you will fail to recovery quickly enough).

      Here are some further references for you. The first one is an article by Greg, the latter is a Pubmed link (don’t cringe, the abstract is pretty good) to a study that came out in December. You can see a detailed analysis by Brad Schonfeld in the January AARR.

      Powerlifters Should Train More Like Bodybuilders
      Dose Response of 1, 3 and 5 Sets of Resistance Exercise on Strength, Local Muscular Endurance and Hypertrophy

      1. Nick says:

        Thanks Andy,

        I’ve enjoyed Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training in the past, which is 3 full body, 1-2 sets per exercise, but wondered if a bit more volume would be better. After reading your article, I’m thinking about keeping the same concepts in place, but going to 2-3 sets per exercise, which would average out to 6-9 sets over the week.

        I’ll take a look at your links provided as well. Thanks again.

        1. The overall framework of HST isn’t bad, but as you get more time under the bar, don’t pay too much attention to his projected rates of progress – they tend to not be realistic for more advanced lifters. Training full body 3-4 times per week, though, tends to work really well for most people.

          1. Nick says:

            Thanks Greg, could you clarify what you mean by “projected rates of progress”? I don’t quite understand. Thanks.

  35. So in terms of training volume on a deficit, would you recommend 4 sets of 5-10 reps per exercise? and furthermore, how many exercises would you recommend per lifting session if following your advice and training 3x per week. Thanks!

    1. Matt, thanks for the questions.
      “So in terms of training volume on a deficit, would you recommend 4 sets of 5-10 reps per exercise?”
      Appropriate volume will depend on training experience – see curves 9 and 10. However, what you’ve said doesn’t sound unreasonable and is likely to fit within the appropriate volume (aka. training stress) range (the difference between the two x axis intercepts).

      Are you getting stronger? Keep doing what you’re doing. Are you not getting stronger, and not recovering well? Eat more/sleep more or lower training volume a bit. Are you not getting stronger but you’re recovering well? Train harder.

      If you’re looking for a start point then consider this article:
      Which Routine Is For Me?
      or see the Training Guides section.

      1. Scott says:

        Hey Andy,
        What would be a tell tale sign that you’re not recovering well from your training?

        1. The most obvious being that you get weaker. However I’ll let Greg chime in with other suggestions as they are going to be a little less tangible.

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