Cortisol: 7 workout tips for low cortisol

Exercise can increase your cortisol if done incorrectly…

 

Cortisol is a very needed factor in the human body, however high levels are very negative in the long run.

Fortunately there are certain ways to train to keep your cortisol low. Remember cortisol is catabolic (breaks tissue down as well as muscle) and testosterone is anabolic (builds tissue and muscle up).

So it would be a wise thing to make sure that you get a positive testosterone/cortisol ratio from your workout. Which is high testosterone and low cortisol. Especially if you’re someone who is having trouble with high cortisol, and are thinking about skipping the gym because it might be too stressful on your body…

Don’t sweat, there is a way to train and keep your cortisol low both at the same time.

 

Here are 7 tips on how to keep your exercise induced cortisol response low

 

Intensity

Intensity is a weight you can lift for a certain amount of reps (e.g. 4 sets of 10-12 reps at 70% of your 1RM is moderate intensity) for weight training, and for aerobic exercise it’s how physically demanding the exercise is (e.g. training at 60% of your VO2max, or training at a rapid heart beat is moderate to high intensity).

 

In multiple studies (1, 2, 3) it’s quite clear that the amount of reps you do will have a direct impact on your cortisol response. Low reps even at maximal intensity (1-6 reps) keep cortisol low, while moderate reps (+-10 reps) are more likely to result in a cortisol response.

Another important factor to also keep in mind is that going till failure will most likely increase cortisol levels significantly (4, 5, 6). However, stopping short of failure won’t result in an increase of cortisol.

 

Doing aerobic exercise, such as spinning or running, will also only increase cortisol significantly if it is done at high intensity (60%<=) and/or long duration (40 min +). (7)

 

What it all boils down to is:

  • To do low reps (1-6 reps)
  • Don’t go to failure

 

Read more here on how to train optimally for hypertrophy and strength.

 

 

Rest

Another factor that greatly affects cortisol response, is the duration of the rest between sets. If you want a great hormonal response from your workout, you shouldn’t be resting longer than 3 min.

But also, the shorter the rest the greater the cortisol response.

As proven in these studies (8, 9, 10) longer rest (2 min rest and more) will result in little to no cortisol response, where short rest (less than 2 min) will. (11, 12)

 

However, this study shows that early stage training (less than a month experience of a completely new program with a complete new stimulus to the body), will significantly increase testosterone and cortisol, even when resting between 2 or 5 min. However, after one month, the testosterone and cortisol response will become blunted and non-significant.

 

 

Time of day

Cortisol is highest in the morning and lowest in the evening.

Exercising early in the day (round about 07h00) will elevate cortisol significantly more than training later in the day, as cortisol levels are highest in the morning. (13) Also, one has greater responsiveness of the hypothalamo-pituitary-testicular axis in the evening.

 

 

Trained and untrained

The exercise-induced cortisol response (14, 15) found in untrained individuals are much greater than experienced trained individuals. (16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21)

 

 

Type of exercises

Unilateral exercises (such as one arm rows, one arm dumbbell shoulder press for e.g.) blunt the cortisol response compared to bilateral exercises (such as barbell bench, and barbell bent over rows). However, bilateral exercises still increase the growth hormone response significantly. (22)

 

Food

Ingesting carbohydrates prior to exercise will blunt the exercise induced cortisol response. Performing an intense workout consisting of multiple sets and exercises of 3 sets x 10 reps can increase cortisol up to 99% and more, but when ingesting carbohydrates prior to the session will blunt the increase to 7% instead of 99%. (23) That’s a 14 fold decrease in cortisol.

 

 

Conclusion

So, if you’re prone to high cortisol, but really want to train and keep your cortisol low, then here’s what you do…

  1. Low reps (1-6 reps)
  2. Don’t go to failure
  3. Longer rest (2 min and more)
  4. Eat before your workout (some carbs)
  5. Train preferably later in the day

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