Spinning your wheels in the gym? Time to get cortisol under control!

Do you religiously go to the gym and hammer out one hard workout after the other without seeing the results?

Train smarter, not harder! Seriously. Hard training without the nutrition and rest to compensate will not do you any good!

The heavier you train, and/or the more work you do in a given amount of time, the greater the cortisol release. If you don’t manage that cortisol release, you’ll literally be spinning your wheels and wasting hours of your time in the gym.

By definition, cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a steroid hormone released to ensure the brain has ample supply of glucose (sugar), its preferred fuel source in situations where simple survival  is paramount. Cortisol can promote glycogen breakdown in skeletal muscle (i.e. muscle wasting) when preferable energy supply isn’t present. That’s bad news if you’re a bodybuilder or strength athlete.

The Cortisol Solution

So, how then, do you train with the necessary intensity to illicit the training results you want while keeping cortisol at bay? A simple, no frills drink during your workout is the answer. Let me explain…

One particular study found 50 grams of pure carbohydrate (Gatorade) in a workout drink consumed during a resistance training (lifting weights) session completely eliminated cortisol elevations compared to a control flavored drink (1). The carbohydrates had a direct influence on the amount of cortisol released during and after the workout. Subjects within this particular study with the lowest cortisol (i.e. those who drank the Gatorade) made the greatest muscle gains.

Spinning your wheels?
Spinning your wheels?

This is not to say you need to buy one of those “cutting edge” intra-workout supplements that are all the rage right now. No matter how the marketers spin the benefits of “high molecular weight” carbs etc., they all break down to glucose in the end. Some like to add amino acids (protein to the workout shake) but I’ve it with them and without and noticed little difference either way. If you have the cash, by all means go for it, but a little Gatorade powder mixed in water will do the trick all the same if you’re on a budget. If the carbs upset your stomach while working out, dillute them in a litre or more of water. That solved the issue for me and I haven’t looked back.

Then follow it up with a quality whole foods meal an hour or so after you’re done exercising. You’ll recover faster and see more results than you would from that $200 stack the dude at GNC told you to buy. Don’t forget to manage outside stressors (life’s a B sometimes) and get your sleep – that’s important too.

Train smarter and reap the benefits.


1. Tarpenning, K.M.Influence of weight training exercise and modification of hormonal response on skeletal muscle growth. 1997, University of Southern California: Ann Arbor.



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Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.