Having recently encountered a cortisol-inducing period in my life, I want to share my thoughts on training during stressful periods. No matter who we are, we will always encounter unusually stressful periods in life. This may be because of work, or relationship issues, or finances, or all 3 at once! However, the fact is, life will always throw a curve ball at us. And we can either choose to stand there and get hit in the face with it, or we can duck it and move forward with greater resilience and tenacity than ever before.
When we go through periods of high stress, physiologically we are operating on catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline). We are at the mercy of the parasympathetic nervous system, and we spend far too little time in the 'rest and digest' mode of the sympathetic nervous system. As a result we are wired. We are on edge. We are anxious. We are nervous. Our appetite disappears. We fidget. We cannot concentrate.
As a result, it is wise to alter your training stimulus. Ultimately, training is a stress on the body. When our coping resources are stretched, we aren't sleeping optimally, our nutrition is nowhere near as good as it should be, we cannot expect to train at full capacity. As a result I advise dropping the volume of your training.
Volume here refers to the amount of work carried out in a workout: -
Training Volume = Sets x Reps x Weight
In this case I advise reducing volume by cutting the number of sets you do by around 1/3. Therefore do 2 sets instead of 3. Or 3 sets instead of 5.
Another thing I advise is to avoid training too close to failure on any of your lifts... particularly on big lifts such as Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Presses, Pull Ups etc. Going to failure on any exercise is extremely taxing on the body. Therefore, as a general rule of thumb I would advise leaving at least 1-2 Reps in Reserve (RIR).
So lets say your program has 3 sets of 8 squats. Reduce the number of sets to 2. Then we need to be careful to select a load that we will be able to complete 8 reps with good form, leaving 1 or 2 reps in reserve.
By following this protocol, you will be able to continue training during stressful periods without overdoing things. The worse thing you can do during stressful times is to stop altogether. It is far better to continue training with a reduced volume, than stop altogether.
Once external stressors start to die down, you can then start to ramp up your training again. As much as the fitness industry tries to promote a hardcore 'no pain, no gain', 'train hard or go home' attitude, it is often wise to look past this and think more long-term. Your body will thank you for it.