In August I attended the first annual Health and Strength Conference, put on by Dragon Door. Wow, what a great event! There were so many highlights, but one that resonated with me very deeply was Dr. Chris Hardy’s keynote presentation on Allostatic Load and Your Stress Cup. Say what?

If you’ve been on Iron Clad’s social media channels at all in the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen me talk about some of the pearls of wisdom presented in Dr. Hardy and Marty Gallagher’s book, Strong Medicine. The idea that everyone has a stress cup is one of the best illustrations and descriptions I’ve seen, on the subject of how stress affects our bodies and our training.

This way of illustrating things makes it so simple to see that when our cups are full of life’s stressors, there’s only so much room left for intense exercise. I am a living, breathing example of the effect this can have on your life, your health and your training, as seen in my 2-part article on adrenal fatigue. Yet looking at things as a cup that can hold only so much stress, is so much easier to understand and it makes for a great self-assessment tool.

shared with permission from John Du Cane at Dragon Door and Dr. Chris Hardy, co-author of Strong Medicine

Your allostatic load is is the total amount of stress from your whole environment and the stress cup illustrates the 4 major areas of stress in our lives. As you can see from the illustration, if any area of stress is too high, it leaves less room in your cup for any other types of stress, including lots of high intensity exercise.

As good as it is for you, exercise is a form of stress we put on our bodies. This causes an adaptive response to occur, which is how we get stronger and fitter. The process of adaptation is called allostasis. Quoted from Strong Medicine, allostasis “literally means achieving ‘stability through change.'”

We want exercise to be a good stress, but it’s all about proper dosing. If the other areas of your stress cup are too full, then intense exercise may no longer be a good stress. It may become a stress that makes your cup overflow. If our cups are always overflowing, it can lead to injury, illness, chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, hormonal imbalances or, like me back in 2012, adrenal fatigue and irregular cortisol levels. (which is basically a type of hormonal imbalance)

We must all listen to our bodies and take a look at our individual stress cups in order to have peak performance and health. There are some physical signs of an overflowing cup that may seem subtle at the time, but turn out to be very telling that it could be time to dial back on the intensity and/or duration of your training.

Maybe you feel burnt out or overwhelmed all the time or you feel like you’re always on the go and can’t get a break. You may also feel tired all the time, despite the amount of sleep you get. Frequent colds or other viruses can also be a sign.

These were some early signs I had during my battle with adrenal fatigue, and then one day my strength literally disappeared. I’m lucky that was my wake-up call because I was able to stop it in it’s tracks before it completely sidelined me with a more extreme illness or injury.

Dr. Hardy talked about using a grip strength meter, called a dynamometer, as a way of assessing your exercise capacity on any given day. I’d like to get one and play with it, but for now I’m using some self-awareness measures.

I’m always focused on my technique, but if I seem to be struggling with it and more rest doesn’t do the trick, then I know it’s time to call it a day. If I’m in the middle of a training session and I feel like I just don’t have it, then I dial back on intensity, weights and/or duration. Perhaps the biggest self-awareness measure for me is to look at my energy levels immediately following my training, as well as a few hours after. Do I feel better or do I feel drained? If I feel drained, then I’ve overdone it and I need to make some adjustments next time.

If I asked you to draw your own stress cup diagram to illustrate the stressors that fill your cup, what would it look like? Is there a lot of room or just a little room for intense exercise? Are there things you can do to reduce how full your cup is from work, diet and/or sleep stress? These are all great questions to ask yourself, and adjust accordingly to achieve your best you!