Stress causes belly fat. That’s the popular theory. The hormone cortisol, known as the stress hormone, gets all the blame.

Indeed chronic elevated cortisol levels can be more harmful than just giving you a muffin top. It can cause heart disease, diabetes and accelerate aging. The big thing is: acute boosting of this hormone can actually increase lipolysis, which is fat breakdown.

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When the body perceives something as a threat, it experiences a rush of adrenaline. In this endocrine response, cortisol stimulates fat breakdown and increases blood glucose to fuel muscular activity. If we use our muscles, we end up burning that energy. But if the body feels the same way all the time in a chronic state, chances are that the fat accumulates around the belly.

The good side of cortisol

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However, a spike in cortisol levels is not bad and actually may be good when working out to maximize caloric burn and promote lean body mass.

Even though this hormone is part of the catabolic response to exercise in that it increases protein degradation and diminishes protein synthesis, studies show that in this acute cortisol response is when important anabolic hormones in charge of strength gains, muscle tone and leanness (such as growth hormones) are produced at the greatest levels.

“A distinction needs to be made between the acute cortisol response to exercise and chronically high cortisol levels. Higher volume, the number of sets times reps, protocols are clearly linked to greater gains in muscle development, so it would be counterintuitive to avoid acute cortisol spikes thinking it will suppress hypertrophy. In fact, some researchers have speculated that the acute cortisol response may be part of a larger remodeling process in muscle following resistance training,” explains Brad Schoenfeld, MSc, CSCS.

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In the article, “An exercise professional’s guide to acute hormonal changes from resistance exercise,” published in the ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, Jeremy C.Fransen, M.S and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., state that prolonged exercise, high volume, moderate- to high-intensity, short rest intervals between sets and endurance training are all exercise protocols that augment cortisol response.

Schoenfeld says, “Cortisol response is particularly sensitive to volume of training, with four to six sets of resistance training producing significantly greater cortisol response compared to two sets.”

Burning fat or “muscle”?

I’m sure that you’ve heard about that marathon running or long endurance activities will make you “burn muscle,” which is the popular way to refer to a catabolic state where protein synthesis in muscle cells is diminished. Therefore, there is a fine line between taking advantage of the increased fat breakdown and muscles remodeling that cortisol stimulates and taxing the body in such a way that it gets overtrained and even affects the immune system.

To take your body to the next level, you need to disturb the muscle, causing it to remodel. Experts say muscle get stronger when at rest, not when working out though. After working out, the disrupted muscle fibers need time and proper food to heal, thus reaching another level, otherwise you won’t keep seeing the changes that you expect.

Fransen and Kravitz points out that a resistance program that works at 65 percent to 75 percent of you one rep max, using 4 to 8 sets, 8 to 15 reps with 30-90 second rest periods will increase cortisol along with some anabolic hormones that will fire the metabolic response.

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Beware though that a program like this should be spaced out between session to allow for the muscles to recover. Eating lean protein, healthy fats, whole grains and produce; and getting good sleep are critical in the recovery process and gaining the body that you want.

“Good stress” workout

-        The workout consists of two super- sets – two exercises performed one after another with little rest or no rest for each super set. The rest time should be at the end of the super set. This routine utilized multi-joint exercises or exercises that work large amount of muscles mass to elicit the hormone response.

-        Perform 4-8 sets depending on your fitness level, 8 to 15 reps, with 30-90s rest period.

-        Vary the number of sets and reps above to avoid reaching a plateau

-        Include a warm-up and a cool down stretch

-        Do this routine twice or three times a day leaving one day in between or more if you need to. Appropriate rest is critical to avoid overtraining.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning, coach and master trainer who is an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health  tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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