Home Blog Exercise and Stress: 6 Strength Training Tips for When You’re Already Overworked

Exercise and Stress: 6 Strength Training Tips for When You’re Already Overworked

Written on January 11, 2011 at 7:17 am, by Eric Cressey

As a business owner, I can say without wavering that there are a lot of times when I admittedly get stressed out and wish there were more hours in the day to get everything I have on my plate done – and still have time left over to spend with my wife and family.

And, while I haven’t managed to figure out how to add more than 24 hours to the day, I have started to find a few ways to better manage my time – and, more specifically, my strength training program.

You see, many people use exercise as a means of relieving stress – and I think that’s absolutely awesome.  Unfortunately, when you already work 10 hours a day on your feet in a gym, it’s hard to see things that way even when all the equipment is right at your fingertips.  To that end, the stressed-out strength training tips I note below will be applicable to folks in any occupation, not just the fitness industry.

Tip #1: Increase training frequency, but reduce training duration.

I find that when I’m busy, I can find 30 minutes here and there, but getting 60-75 minutes free at a convenient time is tougher.  One thing I’ll do is simply up my training frequency to 5-6 times per week instead of just four sessions.  Rather than having sessions that include four pairings (7-8 strength exercises), I’ll just have two pairings (3-4 exercises).

If you’ve read anything from Chad Waterbury or Joel Marion, you’ll find that both of these guys are fans of strength training as frequently as possible, provided that you can recover from those sessions.  Somewhat coincidentally, sometimes the best way to utilize this frequent strength training approach is when you’re already stressed and recovery is compromised!  I still get in all my “work” over the course of the week, but it’s spread out a bit more so that it’s convenient and less taxing.

Tip #2: Leave the gym feeling refreshed.

Also on the “less taxing” front, I think it’s important to leave the gym feeling “refreshed,” not exhausted.  While it might feel good when your legs are trashed at the end of a training session, you really don’t know how well you’re going to recover from that challenge until the days that follow.  Doing 15 sets of 9 reps might have sounded like a good stress buster at the time, but when you can’t walk up the steps to work the following day and are falling asleep at your desk at 11am because you couldn’t sleep with your legs cramping all night, hindsight definitely becomes 20/20.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a time and a place for doing crazy stuff.  Your most stressful days aren’t that time, though.

Tip #3: Train early.

This is something that I’ve grown to love with the baseball off-season in full swing and my day starting earlier.  Normally, I’d train alongside the rest of our staff at 10:30AM, but at that time of year, I may have athletes at 9:30AM MoTuThFr.  So, I get in at 8:15AM to get my lifting session in.  Why?

First, lifting early requires planning.  You need to go to bed early and prepare your stuff for the next day.  So, in the process, you make time instead of finding time.  That’s huge at a stressful time when you’re inclined to miss a session altogether.

Second, most people I know (at least the adults out there) have better energy in the morning than after a long day of work.  That said, many people take a few weeks to warm up to the idea (and feeling) of training early.  If you’re going to make the switch, give it a few weeks and be consistent with it; you’ll find that you get more and more comfortable with morning training with each new session.

Third, I’m a firm believer in the adage that one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight.   When you train in the morning, you’ve got to get to bed earlier or else it simply isn’t going to happen.

Get better sleep quality and just about everything else in your life will improve.

Tip #4: Outsource things to keep training fun.

I’ll admit that many times, after a long day in a strength and conditioning facility, the last thing I want to do is follow my own weight training program.  I spend all day getting other people organized on that front, so a bit of chaos in my own strength training is sometimes welcomed relief.

About two months ago, believe it or not, I asked one of my pro baseball players (who was hanging out in the office at 7pm one night) to put a lower body program up on the dry erase board for me.  It turned out to be one of the better training sessions I’d had in weeks.  The same goes for any conditioning I may do; often, I’ll just pull Robert Dos Remedios’ book, Cardio Strength Training, off the shelf and give something a shot.

Variety may be the spice of life, but when it comes to training, that variety usually needs to come from someone else.  It might be why so many fitness professionals have really enjoyed my Show and Go program; it not only demonstrates some of my programming approaches, but also gives them a change of pace in their own training, as a recent blog post showed.

Tip #5: Use less variety.

Normally, I am all about strength exercise variety within a training session.  However, when you’re pinched for time, sometimes you can just throw that out the window and it’s the best decision.

Think about it: for every additional exercise in a day’s session, I add a warm-up set as well as the need for equipment set-up.  If I keep my training day to 2-3 strength exercises and just increase the volume on each, I can usually do just as much (if not more) work in less time.  You get variety over the course of a training phase and career; you get a training effect within a single session.

In other words, don’t be shy about doing 5 sets of 3 on deadlifts, then 4 sets of 8 on dumbbell reverse lunges from a deficit – and then calling it a day for your lower body training – especially if you’re trying out the frequency recommendations I noted earlier.

Tip #6: Use deloading periods.

At the end of the day, when it really comes down to it, stress is stress.  Sometimes, when life is beating you down, adding training stress to that personal/professional stress is the worst that you can do.  As a general rule of thumb, the more training experience you have, the more likely you are to need some down time from the gym when the rest of your life gets super hectic.  If you’re new to the iron game, though, chances are that some exercise will help you manage the stress much more effectively.

For more information on how to attack deloading periods, check out my e-book, The Art of the Deload.

These six strength training tips are obviously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exercise and stress, but hopefully they’ll be enough to get you headed in the right direction.  Additionally, what strategies have those of you out there implemented for training during stressful times?

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25 Responses to “Exercise and Stress: 6 Strength Training Tips for When You’re Already Overworked”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Thank you for this great post, Eric!

    I just started lifting/training in the last couple of months for a sport (boxing) new to me. Going to university while trying to hold down a job can be stressful. Recently I talked to my uncle about this. He has been training/lifting for years. He suggested Tip #1 and Tip #5. And he also helped me come up with a program (Tip #4).

    So reading that you back up what he said is good news for me. And I have found that doing some training in the morning is a good way to sort of wake up and greet the day with a running start.

    Thanks again for the post. Really great.

  2. Ronell Says:


    Talk about the perfect post. Nos. 1-6 are immediately applicable.
    I’ve certainly noticed that a brief but intense (squat, rear lunge, row, pushup) workout is just what my body needs during the most stressful, hectic times.


  3. john Says:

    Working out in the winter after a day of work is pretty tough. Even if the morning workout itself doesn’t physically energize me, my mood is elevated all day from knowing I’ve accomplished what I’ve wanted to.

    A side question regarding your [old] lat article. Do you think that, all else equal, improving lat strength improves sprint speed?

  4. Mike T Nelson Says:

    One thing that turned out to be awesome in my case is a gym in my garage, both for myself and to save drive time to the club to train others–they just come to me. Plus they now get much better equipment than any commercial gym.

    This may not be an option for everyone, but even a nice bar (or cheaper used bar) and some free weights will allow you to do deadlifts and many basic exercises. Add a TRX, Kettlbells, sandbags, etc and you are set.

    You may not train at home all the time, but even just adding in 1-2 short sessions a week can make a big difference as mentioned!

    I’m a big fan of an autoregulatory based approach since as you mentioned, stress is stress and will vary greatly from one day to next.

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  5. Daniel Zynn Says:

    Thank you for the post Eric! The reference you made of Coach Dos Rededois was great. I just wanted to add that I have been strength training for twelve years at a variety of different levels and he is the best I have ever trained under.

  6. Darrin Says:

    Hi Eric,

    For strategy #1, does this mean once a day, every day of the week or does this mean, twice a day, with a day off in between? For example, do push/pull in the morning, then legs in the afternoon, each only 30 minute sessions. Then take the next day off. Then repeat, etc. Or something different?

  7. Luka Hocevar Says:

    great recommendations and definitely many things that I have learned with trial and error.

    What’s an optimal training program/schedule and what is an optimal training program/schedule for YOU, are two different things.


  8. Luka Hocevar Says:

    great recommendations and definitely many things that I have learned with trial and error.

    What\’s an optimal training program/schedule and what is an optimal training program/schedule for YOU, are two different things.


  9. troy Says:

    just what i’m doing now…was doing ct’s new program which has crazy volume as the weeks progress so i’ve re-jigged it a bit to do a moderate amount everyday as per point 1.

    also the baby is due sometime this week so we’ve been in limbo a little and i’d already taken the week off work but now i’m getting up at 9-10am instead of 5am and i’ve missed training because of it – i won’t miss today though

  10. Benjamin Kusin Says:

    Just throwing something out there in response to tip #2. : Bill Starr recommends megadoses of vitamins and minerals (read his books for details). He says the minerals especially help speed up recovery after a workout. I haven’t tried it myself yet but I will when the funds are available and I’m back on a normal schedule. Anything that reduces post workout fatigue is good, especially when everything is ridiculously hectic.

    Also, I have always found a low volume power clean workout to be refreshing. If you don’t train the cleans hard, you can probably make an improvement or get a training effect even with low volume. It might also be helpful to substitute exercises you are weak at and exercises that use less weight (like press instead of bench press, front squat instead of back squat, power clean or speed dead instead of deadlift)

  11. Travis Johnson Says:

    Very timely information Eric…thanks a bunch for that.

    My wife have just set up a facility and I have pretty much zero free time now.

    I find the thing that eats the time most for me is getting tissue work and the mobility and prep-work done before training. That alone can take 30 minutes or more sometime…maybe I am just a slow poke, but I have some injury history and the pre-training work really helps the quality of the session.

    Any thoughts on accelerating that stuff would be hugely appreciated!


  12. Ed Says:

    Great information! Excellent ideas. I have stumbled to some of the same conclusions out of necessity. Recently, with so many demands on me from my business, family, etcetera, I had to rethink my training program and simplicity has been the key to success so far. Paring away a lot of “useless” stuff has left me with a very basic plan that continues to work with everything else on my plate. Thanks for continued great ideas/ info!

  13. Ray McCarthy Says:


    Being a Strength-Coach/Personal Trainer I have had a huge influx of new clients with their New Year’s resolutions. That said I Particularly like TIP #1. I would love to hear more about how you actually split up your workouts for the week. Probably something I could use.

    Maybe a quick blurb….But I am actually thinking you could make a great article based on these thoughts. Really it is useful for anyone who comes across these more stressful times or then again people who may have smaller but more frequent workouts. Who knows maybe even 2 times per day? (Like really short) Wondering how one might include mobility/power-ply’os/Speed into a plan like this. WOW I just gave you a lot to do…. Sorry your will not have any time to workout now.

    In particular, I am interested in how not to overlap/over-train/over-work particular areas of the body but still get these more frequent sessions in.

    Anyway if you have the time….


  14. Jimmy Lamour Says:

    Great recommendations Eric! I was just thinking about having to shorten my workouts due to the increase of clients. I like making sure I get my heavier lifts in the gym and doing bodyweight exercises/sprinting at home. It saves much time and I also have been paying attention to my recovery methods. Thanks for sharing.

  15. eugene sedita Says:

    Hi Eric, I read an article of yours a couple of days ago something like, 7 Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep. I’ve been going nuts, losing sleep trying to find it. lol. Would you please, when you get the chance, send me the link or someway to get at it. Much appreciated, gene

  16. ES Says:

    Great post. Thanks for spending some time on this topic!

  17. Billy DeLaRosa Says:

    Great Stuff. Planning is key in all aspects of what we do whether for our clients or ourselves.

  18. Tim Peirce Says:

    Great tips Eric. Thanks.

  19. Maria Says:

    Great post. I agree on so many points. It’s really hard to train yourself, when you’ve been training others. And lately, I’ve been finding myself to back-off a bit with my own workouts because of a shoulder injury. The injury basically was a message to slow down…

    In response to Eugene Sudita, try Calm for helping you sleep. It’s magnesium and if you take it after dinner and before bedtime – you will sleep soundly. Also, because most of us trainers get up early to train our clients, sometimes our digestive systems get thrown off, Calm will help you in that department too.

  20. Angeles Rios Says:

    Thanks for adding more details to the tag line of “Something is better than nothing.” I appreciate these types of reminders since they can be forgotten in the daily grind. The dry erase broard idea is a great idea!

  21. Robert Says:

    Great post Eric!

    I am glad to hear you mention outsourcing for programs.

    After programming for clients all week there is nothing more refreshing than a good routine written by someone else!


  22. chester clarke Says:

    hey Eric, have you ever read the book don’t sweat the small stuff.. and its all small stuff by Richard Carlson? often some of the stuff that you say in this and other articles such as getting up that extra bit early is also what he says to help peaceful living. Richard Carlson also says that dont worry about having a full in basket (as you said “wish there were more hours in the day to get everything I have on my plate done”), because when you die you are always going to have stuff that you didn’t do and that a full in basket is a sign of a successful person. If you haven’t read this book please do, not that I think you need it at all haha, but because I recommend it to everyone, its changing the small stuff in life that makes life better, and you seem like the sort of guy who isn’t narrow minded and could relate to this book. All the best

  23. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Chester!

  24. Christina Says:

    Love your article! As a personal trainer and mother of 4 I can relate. My biggest strategy was to always get up ahead of everyone because the only time I own is when the kids are asleep.

  25. D Says:

    Hey Eric I was hoping you’d say a bit more on how to adjust our workout Intensity during stressful periods. But from some of your descriptions it sounds as if you would still keep intensity at more or less the same levels, just with shorter and more frequent workouts?

    Recently I’ve gone through a period of what felt like “burnout” (??the infamous “adrenal fatigue” maybe?), where almost the slightest “push” seemed to leave me fatigued for days -rather than refreshed per point #2. (And I’m still somewhat sorting thru that issue now…) I don’t think I was truly “over-trained”, but I would say I was likely “over-stressed”, and trying to train didn’t seem to help. What I started doing though was was some lighter, higher-rep “bodybuilding”/”bodysculpting”-type workouts, with supersets, on my apartment’s multigym machine (don’t laugh just yet, I’m getting somewhere with this). While it was a bit of a challenge at first, even from the get-go I noticed I didn’t feel all burnt out from my workouts. After a while I would feel a nice overall “pump” -physically and mentally (point #2). (I can hear the face-palms from the Strength and conditioning/functional training folks already 🙂 ).

    Over time though I’ve found my “workout energy” and my “will” increasing again, plus I’ve started enjoying my workouts again, even if they ARE “bodybuilding” workouts (and YES I like bodybuilding 😉 ). While I feel like I’m still recovering, I’ve found I’ve been able to do an occasional heavier workout with free weights, though I still find that a workout like that especially for lower body still can leave me a bit taxed. So the point I’m making -and I’d love anyone’s opinion on this – is whether during times of stress, and/or burnout/fatigue/possible overtraining, perhaps it might help to “back-off” a bit by using lighter weight,higher reps training, maybe even using machine-type “isolation” exercises, even for a time, to help with recovery?

    One major note is that for example I hadn’t done Benchpress in about 2 months, and prior to that I was “struggling” to increase some very “paltry” weight. After a while of doing these “pump” workouts, for some reason I decided to test my bench while working out with a buddy. And lo and behold I found that my 1RM had been MORE than I had ever even ATTEMPTED before! So…..maybe some “pump” workouts might help with stress?

    Your thoughts anyone?


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