Rage Against the Machine
By Anthony Ricciuto
Q: First off I would like to tell you to keep up the good work. Your column goes above and beyond each and every issue. I learn something new each time I pick up my issue of Powerlifting USA magazine. My question is about the hormone Cortisol. You have mentioned this several times before but I really don’t know what it is and how it affects the body. I have heard that your body produces it when you get angry and rage out on someone, is this true? You mentioned that reducing it is good, but why? How important is this hormone for the powerlifter trying to maximize his performance? I want to know more about this hormone but I haven’t really found any good info out there that would relate to a powerlifter. Thank you again for all you have done for the hardcore powerlifter because there is no one else that watches out for us like you.
A: Hey Frankie it’s good to hear from you. Now Cortisol is a very complex topic, to say the least. It is one very tricky hormone. It has its benefits for the body, but it has numerous health-destroying attributes that can lead to disease that will shorten your lifespan. Not only that but it will also destroy your lifting success at the same time. I will give you an in depths look into this hormone and how it will affect your powerlifting and long-term health. Let’s first take a look at what this hormone is and understand the background info about it before we can move on to more serious stuff.
What is Cortisol?
First off we must realize that Cortisol is needed to sustain life. So as you can see it’s not all bad. Cortisol is also known as 17-Hydroxy cortico. Cortisol is considered a corticosteroid hormone and originates from the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is released in the body when the Pituitary gland releases another hormone called Androcorticotropic (ACTH). This in turn stimulates the production of adrenal hormones in the adrenal cortex. Most of you don’t know this but Cortisol is created from cholesterol. After several different hormonal metabolic conversions, which I won’t bore you with here because I am sure you don’t want the geeky textbook version, Cortisol is then produced. Cortisol is known as a stress hormone as it is released into your bloodstream during times when your body endures different types of stress. Let me give you a simple yet effective scenario that you can visualize helping you understand how Cortisol is secreted in the body. Sit back, close your eyes and picture the below scenario.
Cortisol is a Catabolic Hormone Critical for Life!
Powerlifter Road Rage
It’s a hot summer afternoon. Hell, it’s more than hot, it’s a frickin scorcher out there. It’s got to be 105 degrees in the damn shade. Most of all you just finished a horrible day at work. Deadline after the deadline was made today and you didn’t make any of them. Your boss just rode your ass all day and the pile of work on your desk seems to resemble the Leaning Tower of Piza. No matter what you did it went wrong. You have now left the “Solitary Confinement with a Paycheck” known as your job, and are now on your way home to the sweet lady you married 15 years ago. Well, she was sweet back then, but that was a long time ago and another story in itself. Even after what seemed to be an eternity in hell you have something to look forward to… the big game! But disaster strikes again as you get on the freeway to see it moving at the rate of molasses in January. Even better is the fact that your brother-in-law was supposed to come over last week to fix the air conditioner in the car but he couldn’t because his wife wanted to go see some stupid “Chick Flick”. So because your boy here doesn’t have the guts to keep his family jewels out of his wife’s purse, you are now melting like an ice cream cone on the hottest day of the year. You are now aggravated to no end and are just waiting to let all this “Pent up Aggression” loose and go CUJO on someone’s ass. Forget about Lassie, Cujo was a dog’s dog!
Who Loves Cujo?
You are now sitting in a traffic jam during the most important football game of the year. You just placed a big bet on this game. Big isn’t the word! You put down 2 weeks of your salary to the local bookie. If your wife even had an inkling of what you did she would make the Lorena Bobbit story seem like a Disney production. Like I said she used to be sweet but that’s all over now. She went from a Spice Girl to the woman in the movie Misery in just a little over a decade. How things change! But, being the man that you are you risked it. The game is close and you just have to get home to find out what is going on. You are dying to watch the game but you know there is no way in hell that you are going to make it. You start getting annoyed, your blood pressure is starting to rise and you are now feeling the pressure in your head building. The thought of losing all that money is driving you crazy. The thought of what you might lose when the old lady finds out of your little wager will be even more painful. The visions of delusion are going through your head like a whirlwind. You are starting to feel like a Postal Worker who just got his release slip and his divorce papers all in the same afternoon.
Lorena ” The Butcher” Bobbit
All of a sudden out of nowhere one of those grubby “Squeegee Kids” comes over to your car and starts gilding his super dirty squeegee over your windshield in a gyrating fashion. All the while lip-syncing to his favorite Guns and Roses song from his Walkman. What the F#$K you say to yourself under your breath. Hell, you didn’t invite this lovely fellow over nor did you want this moron to make your windshield dirtier than it already was. The sweet thing about this service is that you didn’t even ask for it yet this guy wants some money for adding some grime to your new car. All the while his lit cigarette hanging from his mouth by a strand of saliva falls into your lap and burns you so close to your “Culonges” it’s almost scary. For those who speak Italian, you know what I am talking about. Your blood is now boiling, and this “Street Monkey in Spandex” has the balls to ask for some change for the wonderful service he did by making your windshield a dirty mess. You tell him to go to hell then proceed to throw the cigarette butt at him in a manner that would make Nolan Ryan proud. You then politely tell him to go crawl under the rock from which he came. He with all the class of a circus entertainer starts cursing at you and even starts verbally abusing your mother. So you have now had enough of this sweetheart. It’s now “Go Time” for this punk on the 126 Interstate because you are going to open a can of “Whoop Ass” on this guy like he has never seen before. You are going to smash him so hard his kids will be born dizzy. You get out of your car pick him up by the few strands of hair on his greasy head and throw him across the freeway like a ragdoll. It’s time to unleash a whole world of hurt on this fool as today is going to be one he won’t forget! Ok, back to reality for a second here boys. I know you liked this story and most likely couldn’t wait for the violent ending. But I have to cut it off here otherwise this whole column will just be about some raged-up powerlifter kicking some degenerate low life into a coma.
Get The F&ck Away from my Car!
Now to break up all the fun in this story there are actually many different physiological reactions happening inside your body with the above scenario. They are happening right before your eyes even though you don’t know it. I know this story was very creative and no doubt had your attention throughout it. In the above scenario, your body has just released a nice mega dose of Cortisol into your bloodstream. To help you understand some of the negative effects that Cortisol has on the body I have laid out the below chart to give you a breakdown of how and what this hormone will do to your body when overproduced.
Negative Effects of Excess Cortisol
Excess Cortisol Increases Tendon Damage and Degeneration
Increased levels of Cortisol can have negative consequences for tendon health. This means high levels of blood Cortisol can lead to an increased rate of injuries to tendons. This can be seen in the fact that a lot of strength athletes tear their muscles from their tendons in particularly the biceps and patella tendons. One thing that will make you think is the fact that a lot of injuries in our sport occur during times when our stress levels were the highest. I have noticed this with a lot of my lifters and personally have had a couple of my bigger injuries when my stress level was through the roof. Tendon health for powerlifters is of the greatest concern because your lifting career depends on it.
Tendon Injuries are No Joke!
Excess Cortisol Decreases Insulin Sensitivity and Increases Insulin Resistance
This is a major side effect of excess Cortisol. What this refers to is how efficient your body is using insulin. I am not going to go into the science here as this is an article topic in itself but what I will tell you is that it will play a major role in your performance, your health, and ultimately your lifespan. Wow, now I got your attention. When you become insulin resistant your chances for Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, Impaired Kidney function, and a whole slew of other diseases are on your hit list. It will also cause you to gain more fat, decrease your rate of glycogen replenishment, reduce your volume workload, and destroy your energy level, and much more. This is a big topic and from my assessment of thousands of powerlifters over the last decade I will say that a large majority are insulin resistant. This is a topic I will discuss further as its ramifications are very serious.
Chronic Stress Increases Your Chances for Type II Diabetes
Excess Cortisol Promotes a Catabolic State
Now here is something that you want to happen as a powerlifter. Nothing like letting good old Mr. Cortisol just eat away at your hard-earned muscle mass and strength as he went to some type of all-you-can-eat buffet. Cortisol will no doubt cause you to lose muscle tissue and lower your level of strength. This is due to the fact that when a Cortisol molecule interacts with a receptor site located on a muscle cell it causes it to release valuable amino acids from the cell. This in turn happened because of muscle cell proteins breaking down into those amino acids thereby making you turn into a girly man…minus the muscles. If this alone isn’t enough to make you take attention to this topic then you are reading the wrong magazine.
Excess Cortisol will Raise your Blood Pressure
This is due to the fact that it causes the body to retain sodium while at the same time increases the rate of potassium excretion. Increased blood pressure is not always just your diet as you can see above. But combine a stressful lifestyle and the fact that you eat like “Carnival Help” is just adding gasoline to the fire. Since high blood pressure has also reached epidemic levels in the United States it is important that you keep a watchful eye on this very destructive disease.
The “Silent Killer” is a Common Issue with Strength Athletes
Excess Cortisol can Lower your Testosterone Level
Yes, you heard that right. Too much Cortisol in the blood will play havoc with the Big T. That’s why if you may have noticed that during your times of extreme stress your sex drive basically went from “Super Stud” to “Mr. Stay Soft” overnight. Stress will kill your sex drive and testosterone level in a heartbeat. Don’t forget that your strength is also related directly to your testosterone level. So if your test levels are bottoming out you may feel more inclined to play with some Barbie Dolls rather than doing some heavy deadlifts. So if you want to stay a stallion in the bedroom and in the gym keep the Cortisol levels low.
Low Testosterone is Not Ideal for Strength!
Excess Cortisol Lowers Growth Hormone Production
This is definitely something that you don’t want happening. Growth Hormone is responsible for many different processes in your body. If you have even a brief understanding of what this hormone is about you will know that it is highly anabolic. This means in powerlifting lingo that it will help you build muscle and burn fat. It also has healing benefits for your tendons and ligaments. Many powerlifters and bodybuilders use synthetic GH as part of their pharmaceutical arsenal to help them put on muscle, increase their strength, help them recover from past injuries, and burn fat. Since Cortisol can reduce your natural production of GH this is something you want to avoid like the plague.
Excess Cortisol Lowers GH Blood Levels!
Excess Cortisol Lowers the Transfer of T4 to T3 Conversion
This refers to your different Thyroid hormones. T4, which is also known as Thyroxin, is the inactive form of Thyroid hormone. For it to work its fat-burning miracles it first must convert to T3 also known as Triiodothyronine which is the active form of this hormone. In pharmaceutical terms, T3 is also known as Cytomel. This happens because Cortisol suppresses the all-important enzyme called 5’deiodinase. The reason why this enzyme is so important is that it is what is responsible for the turnover of T4 to T3. By lowering the efficiency of your T4 to T3 conversion rate means that will cause a major decrement in your metabolic rate and your ability to burn body fat. What you also have to realize is that T3 is also an anabolic hormone as well. Bodybuilders use synthetic Cytomel to help them get ripped for competitions where their body fat level has to be under 5%.
Optimal Thyroid Function is Critical for Health and Performance!
Excess Cortisol Decreases Training Recovery
Cortisol will also prevent you from recovering from your workouts properly. When the body is under high-stress levels it will prevent the body from healing itself in an efficient manner. This will cause you to be sore from your workouts longer than usual. In turn, your joints will also ache more and old injuries will just seem to flare up when you least expect it. Sounds good, doesn’t it. So if you want to get benefit from your workouts you must fully recover from them and allow your body to heal to make the progress you deserve.
Recovery is Critical for Strength Gains!
Excess Cortisol Decreases Bone Mass
This is another side effect of high blood Cortisol levels. This is something that all powerlifters should avoid because strong and healthy bones are very important for posting a bigger total. This is of even greater concern for female lifters, as this will cause them to be susceptible to osteoporosis later in life. What good is it to have strong muscles that can lift heavy but at the same time having bones that are brittle? This will set you up for some nice fractures down the road that could cause serious injury especially if it occurs during a max squat attempt. Not something that you want to picture in your mind before going for a PR!
Bone Strength and Density is a Must!
Excess Cortisol Decreases IGF-1 Production
Now, most of you probably don’t have a clue what IGF-1 is. This term stands for Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1. This is one of the most powerful hormones in the body. IGF-1 is the hormone that is produced in your liver due to Growth Hormone metabolism with the presence of Insulin. It is more anabolic than Testosterone, Growth Hormone, or Insulin. Now I have your attention, don’t I?
Another major benefit to IGF-1 is that it causes the up-regulation of satellite cell production. Now you may say who the hell cares about more satellite cells? Well for those “Chemically Enhanced” lifters out there perk up your ears because you are going to learn something very valuable. We already know that IGF-1 can increase these important cells but the thing that I left out is that these newly formed satellite cells will possess a higher number of androgen receptors. What this means is that they will have a greater affinity to androgen binding. This means in layman powerlifting terms is that your “Pharmaceutical Program” is going to work a hell of a lot better at a lower dose. Wow, now you are listening eh boys? So you will get stronger and more muscular with less dosage. This is due to the fact when good old “Mr.Testosterone” molecule is floating through your bloodstream it will attach itself to the multiple numbers of androgen receptors that are now present on this newly formed satellite cell. Now multiply this happening to thousands or even millions of more cells and with who knows how many more androgen receptors on each of those cells and you have a lot more “Anabolic Action” going on. Let’s not forget that the increases of these newly formed satellite cells are not only in newly formed muscle fibers but your existing muscle fibers as well. You see there is a distinct relation to how the nutritional sciences and the “Pharmaceutical” sciences work in unison to produce a new frontier on results. This in turn gives you a much bigger total through a synergy that is untouchable!
Cortisol can decrease the production of IGF-1 in the body when it is overproduced. I can do an entire article about IGF-1 in itself so I will go much more in-depth in the near future. If your excess Cortisol production is shutting down the synthesis of the most anabolic hormone in your body, then you better get your Cortisol levels in check otherwise your results are going to go out the window! Synthetic IGF-1 and the more potent R3 Long IGF-1 are very popular among “Enhanced” athletes the world over and now you understand why you can’t let Cortisol destroy your natural supply like a wildfire.
Excess Cortisol Increases Visceral Fat Storage
Oh yeah, here is a nice side effect that powerlifters can really benefit from. Most of us are trying to limit the extra “Love” around our midsection. Here good old Mr. Cortisol is trying to increase our waistline to make us resemble the Michelin Man instead of a strength athlete. The reason for the increased fat storage around the waistline especially in males is the fact that there are a lot of Cortisol receptors in the tissue surrounding your waist. Let’s not add any more fat to our physiques because we are trying to change our “Fat Guy” image around to the general public. At the same time, we don’t want to completely gross out everyone with the new thong Speedo that you plan to wear to the big family picnic this summer either.
When You Look 99 Months Pregnant with Quintuplets!
Excess Cortisol can Run Down your Immune Function
This is another bad boy just waiting to unleash itself on you when you are least expecting it. Think back to one of your really stressed out times and you most likely will notice that within the next few days to a week you probably got a nice cold or flu. Cortisol can really decrease your immune function and your ability to fight off viruses or bacteria that are invading the body. You can’t lift big if you are suffering from some type of illness since this will keep your body in a catabolic state. The last time you were run down with a nice cold your workouts sucked the big one in terms of your performance. You may have stuck it out and grinded through your workout but you and I know you wished you had stayed at home.
Excess Cortisol can Wear You Down!
Excess Cortisol Decreases your Metabolic Rate
Many don’t know this but when the body has an abundance of Cortisol just floating around in your system it will bring down the efficiency of your metabolism. This is definitely not a good thing since this will cause an increase in fat storage. One of the main purposes of a customized power nutrition meal plan is to get your metabolism to speed up and use your nutrients more efficiently. Cortisol can bring down the number of calories that you burn per day so that your daily surplus of calories is not being used for glycogen replenishment and muscle repair but is instead being stored as a nice big roll of flab!
Excess Cortisol Reduces Protein Synthesis and Amino Acid Uptake
This sounds sweet, doesn’t it? Now many of you might not know what protein synthesis is or the chemical reactions that take place during it but even then it doesn’t sound good. If you reduce your rate of amino acid uptake into the muscles then you are going to minimize an optimal environment for cell volumization. This in turn will reduce your efficiency of protein synthesis thereby making sure that you don’t put on any muscle and will make your strength goes south as well.
Elevated Cortisol is Not Good For Getting Jacked!
Excess Cortisol Accelerates Aging and Memory Loss
Ok, this is some sweet words to hear after I just dropped a nuclear holocaust on you with all the above info. Yes, it is true that excess Cortisol production will no doubt make you age faster. Now I know most powerlifters out there are not worried about getting some extra Crow’s Feet or a few extra wrinkles before their time. I don’t think that powerlifters contribute a huge market share to Clinique’s beauty line of creams and anti-wrinkle formulas, but the fact remains no one wants to look 10-15 years their senior. Memory loss is another area that no one wants to deal with and it is much more serious than just a little aging. Cortisol can have a drastic effect on your cognitive function so this is not something that should be taken lightly. It is believed that memory loss is a major side effect of excess Cortisol production due to the fact that Cortisol attacks the Hypothalamus. This area of the brain controls the entire endocrine system so by causing damage to the “Major Control Center” so to speak in layman’s terms, then it will cause major differences in the production and metabolism of the many different hormones that are under its control. So as you can see, Cortisol can wreak havoc on more than just your muscles!
Memory Loss and Elevated Cortisol is a Reality!
Now before you have a Coronary infarction from reading all that you just have just relax, because the stress that you are now experiencing from reading this article is actually making you release more Cortisol. Haha, I know you must hate me but I am funny at times. Since we know what Cortisol is and how badly it affects our health we must figure out a game plan to reduce it in our lifestyle and training plan so that we can live a longer healthier life. By the way let’s not forget to neutralize it for a bigger total, larger muscles, lower body fat percentage, and better energy level. In the second part of this series, I will cover what you can do to stop excess Cortisol production dead in its tracks through proper nutrition and supplementation protocols. This will be a very important and informative column, so stay tuned to find out what you can do to maximize your strength and health. So until next month, stay cool, lift hard, and don’t let the “Squeegee Kids” take you down!
For those of you interested in the Nutrition XP3 customized Nutrition System please feel free to contact me for availability at