Did you come to this site looking for information about physical conditioning or bodybuilding? Strength training is certainly one of the topics addressed here. However, as you’ll see, the meaning of “getting stronger” on this website is very broad, with applications to getting strong and fit in every way — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Train yourself to thrive on stress. This website and blog are about a new view of stress, embodied in a self-improvement philosophy that is backed up by a broad spectrum of scientific research. I call this philosophy Hormetism, a term derived from the scientific principle of hormesis, which is described on the Hormesis page (see above). Hormetism provides a way you can use progressive intermittent stress to grow stronger in many ways. It can help you overcome both physical limitations and psychological challenges, with applications as diverse as improving eyesight without glasses, losing weight without special diets, reducing susceptibility to colds and infections, overcoming addictions, and managing anger and other negative emotions.
This website is organized as a set of focal topics shown at the top of this page, including a regular blog. It’s easiest if you read these background pages in order, from left to right, starting with Hormesis. After that, take a look at the recent posts on the Home page, also listed in the side panel at the right. Or, just jump in wherever your interests take you. Don’t forget to check out some of the very useful links to books, blogs and other websites in the righthand panel. The goal of this website is to build an online community to share ideas and tips about how to get stronger, so please contribute your comments and questions or join in the Discussion Forum.
The conventional wisdom about stress. We strive to make our lives easier, more pleasurable, more convenient. We attempt to minimize stress and avoid adversity, lest they wear us down and make us weaker. When confronted with stress or disabilities, we typically seek one of three main approaches:
- Avoidance. The simplest way to “manage” stress is to reduce or avoid it. We are constantly reminded that stress can be detrimental to our health, and that we should cut back on our commitments and simplify our lives. But this is not often a practical option, since most of us have to work for a living and must confront the daily problems of health, finances, and interpersonal conflicts that are with us whether or not we like it.
- Palliation. In the short term, particularly for psychological stresses, we can try to sidestep or seek “release” from burdensome stresses by resorting to food, sex, alcohol, drugs or other soothing or pleasurable–but potentially addictive–pastimes. More positive sources of release have been proposed, such as yoga, massage, meditation or social interaction. But such palliative measures typically provide short-term symptomatic relief, and do not address the root cause – the experience of the stressor as “stressful” or the underlying physical or psychological weakness — which means the stress will continue to recur or persist.
- Correction. To counteract physical hardship or disability, we can compensate by using an external “crutch”. As our eyesight fades, glasses are prescribed; difficulty walking is addressed by the use of a cane; pain, by an analgesic or a stronger painkiller; infection is countered by antibiotics. Correction provides an immediate, short-term means of addressing a deficiency, but does nothing to overcome the underlying weakness or build up the resistance capacity of the organism. In fact, we often need to increase the magnitude or power of such corrective measures over time, leaving us further enfeebled and more dependent upon the crutch.
If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, do a web search on “stress management” and you get something like these 37 Tips. In the conventional view, we almost never see stress as a good. At best, some have argued that we embrace endocrinologist Hans Selye’s distinction between “distress” or negative stress and “eustress” or positive stress. Selye pointed out that eustress can be energizing and healthful, whereas long term and unremitting distress can lead to a range of health problems, which he termed the General Adaptation Syndrome. But the reality is that eustress is typically limited to a small number of inherently self-reinforcing activities–such as meaningful work, adventurous travel, or moderate exercise. Acknowledging the value of eustress still leaves us vulnerable to the many unplanned and unavoidable physical and psychological stresses that come our way, often at the most inconvenient times. We need a way to handle what Selye calls “distress”.
A new view of stress. The prevailing view about stress is mistaken, or at least half wrong. The fact is that — if applied correctly — stress strengthens us. To some extent, this is acknowledged. Nietzsche famously proclaimed, with some hyperbole, “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” And in certain limited areas–the use of vaccination to boost immunity, for example–it is embraced. But is it not absurd to seek out stress deliberately, as a general principle? Is it really possible to use stress in a deliberate and controlled manner to strengthen body, mind and spirit? This website answers that question in the affirmative, based on a broad survey of psychological and physiological research, and we develop here a fresh and highly practical philosophical perspective that draws upon sources as ancient as the Greek and Roman Stoics, and as recent as scientists working in the fields of neurology and physiological psychology.
Tying it all together. While many of the specific findings described in this website are not original, what is new, in Hormetism, is the synthesis of a unified theory of stress-induced adaptation, and a generalized set of principles for using stress deliberately and systematically to increasing strength. Hormetism is a viewpoint and methodology that applies broadly and at multiple levels — from the physiological and psychological, and even to the organizational and societal. It unifies findings from fields as diverse as exercise physiology, immunology, endocrinology, neural plasticity, and even the study of economic growth and development.
The method of Hormetism can be summarized as follows: Strength should be understood as the unaided, internal capacity of the organism (or social system) to accomplish tasks or resist stresses in a given respect. Strength in humans or other biological, adaptive systems, is most effectively built by means of the progressive, intermittent application of stress, optimized in both intensity and frequency. To be effective in increasing strength in any area, the stress must be applied repeatedly over a period of time, carefully attending to five key principles:
- Simulation. The training stress should be presented in a representative way that simulates the real world stress as closely as possible, attending to the full context, including variations likely to be encountered. The more realistic, the better the result.
- Constraint. It is important that the stress be applied “in good form,” using self-discipline or external constraints to ensure no “cheating”. The stress should be focused and fully absorbed by the part or aspect of the organism needing to be strengthened, while preventing compensation or crutches that would reduce the stimulus effect.
- Intensity. To be effective, the stress stimulus should be applied with an intensity that goes “beyond the comfort zone”. The optimal intensity of the stressor varies inversely with its duration, and these two parameters can be usefully adjusted — from a sustained stress that is mildly uncomfortable, to brief but intense stress that is just short of the point of failure. The best training routine probably combines sessions of varying intensity and duration.
- Recovery. In most cases, each application of stress should be followed by an interval of rest or removal of the stress for a time sufficient to allow an adaptation response — tissue repair, consolidation of learning, etc. The more intense the stress, the longer the required recovery period. In rare cases where it is impractical to cycle between stress and recovery, the intensity of the stress should be low enough to allow concurrent adaptation with the stress.
- Gradualism. Until the strengthening goal is achieved, each application of stress should be greater or more sustained than the previous application, consistent with what the individual can tolerate. But the increases in intensity or duration should be incremental–steps, not leaps. Undertraining–an insufficient application of stress–can undermine efforts to build strength. But it is equally important to avoid overtraining, in order to steer clear of injuries or other setbacks that could even result in loss of strength. Gradualism and the patience to practice may be one of the least appreciated but surest paths to getting stronger.
Training vs. Doing. It is important to make a clear distinction between training periods when we are building stress resistance, and the rest of life, when we are dealing with life’s stresses. Training sessions will typically weaken a person during the application of the stress exercises, and likely also for some period of recovery thereafter. So Hormetism can seem paradoxical, because we often address a problem by advising the opposite of the normal remedy. For example, just as weight lifting stimulates increased muscular strength, vision can be improved by using progressively stronger anti-corrective lenses, and progressive sun tanning without sunscreen is effective in building up resistance of the skin to UV radiation. After recovery from the initial “damage” caused by the stressor, adaptive remodeling leaves the person with a stronger “infrastructure”, able to better resist future stresses. Stress training generally takes repeated applications over many weeks or months to deliver a benefit. Thus, the training period should be recognized as a short-term setback that is worthwhile because it leads to a long-term positive adaptation to stress. Of course, the “setback” is not experienced as pain or overtraining, because gradualism is used to ensure the stress applied is not excessive, but always “within reach”.
Applications. The majority of this website and blog will be devoted to applying the philosophy of Hormetism to a wide variety of specific practical examples. In each case, we will consider biological or behavioral evidence supporting the application of stress as a stimulus to strength, as well as specific suggestions for how to optimally achieve strength gains in practice.
Hormetism is not an academic armchair philosophy, but rather a “philosophy for life” that can help us thrive in coping with our everyday challenges. Some of the more interesting applications of Hormetism include:
- high intensity weight training and interval training
- Navy Seals stress inoculation training
- plus lens therapy for overcoming nearsightedness
- deconditioning diet for appetite control
- cold water therapy for stress reduction and immune health
- allergen immunotherapy to eliminate allergies
- eating polyphenol-rich foods to boost your endogenous antioxidant defenses
Leave a comment. And be sure to check out the Discussion Forum.