Understanding Adrenaline

I remember doing about 12 to 15 maximal reps between snatch, clean and jerk, and front squat a few years ago, and I was tired halfway into it. After the initial warm-ups, I would amp myself up for the maximal sets using imagery and cue words; purely psychological. I’ve increased my heart rate 50 beats per minute doing this while sitting in a chair using these methods (the pulse was obtained with a pulse oximeter).

It’s easy to intuitively know that “getting amped” can tire you out, but what is physiologically going on? Why is it tiring to do a lot of high intensity lifting? Or even high intensity conditioning workouts (as in CrossFit)? We can start by understanding epinephrine and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline and noradrenaline).

Chris uses epinephrine

Chris uses epinephrine because it tastes good

Typically epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted by the adrenal medulla, a part of the adrenal gland that sits on the kidney, but norepinephrine is also a neurotransmitter released by neurons in the sympathetic nervous system. There are lots of smart words here, but the sympathetic nervous system is summed up as the “fight or flight” response while the parasympathetic takes care of “rest and digest”. Both are necessary for sex, or at least good sex, but I digress.

These hormones are amino acid based, which means they are water soluble and therefore not fat soluble. If you can remember back to your basic biology days, cellular walls are made out of a phospholipid bilayer. In other words, cell walls are made out of fats and cholesterol — which is a mega huge raging reason you need to eat quality fats in your diet, but that’s another digression.

Anyway, epinephrine is not fat soluble, so it can’t just pass through cell walls. Instead, it attaches on receptors on the cellular membrane and creates a chain of reactions inside that cell; a process called a cascade. This cascade can change a lot of stuff going on in a given cell from just a little bit of epinephrine, and that’s why it’s effective; lots of change from just a little amount.

The primary effects of dumping epinephrine and norepinephrine into your body are increased heart rate and blood pressure (via vasoconstriction, or narrowing of specific blood vessels), increasing respiratory rate (via bronchodilation, or making lung airways bigger), increasing blood flow to muscles (via vasodilation), increasing blood sugar levels by breaking down stored glycogen in the liver, and lastly, increasing nearly every cell’s metabolism and burning glucose and breaking down proteins and fats.

Well fuck, there’s a lot going on there. Basically it preps the body for some sort of intense event, like uppercutting a predator or running from prison rape (but you can’t escape; it’s prison!). The part we are more concerned with is cellular metabolism. Burning glucose and breaking down proteins and fats means getting substrates ready for lots of action, but it isn’t sustainable. These macronutrients are stored in special ways, but they need to be broken back down to be used, which uses energy. After the event, you have consumed lots of energy and don’t have stores left, so you feel tired.

Imagine doing this every single workout multiple times a week until further notice; it’s metabolic madness. Do you understand now why doing CrossFit six days a week or lifting with a high frequency and intensity isn’t sustainable without performance enhancement drugs?

Furthermore, imagine if this cascade happened routinely from psychological and emotional stress. It’s easy to see why people use the term “adrenal fatigue”. Call it whatever you want, but getting stressed physically or emotionally is the same and it messes with your body. Understanding one little cog called epinephrine in the giant metabolic machine can show us how too much exposure can be debilitating. Or at the very least you know why you’re so damn tired after amping up in training or competition.

14 thoughts on “Understanding Adrenaline

    • I assume you mean would it contribute? Coffee and stimulants may act in their own ways, so I can’t say definitively. For example, if you had a cup of coffee a day and did 6 met-cons a week, the coffee isn’t an issue.

      But yeah, overuse or abuse of stimulants and such can complicate things. The mechanism will vary though. Give me an example.

      • I drink up to ten coffees per day (shift work)
        Is this leaving my nervous system in fight or flight rather than rest and digest. Am I causing this chemically rather than with a met con. (I don’t crossfit but o lift 2-4 times per week + squats and presses)
        I do feel fatigue after training and about 4-6pm.

        • I know you didn’t ask me, but you should consider slowly scaling back your caffeine intake. I also absolutely “need” it for work, but keep in mind your tollerance for caffeine builds over time. I used to drink about 4-5 cups per day but now I can make it happen with one cup on rest days and two cups on training days (I will never not want to drink it right before training). Try just cutting out one cup per day, then two, etc. Over time you’ll be able to get the same boost from less caffeine and you will sleep better for it.

          • Yeah what I was thinking.
            It wasn’t till I thought about it I realised how much it was.
            It’s very rarely ten cups but it happens.
            I’ll switch some for tea and then see how I am.

  1. I wonder if it is possible to train for getting amped and to do it with some sort of plan to get better at doing it, without getting tired? Kind of like the reverse of what a buddhist monk would do when he enters the intensely meditative zen state? I know from doing it a lot that I can also get really amped just sitting still, and practice makes perfect, but I never tried to do it for sets accross.

    • Hmm, it’s an interesting thought. I’d go ahead and assume it’s adaptable yet there would be a limit. Of course, systemic effects are relevant to a bazillion other things going on in the body, so it’s hard to measure. But yes, you can train your mind to regulate your autonomic nervous system. I intend on writing about this a bit more in the next few weeks.

      • Great article Justin!

        3 quick things…

        Firstly, do you think the Bulgarian/Abadijev program, with its focus on intensity with maximal attempts over and over again, trains the nervous system in this way?

        Secondly, kind of a taboo-ish subject, but how do you feel about nicotine’s benefits are when it comes to Weightlifting? I.E. How does it work in the brain and body? I know many lifters that smoke and/or chew nicorette gum prior and while lifting because it raises their heartbeat and blood pressure to flight or flight levels. Or at least, that’s the thought behind it that I’ve heard. For the record, I don’t plan on trying this, but am intellectually curious

        Lastly, I once heard that Dave Rigert took a bet that he could do a 190 clean and jerk with no warm-up. The story goes that he sat down for 5 minutes, smoked a cigarette, and raised his heartbeat to the point where he was sweating before going up to the bar and doing it. Less a question and more of just a cool little story I thought I’d share.

  2. When you say they’re ‘amino acid based’ and that they’re water soluble and not fat soluble, what are you referring to? Tyrosine is the amino acid that norepinephrine is a mirror image of, and it’s classified as hydrophobic. I’m forgetful of the pH of the phospolipid bilayer and it’s surroundings, but it would need a pH of at least 10 for tyrosine to be water soluble.

    And the same goes for epinephrine – it’s based off Tyrosine and therefore should be fat soluble.

    I don’t mean to be nit picky and challenge your article – just intrigued because I just finished up a course in biochemistry focusing on amino acids/proteins/enzymes.

    • I’m by no means an expert, but hormones are generally classified as derivatives of amino acids, peptides, and lipids. Most are peptides and act as I’ve described in the post — (e.g. they attach to receptors on cells and create a cascade instead of passing through the cell membrane and having a direct effect) — and some may even do both (like melatonin).

      It’s funny that you bring up tyrosine as I was thinking about it today. Tyrosine –> Dopa –> Dopamine –> Norepinephrine. A pH of 10 is pretty alkaline for a cell, but tyrosine is not having the same effect as norepinephrine despite the fact that the latter is a derivative of the former.

      It might be more accurate to say that the lipid derived hormones can pass into a cell membrane while the others cannot because of the phospholipid bilayer (the hydrophilic heads are facing out).

      Is there still an issue with this clarification? If so, let’s figure it out.

  3. I may be a strange one… Actually I know I am a strange one, but my best pr’s and big lifts I accomplish by taking 30 sec too one min of calm meditation and visualization before my attempt slowing my heart rate relaxing my muscle after my warm up after that I get business done. Could be because I am hardly even at the intermediate level of lifting for a guy my size.

  4. It’s actually quite amazing how much easier it is to recover from workouts when you don’t psych yourself up for lifts. Sure you might lift slightly less, but the amount more volume and intensity you can take on is staggering, and also makes it so on test day you can truly reach down for that extra because you haven’t been wasting it on regular training days.

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