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Muscle Building and Muscle Recovery Scientific Secrets You Need to Know

Tim Boyer's picture
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Building muscle through weight training to increase strength and bulk up the body are the primary goals of serious body builders and health conscious individuals seeking to lose weight and get fit. According to researchers, one misconception both types of individuals hold onto is that building muscle means pressing, lifting, pushing and pulling the heaviest weights a person can handle during exercise.

The old “no pain, no gain” maxim that you must damage tissue to build muscle does lead to muscle growth, but also to soreness and prolonged healing. Another failing of the misconception is that it also discourages many people from turning to weight training—especially if they are older, suffer from arthritis and other medical conditions, or just aren’t into pain.

The good news is that exercise and fitness researchers from McMasters University have found that lifting weights does not have to be as hard as believed. In fact, their studies show that more repetitions with lighter weights can result in equal to or more muscle mass than conventional heavy weight training. Furthermore, their research also shows that brief massage to strained muscles can do more toward relief from pain and recovery from damage than by taking a pill.

Building Muscle

In two separate, complimentary studies, the researchers show conclusive evidence from protein analysis at the biochemical and cellular level of building new muscle that weight training at a lower intensity—but with significantly more repetitions—can be as effective (and in some cases better) for building muscle than lifting heavy weights. The secret they discovered was that volunteer research subjects were most successful in inducing acute muscle anabolism if they performed the repetitions to the point of muscle fatigue where they could not lift, press, push or pull the weight “just one more time.”

"Rather than grunting and straining to lift heavy weights, you can grab something much lighter but you have to lift it until you can't lift it anymore," said Stuart Phillips, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University. "We're convinced that growing muscle means stimulating your muscle to make new muscle proteins, a process in the body that over time accumulates into bigger muscles."

Phillips research colleague Nicolas Burd concurs with the findings and points out that the health implications of Phillip’s and his papers go beyond just bulking up the body for show.

"The perspective provided in this review highlights that other resistance protocols, beyond the often discussed high-intensity training, can be effective in stimulating a muscle building response that may translate into bigger muscles after resistance training," says Burd. "These findings have important implications from a public health standpoint because skeletal muscle mass is a large contributor to daily energy expenditure and it assists in weight management. Additionally, skeletal muscle mass, because of its overall size, is the primary site of blood sugar disposal and thus will likely play a role in reducing the risk for development of type II diabetes."

Another benefit of weight training using lighter weights and more repetitions is that it appears to sustain a muscle-building response that continues for days after exercising.

So what is the level of light weight training recommended?

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According to their studies, the subjects based the level of their light weights used on a percentage of what that individual tested could lift. Typically, when a person uses heavy weights the weights are set to 90% of a person's best lift with 5 to 10 lifts before muscle fatigue sets in and ends the set. With lighter weights and more repetitions, however, using a mere 30% of what a people can lift and at 24 lifts or more before fatigue sets in works better for building muscle.

Muscle Recovery

Muscle recovery is an important part of muscle building. In a related study this year by another group of researchers from McMasters University, they discovered that only 10 minutes of massage can do more for pain relief and damage repair than taking anti-inflammatory drugs.

In the study, twenty healthy young males were instructed to pedal a bicycle for over 70 minutes to a point of exhaustion where they could not pedal any longer. After 10 minutes of rest, a massage therapist would then massage only one leg from each of the test subjects leaving the other leg untreated.

Immediate after the massage and once again two and one-half hours later, muscle biopsies were done on both legs of each individual and measured for markers of inflammation. What the tests showed was that the legs that received the 10-minute massage had significantly reduced inflammation in comparison to the non-massaged leg. Furthermore, research showed that massage also increases the number of mitochondria in the muscle cells and is believed to promote repair to damaged tissues.

"We have shown the muscle senses that it is being stretched [from massage] and this appears to reduce the cells’ inflammatory response. As a consequence, massage may be beneficial for recovery from injury," says Justin Crane, a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster and lead author of the study.

Further research toward both muscle building and muscle recovery is expected to arise from these findings that just might change how we view exercise in the future. Perhaps someday we will look at the “no pain, no gain” maxim as quaint and outdated and wonder why we were so driven to make something so healthful, so hard.


"Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise" Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 37(3): 551-554; Burd, N.A., Mitchell, C.J., Churchward-Venne, T.A., Phillips and S.M. Bigger.

“Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men” PLoS One 5(8); Nicholas A. Burd, et al.

“Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage” Science Translational Medicine, 1 February 2012 Vol. 4, Issue 119; Justin D. Crane, et al.



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