If you could choose between sweating your guts out at the gym or just lying down at home to let a local masseuse massage your muscles into better shape, it would seem an easy decision. But if only it was that simple.
If you are seeking a shortcut to building muscle mass through massage alone, then prepare to be disappointed. The body in the photo above was not achieved through enjoying chocolate with relaxing massages and eating jam doughnuts. Surprised? We didn’t think so. The good news is that regular massage can actually help with building muscles. Incorporate massage into your exercise regime properly and you could see results like the one above sooner than you might otherwise.
To better understand how massage can help build stronger and bigger muscles, it is important to first consider how muscle growth is achieved.
Our bodies are innately designed to repair and adapt themselves to better cope with changing external environments. The evolution of mankind is an obvious large-scale illustration of this but actually a similar process occurs on a smaller scale in each of us throughout our lives. Building stronger muscles is one good example.
When you lift heavy weights at the gym, you are forcing your muscles to work harder than they usually do. This can cause strain and some of those muscle fibres can tear slightly. At the end of your workout, your body tries to repair and replace those torn muscle fibres. Deep inside your muscles, chemical processes start to take place and new muscle strands known as myofibrils begin to form. These myofibrils sit alongside others in your existing muscle fibres, thus increasing the overall thickness of your muscles. Your body is naturally improving itself to better deal with heavier weights in the future.
The more steadily you pace your exercise routines and increased demands on your muscles, the better they will be able to cope with improving themselves to match those demands. This development process, known as the hypertrophy of muscle fibres, is what eventually gives you those bulging biceps and trouser busting quads. Think of this as your own personal evolution over a period of 3 years rather than 3000 years.
Importantly, the process of muscle growth does not happen whilst you are lifting those dumbbells and swearing under your breath. It actually happens afterwards, when you are resting. Your muscles need to be relaxed and properly nourished for the chemical processes that create new muscle growth to take place effectively and efficiently. Building bigger and stronger muscles is a two-stage process:
1. The Workout Period: Regular exercise that repeatedly and safely drives your muscles to the maximum of their ability;
AND (yes, this 'and' is important!)
2. The Repair & Build Period: Matching periods of rest during which muscle fibres recover and new, thicker, fibres are built. Massage can help with this second part of the muscle building process.
When you exercise, your body undergoes a chemical process burning carbohydrates to create energy. One side effect of this chemical process is the production of lactate, an organic molecule made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Extended periods of strenuous exercise can cause excess lactate to collect in your blood and this can lead to muscle pain and aches.
Many of us suffer these symptoms a day or two after active exercise, especially when performed for the first time in a long time. Another post-exercise effect is that your immune system begins to secrete protein compounds known as cytokines which can affect the health of your muscles. This is usually part of the normal repair process but can also cause inflammation and pain.
You may feel that all the hard work was done whilst you were out of breath lifting weights at the gym. But when you get back home and put your feet up, your body is working just as hard to repair and rebuild itself after your trip to the gym.
Your internal organs are pumping away trying to get good nutrients to the damaged muscle cells. Your lymphatic system is busy trying to flush away waste products such as excess lactate that has been deposited in your blood from your muscle building efforts. Chemical reactions are taking place inside your cells trying to repair existing muscle strands and new muscles cells are being formed to improve your overall strength and weight lifting capabilities for the future. Your body continues to be a powerhouse of activity in the 24 - 48 hours even after you have winked at yourself in those floor to ceiling mirrors!
Getting a regular post-exercise massage helps your muscle building exercise plan in several ways, all of which aid the Repair & Build part of the muscle building process:
1. Massage stimulates the circulation of blood and other lymphatic fluids around your body, taking good stuff to recovering muscles more quickly.
2. Massage flushes out excess built-up lactate deposits in the blood stream, thus reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and speeding up the rate at which muscle fibres are repaired.
3. Massage can help reduce inflammation by helping decrease the levels of cytokine produced by your body.
4. Massage can reduce joint tightness and improve flexibility through assisted stretching routines, such as those found in Thai massage.
5. Massage can stimulate mitochondria, the power plant element of your cells that converts what you eat into the energy you need for your cells to repair and build themselves.
Whilst massage on its own cannot make your muscles bigger (or smaller!), it can make an important contribution to helping your muscles rest, recover and rebuild more efficiently. Proper relaxation and effective stimulation of blood flow encourages your body’s repair systems to work faster and better.
If you are wondering how long after working out you should get a massage, a recent scientific study showed that massage is most likely to reduce delayed muscle soreness around two to six hours after intense exercise.
Finally, it is worth noting that massage has great psychological benefits too. Part of any muscle gain or weight loss exercise regime is the mental battle of continuing through until you start to see results. Getting a relaxing real massage from a professional massage therapist who can demonstrate true empathy for what you might be feeling can be just what you need to make it to next week’s gruelling gym session!