Inflammation is fast becoming the bogeyman of the muscle-building world. In fact, it may even overtake cortisol as the frontrunner of known muscle killers. Is this reputation fair? Yes... and no.
Much like cortisol, short-term spikes in inflammation can actually be very beneficial, but long-term elevations are completely undesirable. When it comes to inflammation and muscle gain, the ideal scenario involves maintaining low resting-inflammation levels, followed by significant post-training spikes to initiate muscle gain pathways.
Yep, that's right. You need inflammation to grow.
Why the Bad Reputation?
Multiple studies have found negative effects of chronic inflammation on muscle gain. Long-term elevations have been correlated with low testosterone levels, joint pain, injuries, and a reduced capacity to build muscle (not to mention the potential health consequences that come with sustained inflammation, like autoimmune disease).
- One nine-month training study found that the higher your levels of chronic inflammation, the less muscle you gained.
- In another study, the "non-responders" to muscle growing stimuli were found to have high levels of inflammation.
- Yet another study found that the higher your C-reactive protein score (a marker of inflammation), the lower your rate of muscle gain.
Given all that, it's easy to see why inflammation is believed to be the enemy of muscle gain. As such, many people seem hell-bent on eliminating inflammation altogether. But this is an oversimplification of the issue and could do more harm than good.
Inflammation Has Some Positives (No, Really)
Other research has actually identified that rapid, short-term elevations in inflammatory markers have a positive effect on muscle gain. In fact, acute post-workout inflammation initiates muscle repair and growth.
This is why we want low inflammation levels almost all of the time, with the exception of the post-workout period. That's when we want significant post-workout spikes in inflammation. If you can do that, you're on your way to building more muscle.
How to Master Inflammation
1 – Don't Get Too Chubby.
Elevated body fat correlates with high levels of inflammation, and the fatter you are, the worse off you are. So yeah, keep your body fat within an acceptable range.
You probably want me to give you an exact body fat percentage to aim for, but I'm not going to do that since most people have a horribly skewed perception of body fat percentage. Instead, here's a simple tip:
Only bulk until your abs start to fade and you can't make out the outline of a six-pack with a bit of a flex, even under some favorable lighting. Bulking up further than this will likely have negative effects on inflammation and cause you to build less muscle and gain more fat.
Past that point already? Then "mini-cut" until you start to see your abs again. This will reduce inflammation and put you back in the productive muscle-building phase. Then you can bulk up again until your abs begin to fade. Repeat as necessary.
2 – Don't use strategies that completely blunt inflammation (especially post-workout). Instead, use supplements to help manage it.
Antioxidants can absolutely help to reduce inflammation. It wasn't long ago that this was an accepted strategy, but research indicates this actually reduces gains. Likewise, post-workout ice baths and anti-inflammatory drugs have been found to have negative effects on muscle gain.
Instead, make them a staple of your daily routine and take them several hours before or after training so they won't interfere with the positive influence of post-workout inflammation on anabolic processes. I take mine first thing in the morning and again at night.
My personal favorite of these supplements is curcumin. It's been associated with a myriad of health benefits, among them:
- Reduced inflammation
- Lowered body fat
- Improved heart health
- Lower risk of diabetes
- Improved cholesterol profiles
3 – Manage your training workload.
Overtraining can cause decreases in strength and muscle mass. It's also pro-inflammatory. Research indicates that people who overtrain and have elevated inflammation make less progress than when they train with lower volumes.
When it comes to training, more isn't better – better is better. Aim to find the sweet-spot of training volume that allows you to accumulate enough high-quality training to drive muscle gain, but not so much that it drives you into the ground. Follow these guidelines:
- Begin with the minimal effective dose of training and gradually increase volume over time.
- Don't train to failure all the time.
- Deload every 4-8 weeks.
- Only push one training factor hard at a time: intensity (percentage of one-rep max) OR volume (number of challenging sets per week).
- Use metrics such as resting heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep quality, appetite, and enthusiasm for training to assess your training volume and recovery status.
Let's Sum Things Up
Inflammation isn't inherently bad; it has some very positive effects. High post-workout levels can kick-start the muscle building machinery, but long-term elevations should be avoided.
Inflammation needs to be managed intelligently. Achieve all this by keeping your body fat in check, supplementing wisely, and manipulating your training.