Heavy weights. Forced reps. Negatives. They freakin' hurt. There's just no denying it. And yet we punish ourselves with these techniques like a bad boy at Mistress Cruella's House of Pain. Is it because we dig the abuse? Well, maybe. But for most of us, it's because we know these techniques induce serious growth.
If we all agree that techniques like eccentric contractions ("negatives") induce monster growth, we should, at least, give some thought as to when this growth (or, "anabolism") takes place. Let me ask you straight: do you know how long it takes to rebuild and fully recover from a brutal bout of weight lifting? Or, how long should YOU wait before hitting the iron again? These are fundamental questions, my fellow masochists, which demand attention. They dictate (or at least influence) what and when you eat, how you schedule your weekly training, and even which supplements you might need.
I'm going to clear-up some important issues in this 2-part article by using science, not just personal beliefs. I've spent the last three years of my life tucked-away in a lab, looking closely at all manner of biological damage from a bodybuilder's perspective. (Yeah, I'm that geeky.) As I grew paler and my eyes enlarged from lack of sunlight and I began to look increasingly like a lemur, I've found some pretty cool things that are specific to bodybuilding recovery. In particular, markers of muscle damage and physical stress have revealed a pretty clear picture of how – and how long – our bodies recover from lifting. These include hormonal, immune, metabolic, and performance markers that we'll look at in detail (and yes, John Berardi, with my usual nifty graphs!).
You may not realize the magnitude of the physiologic events that your training buddy sets in motion as he barks "two more reps!" at you. As you lower the bar (perhaps with him bearing down on it for added resistance), you're not growing, my friends, you're laying waste to your muscles. Some of the damage is immediate and some your body actually self-inflicts a while later. By 24 to 48 hours post-workout, your muscle tissue looks like Hiroshima (under a microscope) – and irony or ironies, you dropped the bomb on yourself!
You probably already understand much of the hormonal situation surrounding stress. Cortisol is the evil king and you're his peasant. He'll use unfair laws like hypermetabolism and muscle catabolizing enzymes to decree that smallness shall reign throughout your kingdom – unless you organize a nutritional coup to take down the bastard. How do you do it? Well, for starters you'll need to get some carbs in you, both during AND after training. I'll address these in turn, below.
During your bout with the iron, you'll need to maintain the right hormonal state for anabolism – let's say 50 g of carbs sipped from a sports drink or diluted juice 30 minutes into a workout (maybe with 5 g creatine mixed-in). Why wait 30 minutes? Because drinking them earlier in a training session will blunt the exercise-induced GH response. We don't want that.
Drinking carbs during training won't help you get leaner, but if size is your goal, it should help keep cortisol and interleukin-6 (IL-6, see below) concentrations down.1,7,8,9,13 Both are catabolic and both can be brought down with the right nutrition. Most lifters think only supplements like phosphatidyl serine (PS) can help reduce cortisol, but now you know that macronutrients alone can help. This is a lesseon well-learned from clinical settings where it's well known that carbs are "protein sparing" for the body.
After lifting, you'll need perhaps 50-100 g of high-glycemic-index carbs eaten (or drank) throughout the post-exercise "nutrient window." This phenomenon is well-documented and lasts for about two hours after you leave the gym. Muscle enzymes like glycogen synthase and glucose transporters (primarily the GLUT-4 type) are READY at this time. USE THEM! This window of opportunity used to be called the "carb window" by many, but recent data show that co-consumption of protein is advantageous, too.11 Here's your shot at the holy grail of hypertrophy; don't miss it. If you do, the next few days will be harder on you physically. You'll likely be more fatigued and recovery will be mediocre.
And before you think I'm obsessed with carbohydrates like most of my fellow exercise physiology and nutrition colleagues, let me re-state that consuming a similar amount of protein with the carbs is also critical to recovery. In the case of protein, however, we're talking about the provision of muscle "building blocks" but not so much cortisol or IL-6 suppression, so let's stay on track. Remember, we're trying to avoid excessive punishment from our training.
My longstanding approach to post-workout recovery meals has included a meal replacement pack with frozen berries blended in. This gets me carbs, 50 g protein, and an antioxidant "berry bonus" with tons of flavor. Of course, when my Surge arrives from Tim or TC (hint hint), I may be altering my post-workout strategy a bit. I have to admit the specific nutrient profile in it intrigues me.
Okay, that's enough for now on catabolic hormones and donning our nutritional "armor." It's time to get back into the physiology of muscle growth. Next on our list of catabolic markers is immune function. This is where our self-induced "world of hurt" becomes literal. Usually athletes are surprised when I start talking about how white blood cells are responsible for literally chewing-up muscle. Everyone fixates on cortisol. However, there's a clear elevation in circulating neutrophils and monocytes as soon as you start hoisting the iron. And it can't be explained away as a simple function of cardiac output flushing them out of your lungs' vasculature 10,12 (not that most of you were thinking that!).
Why does this matter? Because, my catabolic compatriots, these little soldiers are drawn to sites of muscular damage like bodybuilders are drawn to the smell of a cooking steak. It's a process called chemotaxis. Eccentric exercise appears particularly good at calling them hither.10,12 Those exercise-damaged muscle fibers tear and the resulting fragments need to be engulfed just as if they were any other antigen (e.g. bacteria, viruses).
Take a close look at the muscle fibers in the microscope pic I've provided. That's really what happens. They're toast! Once the neutrophils and monocytes arrive, it's a buffet of human tissue – but relax, it's part of the repair process. We can't construct a bigger building without clearing away rubble from the site first, can we? The problem is that these white blood cells, having infiltrated the muscle, tend to over-clean, engulfing ("phagocytizing") protein fragments and secreting oxidants and other catabolic compounds including interleukin-1, interleukin-6, and even bleach!2,5,12 Remember they're soldiers, baby, and ready for war. Unfortunately this may be a case of "friendly fire" – when all we need is a janitor and not an immune system version of John Rambo.
As I mentioned, there are two primary types of white cells that are part of the damage-and-repair process in muscle. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell, or "leukocyte" that arrive on the scene first. Check out the figure that shows a prominent increase in white cells within two hours after eccentric, damaging exercise. About 60% of these bad boys are neutrophils. They're showing up in the blood samples I collected in part because they're on their way to the battlefield. They're the alpha team and they're about to secure the beach for some heavy hitters. Not until about five days after a brutal bout with the iron – at a time when your soreness has subsided – do the monocytes really appear. I've observed their delayed journey toward the muscles with repeated blood sampling over five-day recovery periods.5 (See figure.) Others have seen them leave the blood vessels at this same time and show up among the still recovering muscle fibers.2
After entering the tissues many transform into "macrophages." They're the biggest eaters of human flesh in a healthy body and they can hang around for months. But are they there just to punish you? Well, their role is still being investigated 'cause it makes little sense that our bodies would still be cleaning up mucle fragment mess so far into the recovery period. Can you imagine scheduling your training around such a time frame? Pecs every 10-30 days? Legs once per month? Not realistic. The only solid conclusion that I can make at this point is simply to respect their catabolic capacity and try to reduce any overzealous munching.
What exactly, then, can we do to ease the aggression of these white cells? I mean, didn't Yoda teach that aggression and hatred will suck us toward the Dark Side or something? As in the case with cortisol and IL-6, there are a few things that can be done nutritionally. Shying away from omega-6 fatty acids (like linoleic acid in corn, sunflower, "vegetable", and even soybean oil) can help reduce the inflammation and perhaps interleukin response.3, 4, 5, 6 Go for omega-3s and monounsaturates whenever possible. I can't overstate how important a switch toward more fish oil, flax and olive oil really is.
And we'll also need to get our share of antioxidants from fruits and veggies. Mom was right. Foods really are often better sources because the phytochemicals work together in as yet unknown ratios and combinations. Still, a 400 IU vitamin E, a 250 mg vitamin C, and some beta carotene or herbal antioxidants may help too. In essence, these nutrients could reduce the caliber of white cell's ammo from "cannon ball" to "tennis ball"; remember, a primary weapon of white cells is secretion of oxidants.
(If you're interested, I wrote a book chapter on the subject with John Berardi and Tim Ziegenfuss. It's in the upcoming text, Sports Supplements from Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins (Antonio and Stout Eds.). Even though I will financially make "double goose eggs" from the sale of the book, it still deserves a plug. The authors are practically a "who's who" of modern bodybuilding supplement authorities. Contact me for more einformation if you're into it.)
Let's wrap up this white cell thing. Admittedly, I've been less than straight with you up to this point. It's time to disclose. Luckily, after a period of a few days, these white blood cell soldiers become medics, secreting growth factors that help rebuild the damaged area bigger than ever before.2,5 This could be a reason for the delayed onset of monocyte infiltration. Maybe they're more medic than monster after all. It's also interesting that the lingering presence of neutrophils and monocytes among muscle fibers may prepare them for your next punishing workout. Remember, growth factors don't just come from a needle! I've spent extra time on this immune function thing to make a point. With all the obsession over androgen pharmacology, you may never have heard of exercise immunology and the ways you can manipulate it to GROW. Well now you have.
And so ends part one of our odyssey into muscle recovery. We've seen masochists, evil kings, and psychotic soldiers. Ahh, physiology is a messy, painful and beautiful thing. In summary (and being just a tad more literal), we've covered a five-day recovery phase (often called the "acute phase response"), focusing on catabolic hormones and immunology. And, just so we're not simply left feeling the sting of the physiologic cat-o-nine tails, we've also discussed nutritional strategies to hasten recovery. It's critical, for example, to eat as soon as you get home from the gym.
But there's more to learn. There are other markers of catabolism that bodybuilders experience which show rather clearly that we are voluntary whipping boys. We've only scratched the surface, especially regarding things that you, the reader, can measure for yourself! Tune in to Part Two of Muscle Masochism to find out.
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