Part 1 of Dr. Lowery's article addressed muscle damage from a microscopic perspective, looking at the physiological and immunological after effects of busting your butt in the gym. It also gave some nutritional remedies to cure the effects of all that ass busting.
Part 2 continues to look at muscle catabolism, in addition to giving you methods by which to conduct fiendish laboratory-like experiments on yourself! Most importantly, though, the article gives you information that you can apply to your training, and how often do you get that from a science article?
Ever been so ROCKED from squatting that it was hard to make it up the stairs – even with the handrail? How about so torched through your pecs and shoulders that you could barely put on your headphones? If so, this article is for masochists like you.
After a punishing workout, catabolic substances in your body like interleukin-6 (IL-6), cortisol and white cell-created oxidants (O) need to be brought down with specifically-timed nutrition. If you can make it through to the second phase of recovery, growth factors (GF) start to kick in and work alongside anabolic hormones to induce new growth. Let's review with a graph, shall we?
But there are other markers of catabolism that bodybuilders experience that show rather clearly that we are, in effect, voluntary whipping boys. Some are laboratory-only measures and others you can measure yourself! Let's begin with a curious lab phenomenon.
On one of those late nights sifting through data in the lab (and daydreaming again about those pics of Amy Fadhli that TC occasionally posts with his editorials), I noticed that the metabolic rate of injury and trauma patients was severely elevated. Injury? Trauma? I'd been seeing this in my bodybuilding subjects – were they hypermetabolic, too? If so, the current popular calorie recommendations would be sub-par for stimulating muscle growth.
I rounded up some subjects, got them running downhill on a treadmill (a weird but brutally effective way of inducing eccentric muscle damage), and hooked them up to a metabolic cart every morning for five days thereafter. Despite wicked muscle enzyme release (indicative of trauma) and soreness off the charts, I saw no significant hypermetabolism.(6) Maybe the exercise wasn't severe enough to mimic clinical trauma, 'cause others have indeed found this.(2) I believe that if the trauma is severe enough, hypermetabolism during recovery can sap calories needed for growth. If you punish yourself in an effort to gain weight, it's all the more reason to get aggressive at the dinner table.
Here's a time-honored trick: try taking your pulse first thing in the morning before your coffee or even sitting up in bed. Elevated heart rate is generally related to elevated metabolism. High basal levels of stress hormones and physical injury may raise resting heart rate. It's hardly a thoroughly validated and accurate assessment tool but few "field measures" are. It's just one more piece of information.
Body temperature has also been used to assess metabolic rate at home, but tympanic (ear) thermometers are sucky indicators of elevated core temperature. And since you're not about to jam a rectal probe up your backside like they do in the lab, let's just assume that humans are "homeotherms" and usually adjust to hold that nice 37-degree C body temperature.
Yet another measurement on our list of at-home assessments of muscle damage is swelling. How the heck does one measure that? How 'bout with a simple tape measure. It's well established in the scientific literature that limb girth is a reasonably sensitive way to assess swelling and "edema" (fluid accumulation). Just wait a day or two after lifting; measure too soon and your "pump" will invalidate this measure. The principle is pretty basic: the more damage, the greater the arm or leg girth.
To do this properly, you'll need to know the "anatomical landmarks" so you can measure a limb in exactly the same place pre- and post-exercise. For the arm, it's the midpoint between the acromio-clavicular joint (trap-deltoid area) and the olecranon (tip) of the elbow. Find your "A-C joint" by palpating (feeling around) for the notch where your humerus (upper arm bone) meets your clavicle (bone connecting your neck with your shoulder). If you're huge, this might be tough. It's at the very top of your deltoid. Mark it with a pen. Then hold your arm at a 90o angle to find the bony tip of your elbow. Have a buddy connect the two anatomical landmarks with a tape measure and, looking from the side, mark the half-way point in centimeters. This is where he'll wrap the tape measure horizontally (parallel with the floor) for the reading.
You must let the arm hang relaxed, unbent and un-flexed, at your side while he reads it. Measuring your (relaxed) thigh is similar, just use the mid point between your proximal patella (upper knee cap) and inguinal crease (where your thigh meets your body) and measure the mid-point from the front rather than side of the body. C'mon, you know you've done something similar to this to show everyone how huge you are. (You freaking "tape worm"!) This is just done for a different reason.
Okay, back to the lab. Although my specific protocol didn't induce injury-like hypermetabolism, it did cause something strange: A steady shift in metabolic fuel mix towards carb use. This rise in respiratory exchange ratio (RER) came out of nowhere and I still welcome any explanations that T-mag readers might have.
I thought it might be cortisol elevation (it's a glucocorticoid that increases glycogen use) but I wasn't able to detect a significant rise in this hormone. Maybe it was due to those multiplying pesky white cells (monocytes). Take a closer look at the monocyte figure in Part I of this article. See how similar the line is to the one on the graph (above)? Both rise steadily and peak on Day 5 after exercise. Could it be that these almost identical time courses have a causal relationship? What in Joe Weider's name could those monocytes be doing to waste-away your precious carb reserves?
Whatever the reason for the shift toward carb reliance, it seems doubly punishing. Monocytes are going nuts, potentially chewing up your muscles at a time when these very fibers are also being depleted to sustain metabolism. Think about it. An athlete with chronically damaged muscle fibers can't take up blood glucose and pack it away as glycogen very well. (3,7) At the same time, you're using-up your "warehouse" (muscle carb stores) AND getting assaulted by monocytes. Can anyone say FLAT? Just at a time when our muscles can't replenish their carb stores, they're rifling through what little they have!
Tell me that you've never felt fuller and more vascular after taking a week off from your usual punishing routine. These observations lead me to believe that there are specific times when carbs must be eaten and others when they should be reduced. The same goes for other nutrients; but that's mostly another story....
Now let's discuss performance variables. Who knows what happens to strength after hitting a few sets of heavy negatives... Bueller? ....Bueller? It plummets, doesn't it? Look at the figure from a study I performed last year. It shows a significant strength drop of 10-14% after negative training:
To illustrate the performance decrement from your masochism in the gym, consider this: a drop of just 10% would be 30 pounds off your max 300 pound bench press! An acquaintance of mine, Marty Gibala (a prof up in Toronto now), has corroborated this data, showing more microtrauma and longer recovery periods from eccentric training.(5)
Why the hell would anyone step back into the gym when I'm showing you right freaking here that you probably won't be ready to handle max poundage? You can measure this yourself if you keep a training log. Observe and record, baby – that's what science is. Be a scientist and you'll be able to correct and adjust to reach your genetic potential. Do you require a full seven days off before you're pushing big weights again? So be it. Tell your overzealous training buddy to stick it! You won't de-train within a week. Otherwise keep spinning your (overtrained, over-sore) wheels and barely gain a pound.
I personally train a muscle group every five to seven days. Any sooner means I'll be handling sub-par poundage. Not an option. Besides, training a specific muscle group sooner than this just places additional stress on your body when it's struggling to replenish muscle fullness (glycogen stores) and is still feeling the pinch of "monocytosis". And yet the gyms are full of tough guys benching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Ask your self this: are you a "hard gainer" or simply a masochist who can't stay away from the House of Pain?
Okay, last up: muscle soreness. You pain-lovers are intimately connected to it. It's the theme of this article. You welcome it as a sign of growth and progress. Me too. But can it be used as a physique assessment tool like the other things we've covered? Stick with me, baby, and we'll be using these "tools" like Tim Taylor on ephedrine!
Check out the graph on perceived soreness after eccentric exercise. I've been using different scales with various kinds of punishing exercises but this is a good example.
We can quantify soreness two ways. One is to use "operational definitions." You know, assigning descriptors to explain increasing scores on a scale. For example, a scale based on data from Abraham (1977) is: 0 = no soreness, 1 = barely perceivable soreness, 2 = extreme soreness, 3 = soreness so intense as to interfere with daily activities. But there are also more arbitrary 1-10 scales that have their advantages. Most everyone can make judgments that their legs are "a nine on a 10 scale" or their chest is "90% as sore as the worst ever."
Why bother attaching numbers to soreness? Because we can then get averages, peaks and "valleys" across the course of a week or during a new training regime – or when we review the causes of recent weight gain. You may find that months when soreness is high (and you're recovering adequately), you gain the most weight. This self-assessment works even better if you perform girth measures (above) along with it. More damage equals more subsequent growth, if you wait long enough between training sessions.
Admittedly there's some debate over what "optimum" soreness is. My colleague Tim Z thinks I go too far in the weight room (weight-wise) and that pulling back on the reins should result in better recovery. I just can't train that way, though. I tend to think it's best to go ballistic, then rest adequately. It probably depends on one's body type. My whole family consists of short, "fireplug" type people; one sister was a gymnast, one (the surgeon) is a bodybuilder, my bother (the "Yeti") and I gravitated toward the iron and power sports, too. Perhaps thinner dudes like "Z" couldn't recover from such abuse... not that his multiple sets of 10-12 reps with 275 in the squat are a joke. From a glycogen depletion and energy-expenditure viewpoint, his lighter, more voluminous approach is even more taxing than my negatives in the 90-120% of max range. I wonder, people, how do you train?
Anyhow, by assigning numbers to my soreness each day and doing a little analysis, I can figure things out systematically. In the lab, for example, I know that by 24 hours into recovery, there's already significant soreness that correlates with poor dietary carb use.(7) Outside the lab it can be used by those patient enough to include it in their training logs. It's how you can assess when you're ready to go train a body part again.
If you're not into numbers, simply wait one to two days AFTER your soreness is gone. Although debated by some, it's a reasonable tool for creating training regimes. Of course, adding numbers (making the information "quantitative") is best; it's what takes the guesswork out of your lifting.
The take-home message is this: If you punish yourself under the iron, now you have a few ways to actually measure the magnitude and duration of your trauma. I've shared some things that I've done in the lab because they have "real world" applicability. Go beyond the scale and take control of your progress! The period of greatest "trauma" seems to be 24-72 hours (1-3 days) post-exercise, if you use negatives as part of your torture sessions.
See if measurements ("variables") like resting heart rate, limb girth (swelling), fatigue and strength tests are improved by eating ASAP after your training sessions. Of course, there are no guarantees that these methods will steer you toward new growth (nothing is 100% certain in science), but the data don't lie. These measurement tools offer that little bit of extra information that could help you. Hey, my motto is "An informed decision is always better than an ignorant one." But then again, you could always go back to your "tough guy" Monday, Wednesday, Friday benching routine and wonder why you never get any bigger.
We've also reviewed certain lab techniques using repeated blood sampling and metabolic charts to shed some light on the mechanisms behind your painful recovery. If that sounds like something from a car wreck victim's medical charts, you're right. The very same "acute phase reactions" take place. I've seen it repeatedly. They're less severe in magnitude, of course, but they are there. Bet you never thought you were THAT brutal on yourself. Do yourself a favor and give your struggling body a chance to heal with the carefully timed nutrition and recovery time frames we've discussed. Remember, the battle is raging long after you've left the gym.
1. Abraham, W. Factors in delayed onset muscle soreness. Med Sci Sports Exerc 9 (1): 11-20, 1977.
2. Dolezal, B., et al. Muscle damage and resting metabolic rate after acute resistance exercise with an eccentric overload. Med Sci Sports Exerc 32 (7): 1202-1207, 2000.
3. Doyle, J., et al. Effects of eccentric and concentric exercise on muscle glycogen replenishment. J Appl Physiol 74(4): 1848-1855, 1993.
4. Evans, W. and Cannon, J. The metabolic effects of exercise-induced muscle damage. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 99-119, 1991.
5. Gibala, M., et al. Changes in human skeletal muscle ultrastructure and force production after acute resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol 78 (2): 702-708, 1995.
6. Lowery, L. Effects of Conjugated Linoleic Acid on Exercise Induced Acute Phase Response in Humans. Doctoral Dissertation, Kent State University, 2001.