Most Believe Muscle Damage To Be The Driver Of Growth
Muscle Damage has long been considered to be a major driver of hypertrophy. This idea of muscle damage is actually one that has been long ingrained into the fitness society as a necessity when it comes to muscle growth.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the notion that in order to build muscle, you need to first “break it down” in order to rebuild.
No doubt, muscle damage does occur under different circumstances. Consider that last time you did a huge leg workout. Chances are you got insanely sore and had a difficult time walking for a few days.
While some of those feelings of pain were probably due to some form of sensitization of the muscle, there was probably also some damage occurring. However, it’s important to recognize that just because the muscle became sore, doesn’t directly mean that you’ve damaged the muscle and even if you do damage the muscle, that doesn't necessarily mean you're building new muscle as a result.
In order to better understand why this might be the case, let’s dive into some aspects of muscle growth so we can determine whether or not muscle damage is actually important.
What's The Best Theory Behind Muscle Growth?
Currently, the best theory in terms of how the body actually increases muscle size is regularly increasing protein synthesis, or the process that results in the generation of new contractile components in the muscle.
In addition, we can also consider what is known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This is simply an increase in the sarcoplasm, or the interstitial fluid surrounding the muscle fibers, within the cell membrane. But for the sake of this article, we’ll stick primarily to Myofibrillar hypertrophy (increasing size of muscle fibers).
From here, we then need to consider protein turnover. Without getting too confusing, there is actually a constant breakdown of proteins in the body. This is different from exercise induced muscle damage, however. It's just a natural process of the body. It breaks down damaged or unneeded proteins regularly throughout the day.
It’s thought then that if protein synthesis exceeds that of protein breakdown, muscle growth will occur.
This makes sense though, right? It’s similar to the energy balance equation. Just as you need to eat more than you burn in order to gain weight, In order to actually increase size, you need the build up of proteins to be greater than that of breakdown. Simple enough.
Considering that muscle growth is probably dependent on ensuring that protein synthesis is greater than breakdown our overall goal would be to minimize damage and breakdown and increase recovery and growth.
The best current theory for muscle growth is regularly inducing muscle protein synthesis; a process of building new proteins. In order to do so, muscle protein synthesis must be greater than that of protein breakdown for a net positive protein balance.
Muscle Damage & The Repeated Bout Effect
Consider for a moment what exercise and growth actually is.
When you first start training, or even begin using a new style of training, you get pretty sore. This is in essence, causing damage and sensitizing the muscle, just as most people would expect.
However, then what? In order to actually grow, the body needs to adapt in order to survive. And so it does by increasing protein synthesis to ensure that the damaged muscle is repaired.
But now consider what has happened. The muscle was damaged and then repaired. The muscle has now been upgraded, so to speak, to be able to handle a similar stress in the future.
Based on the fact that the body adapts, it would stand to reason that because of this adaptation, the muscle would cease to become ‘damaged’ further by a similar stimulus. This concept is dubbed ‘the repeated bout effect.’
The repeated bout effect is essentially the body telling us that we’ve adapted to a certain stimulus.
Essentially, the idea of the repeated bout effect goes something like this:
In this case, your body has adapted to the initial stress, meaning the muscle is prepared for it in the future, reducing the damage that is inflicted. Really, this is what training is all about. You stress the muscle, the muscle responds and now you’ve adapted to insure that the muscle no longer becomes stressed.
If we then take it a step further, this further corroborates this idea that progressive overload is essential. Even further, we then can assume that progressively overloading the muscle fairly frequently while minimizing actual damage would be optimal for continued growth.
Muscle damage does occur but eventually is diminished due to the repeated bout effect. This leads us to conclude that damage is not directly associated with actual growth.Further, it would then make sense to try and stimulate synthesis as often as possible, while minimizing actual damage.
Muscle Damage Occurs But Subsides
To clarify, muscle damage does seem to occur as a result of a wide range of different stimuli. More often than not, muscle damage occurs initially when someone starts a training program or simply decides to lift in some novel way.
Even more so, we see an increase in protein synthesis that accommodates this damage. However, it’s important to notice that this increase in protein synthesis seems to occur in order to repair the damage, not necessarily increase growth.
Here’s an example
What appears to happen in research is that as muscle breakdown increases (muscle damage), protein synthesis does in fact increase, which would lead us to believe that inducing muscle damage would then be beneficial for muscle growth.
However, what seems to happen is that this increase of protein synthesis has the purpose of repairing the damage, and not necessarily increasing muscle size, relative to the starting point.
In fact, another study that I reviewed displayed just this fact. And further, actual increases in muscle size did not occur until muscle damage had subsided.
Muscle damage does occur when presented with a novel stimulus. As a result, muscle protein synthesis is increased. However, it seems this increase in MPS is to repair the damage rather than increasing growth. Research indicates that growth occurs after the damage is repaired and not as a result of it.
So What's The Goal Of Training If Not Damage?
Considering that acute muscle damage might not be an actual driver of actually increasing muscle size, what should the primary focus be, then?
Let me clarify that muscle damage and the resultant repair is probably quite essential for continued growth, just not directly. It’s in my opinion that muscle damage and resultant repair is just simply a response to novel stimuli.
In order to then actually grow, you’ll need to go through this process of damage and repair, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the driver of growth, long term. It’s likely that damage and repair does occur and is important, it’s just that after this process has occurred, it probably doesn’t contribute much further, unless progressing means pushing yourself to a point that further damage occurs.
Based on the idea that actual muscle damage probably subsides after a short period of time, the main goal would then to be stimulating protein synthesis, while minimizing the risk of damage.
This is quite contrary to how many people think, but in my mind makes sense.
When you damage yourself, increases of protein synthesis are going towards repair, rather than building new tissue, for the most part. Further, damage results in pain, which can reduce performance and actually result in less volume performed over all.
It then make sense that you’d want to continue with a certain exercise or type of exercising for some time, while ensuring that you’re increasing total volume and practicing progressive overload, regularly.
Essentially, you want to train to stimulate protein synthesis, while minimizing the actual chance of causing damage.
How Should I Train Then?
Once you get past the idea that you need to damage the muscle to grow, you can begin manipulating your training to find the amount of work that is necessary, without causing unneeded damage and pain.
Train Near Failure, Regardless Of The Weight You Use
Even though you aren’t training for damage, you still need to stress the muscle enough to ensure that you’re actually stimulating growth.
Recent research suggests that for the most part, the load you use is fairly irrelevant, as long as you take sets fairly close to failure. That’s not to say that you need to train to failure on each set, you just need to stress yourself enough to stimulate growth.
To do this, you need to manipulate reps based on the weight you’re using. In order to stimulate growth with very lightweight, you’ll need to complete many repetitions. If you’re using heavier weight, you’ll need to complete fewer reps.
Just keep in mind that while training with varying weights is fine as long as reps are adjusted too, if you have specific goals such as strength or strength endurance, you’ll need to train in ways that actually produce that result.
I.e. don’t expect to increase your 1 rep bench maximum by benching in a 30-rep range.
Practice Progressive Overload Through Volume & Frequency
Since muscle damage probably isn’t a great indicator of growth, the next best theory is increasing protein synthesis regularly by increasing volume over time and doing so on a more frequent basis.
Essentially, the goal of your training should be to increase total volume (progressive overload), but do so fairly frequently, which in turn, increases protein synthesis frequently for a greater growth potential.
Increasing volume by increasing frequency in my mind is the best route you can take here. By training more frequently, you’ll reduce soreness on a per workout basis, while also stimulating protein synthesis often. In doing so, you can train more often and stimulate growth more often, without risk of being incredibly sore.
Introduce Novel Stimuli Occasionally
While this whole article may seem like you should continue doing the same thing over and over again, that’s not necessarily the case.
Just as the body will adapt via the repeated bout effect, the overall response to regular variables will also decrease over time. For example, if you’ve been simply flat bench-pressing for years, you can expect the body’s response in terms of growth to eventually diminish.
Just as the body adapts to weight and rep ranges, so too will adapt to specific exercises.
I suggest using “blocks” or extended periods of time, such as a month, training with specific movements. After the block is over, begin implementing new variations of similar exercises. For example in block 1 of your training, you might use flat bench, in block 2, you might use an incline bench.
Simple variations of exercises may present a novel stimulus for increased growth, while still leveraging some of the benefit of the repeated bout effect.
As I’ve discussed in other articles, it doesn’t seem that muscle damage plays the roles that so many people think.
Is muscle damage occurring when you lift? Probably, and this damage is also probably very high when you first begin training and when you present a novel stimulus to yourself.
It’s just important to realize that eventually, the body does as it’s intended and adapts by repairing the damage.
After this damage has then been repaired, stimulating further protein synthesis regularly is likely the primary goal of training rather than training specifically to ‘damage the muscle.’
Got questions and other input on the subject? Just as with any consideration regarding muscle growth, there are potentially other insights I haven’t considered. If you have a stance on the subject, let me know so we can discuss!
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