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Can Heat Exposure Get You Jacked?
Have you ever used the sauna at your gym, either before or after you lift? Now, there’s research that might be indicating that that trip to the sauna might be doing a bit more than simply “warming up” your muscles or helping to “sweat out the toxins.”
No, today we’re talking about some really cool information that leads us to believe that using the sauna regularly might actually help increase your muscle size, when combined with a sound resistance training and nutrition protocol.
At first, it seems a bit weird. Going in the sauna to build muscle? Sounds a bit too good to be true.
However, just as with cold, the body needs to respond to heat in order to survive and one of the main mechanisms it does so is by increasing expression of what are know and Heat Shock Proteins (HSP).
Interestingly, there have been quite a few studies completed that seem to indicate having some heat exposure will lead to greater increases of mass. While some are in rats, others are not, which begs the question of whether or not this is actually legitimate.
The main reason why this idea has even been considered is because of the role that HSPs play. Apparently, these proteins play a role in translation, one of the final steps of protein synthesis. It’s thus thought that by inducing expression of these proteins, that protein synthesis may be amplified.
To be clear, this isn’t a smoking gun like steroids, but yet one of the other potential tools that you may want to consider.
It's at least seems plausible that the addition of direct heat exposure in accordance with a resistance protocol may in fact increase signaling of specific pathways associated with protein synthesis. It’s then possible that adding some form of heat therapy along with training may increase the rate of growth and recovery.
The purpose of the study was to observe the protein synthetic response to resistance training alone in untrained individuals and then study them when exposed to some form of heat and exercise.
Researchers recruited 8 healthy, untrained males and placed them into the study protocol, which lasted 5 weeks in total, with only two resistance training sessions, separated by 3 week washout periods. This was a randomized crossover design, meaning that all participants were included in both experimental procedures.
In session 1, subjects were exposed to a single leg, isokinetic leg extension protocol, of 4 sets of 6 reps without exposure to external heat; before which, muscle biopsies were taken. Upon completion of the protocol, muscle biopsies were taken.
Unfortunately, this is somewhat of a standard in the field. It’s a shame that we can’t see these things with full resistance protocols, but such is research. In order to keep tight control and to be able to see some bit of "cause and effect" this sort of research is needed. However, it does in fact at least open the door for future research that is more relevant in the real world.
In session 2, these same subjects underwent the same protocol with the opposite leg. Only this time, the subject’s exercised leg was exposed to a microwave therapy unit, which is meant to induce similar reactions in the muscle, as would exposure to true heat. Again, upon completion, biopsies were once again taken from the trained limb and then once more, at 1 hour post exercise.
When exposed to heat, molecular responses to resistance training, which we think are relevant for muscle growth, were significantly increased.
Here, with Akt phosphorylation, we can see that there was a significant increase at the 1-hour post exercise mark, only for the heat exposure group. This is important because Akt is an upstream mediator of mTOR, which is largely regarded to be a primary player of initiating protein synthesis.
Overall, seeing significant increases of Akt phosphorylation with heat compared to no heat, is certainly enticing to say the lease.
Then unsurprisingly, we see a significant increase of mTOR phosphorylation, only for the heat exposure group.
Based on these findings, it's at least seems plausible that the addition of direct heat exposure in accordance with a resistance protocol may in fact increase signaling of specific pathways associated with protein synthesis. It’s then possible that adding some form of heat therapy along with training may increase the rate of growth and recovery.
Take These Findings With A Grain Of Salt
The Training Plan Was Lackluster
Keep in mind that this is a laboratory study, where muscle biopsies were taken and control needed to remain very high. The type of exercise completed during this study is not very similar to what you would expect in the real world.
However, that’s not necessarily cause for dismissing the results.
The training program used and the population of which it was used on was appropriate given the circumstances, since their goal was to stimulate some form of overload-induced protein synthesis.
Just understand that any responses observed here may be drastically smaller than what would be observed with a full resistance training protocol, that is used more often.
Remember that the point of this study was not to determine muscle growth, but observe the effect of heat on certain parts of the muscle building process. We cannot directly assert that heat exposure will actually result in more growth. Just that it seems to positively affect certain aspects of the process.
Unknown If Real World Heat Will Work
Keep in mind that the researchers used a heating unit that costs around 10 grand, and uses microwave technology to specifically heat muscles. This may and likely is, far different from whole body heat exposure that you would get from a sauna or hot tub.
In the case of whole body exposure, it may take much longer to activate the same responses within specific muscles using a sauna or hot tub, compared to what they used in this study.
You just need to keep in mind that spending 5 minutes in the sauna every once in a while will probably not produce similar responses.
It’s likely that you’ll need to regularly expose yourself to heat for fairly long durations, and you’ll need to do it consistently. But you can also get creative. For example, you could probably dangle your legs in a hot tub after a leg workout to get more direct heat exposure to those specific muscle groups.
This Is Just Another Tool
Mainstream media likes to take these recommendations and say stupid stuff like “1 glass of wine as good as an hour of exercise!”
First, no it isn’t and second, I don’t want you to assume that exposing yourself to heat will build an appreciable amount of muscle, because it probably won’t.
I place this suggestion in the same category as a nutritional supplement. The benefit is likely minimal, but If used regularly and consistently, may provide some long-term benefit. One that probably isn’t terribly noticeable.
However, this research does indicate an interesting idea to say the least, and it’s one that you can use with ease and with fairly minimal risk to your overall health. I can tell you that I for one will be implementing sauna and hot tub exposure more regularly after my training sessions.
Using This Information
Based on the findings of this study, heat exposure may actually be a meaningful additive to your training program. Personally, I suggest using it similarly to your protein in that you can expose yourself to heat, around the training session.
This would mean something like sitting in the sauna before or after training or doing so afterwards.
Just keep in mind that when using these types of heat methods, you need to actually increase the temperature of your whole body or at least find some way to directly heat the target muscle (legs in a hot tub).
Because of this, I suggest trying to stay in a sauna or hot tub for at least 15-minute variables.
Personally, my goal is on training days to spend at least 15-minutes completely exposed, in either a hot tub or sauna, after workouts. On rest days, I’m going to try doing 15-minute intervals, for extended periods of time.
Just ensure that you’re always safe. Don’t spend ridiculous amounts of time in either the sauna or hot tub, as it can become unsafe. When in doubt, always have a partner and err on the side of caution.
So, will heat exposure increase muscle mass? At this point, it’s difficult to say. The protocols used in this study were lackluster, and they used a heating device that is 10 grand and only applicable in the laboratory.
It’s hard to say whether or not consistent, full body heat exposure will produce the same results, but the idea is theoretically sound.
Overall, I suggest placing heat exposure in the same category as supplements like creatine in that it might work, but only if used consistently. Further, any benefit you do observe, will likely be minimal and probably one of those benefits that you never directly notice.
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