Sports performance: Is there a benefit to muscle damaged during resistance exercise?

By Dr. John R. Mishock

There is a belief that resistance exercises or weightlifting create muscle damage, leading to tightness and limiting function in sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and others.

Does resistance exercise damage muscle?

Can the muscle damage be helpful?

When exercising, there is micro-damage or small amounts of physiological tissue change on a cellular level to the muscle. During exercise, this muscle damage occurs when the exercise is novel, the intensity or volume increases, or the contraction type changes (concentric to eccentric or isometric).

Individuals who follow proper resistance exercise training principles will not create excessive tightness but will enhance most sports performance metrics. This article will describe how small amounts of muscle damage are critical for hypertrophy, strength, and power gains. Listed below are the benefits of muscle damage during exercise.

1. Connective tissue matrix damage: Resistance exercise causes damage to muscle connective tissue matrix (sarcolemma, basal lamina, and supportive connective tissue, contractile elements, or actomyosin bonds). This matrix is the scaffolding that holds the muscle together. Small amounts of damage cause a strengthening of this matrix, allowing an enhanced base to create stronger muscle contractions. The strong connective tissue matrix that is created during resistance exercise can minimize or prevent muscle injury. (Clark et al. 2002)

2. “Repeated bout effect”: Progressive resistance exercise stresses the muscle causing increased efficiency in the recruitment of motor units (muscle units) and greater synchronization and coordination of the motor unit and fiber contraction, leading to greater muscle strength and hypertrophy.

3. Inflammatory cascade effect: Muscle microtrauma causes small amounts of inflammation triggered by immune cells (WBCs, neutrophils, macrophages). This inflammation facilitates tissue repair and regeneration. Macrophages release myokines (IL-6, IL7, IL8, IL 10), signally molecules that stimulate muscle hypertrophy and strength. Reactive oxygen species (superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical), released during inflammation, signal muscle growth and hypertrophy through increased protein synthesis (muscle building). Following exercise, the increase in immune cells enhances the body’s defenses against infections (Covid-19) and other diseases. (Peake et al. 2017)

4. Protein synthesis (muscle building): During exercise, mechanical trauma to the muscle increases protein synthesis. The muscle-building occurs through a complex physiological interaction (cyclooxygenase pathway (COX-2), resulting in the synthesis of new contractile proteins or muscle fibers. Adequate amounts of protein (1.6 g per lb. body weight) are needed from the diet to maximize this muscle growth. (Clarkson et al. 1996)

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), COX-2 inhibitors, can blunt the cellular response, possibly reducing muscle hypertrophy during exercise. Taking NSAIDs during training can be counterproductive to this process. It is theorized that individuals who take antioxidant supplements (Vitamin C, E, Curcumin) should take them on non-workout days to allow some of this inflammatory process. Antioxidants may help in muscle recovery (delayed muscle soreness (DOMS) when appropriate dosage and timing are utilized.

5. Natural hormone production: Growth hormone (GH) and Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), anabolic hormones, are released by mechanical loading. IGF-1 and GH stimulate the rapamycin (mTOR) pathway, widely considered a master network for controlling skeletal muscle growth. These hormones also have a critical role in protein synthesis, which leads to muscle hypertrophy, strength, and power.

Can I create too much muscle damage during resistance exercise training?
Not following proper training guidelines can lead to excessive muscle damage, reduced strength, lessened hypertrophy gains, excessive fatigue, and overuse injury. In these cases, the exercise reduces sports performance.

What is the best prescription for resistance exercise to optimize muscle damage to create sports performance gains?

Progressive resistance exercise must follow strict training guidelines in; volume (total amount of reps or sets), load (amount of weight), frequency (training sessions per week), intensity (effort per rep), and rest/recovery (rest days between exercises). Changing the exercise routine or the exercise contraction type (concentric, isometric, and eccentric) every 4-to 8 weeks will enhance physiological muscle gains. For more in-depth details on training, check out my book (found on Amazon) “Fundamental Training Principles: Essential Knowledge for Building the Elite Athlete.”

Dr. Mishock is one of only a few clinicians with doctorate level degrees in both physical therapy and chiropractic in the state of Pennsylvania.

If you are curious about the science of pitching, check out his first book: “The Rubber Arm; Using Science to Increase Pitch Control, Improve Velocity, and Prevent Elbow and Shoulder Injury” both can be bought on Amazon.

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