It’s common knowledge that lifting heavy weights will build big muscles and that stretching or massage was strictly for females doing yoga classes (not something I believe to be true but you’ve likely seen the tv ads from the 80’s/90’s).
Well it’s now 2020 and research is coming out at an increasing rate to show the benefits of massaging and the real kicker is the fact that it’s starting to be shown to actually promote muscle growth.
Therefore if you have been of the hardcore lifting mindset then it’s beneficial to know that spending 10 minutes per day ‘rolling around’ on a foam roller can actually facilitate your muscle building journey.
Does massage help muscle growth? Massage helps muscle growth in a number of indirect ways, it relieves muscle tightness which will often decrease force output and also restrict muscle growth, It can speed up recovery by improving blood flow and reducing inflammation and it can improve sleep and promote the release of growth hormone and muscle repair.
A massage can also now be done in many different forms, there are of course the traditional methods of visiting a massage therapist (usually specializing in specific techniques and methods) but now we can do this in the gym or at home with foam rollers and trigger point balls for self myofascial release and deep tissue work.
The massage we are covering in this article is not a relaxing one that you get in a spar but a deep tissue one with the aim of breaking up muscle tissue adhesions, improving blood flow through the muscles and reducing muscle tightness.
Does Massage Help Muscle Growth
Muscle tightness is one of the biggest contributors and limiting factors to a restriction in muscle growth. A tight muscle is often said to be a weak muscle but a tight muscle is, ultimately, a small muscle.
This sounds like an extreme statement to make but the tighter your muscle fascia (a webbing like structure/sheet that spans the length of your body covering the muscles) you more restricted your growth potential is.
This is based on a simple observation, the greater the surface area of your muscle fascia the greater the potential for growth. A small and tight muscle fascia will of course have less room for growth.
It’s not just the fascia that causes muscle tightness but also scar tissue and muscle adhesions that build up after hundreds and thousands of sets and reps that you do in order to build muscle mass.
While the body is great at repairing and growing your muscles to be bigger and stronger after weightlifting and resistance training it’s not perfect, especially if you don’t help facilitate the process.
Scar tissue and adhesions build up after years of lifting, especially when you don’t give recovery and flexibility the same level of attention that you give you moving 400lb+ in the gym!
A massage also isn’t done with a sole purpose of targeting the muscle group but also connective tissue, ligament and tendons that can all become stiff, knotted and restrict movement, muscular contractions and force output.
While you might not think that a tight or stiff muscle/region is an issue when it comes to building muscle it becomes more apparent when you say that you won’t be able to contract the muscle as hard or produce as much force to lift heavier weights.
These are outcomes that many people looking to build muscle can certainly relate to, if you can’t optimally contract a muscle then you can’t optimally build a muscle.
That is the main takeaway for this article, a massage isn’t necessarily needed for muscle growth but a massage is needed to reduce the factors that could limit and restrict muscle growth.
Preventing these restrictions is just as important for muscle growth than the direct actions that build muscle, especially if you want optimal results.
What Does Massage Do to Muscles
As I’ve just touched on, a massage isn’t solely focused on the muscles. It’s used to loosen connective tissue that can bind and ‘get stuck’ to your frame as well as treating ligaments and tendons that can become tight and restrictive.
All of the intention here is to make your body as flexible and loose as possible, not in terms of being able to do the splits but rather the ability to lift weights through the muscles full range of motion.
You’re likely aware that training a movement through it’s full range of motion is a prerequisite for muscle hypertrophy and this is what a massage, particularly deep and soft tissue, will facilitate.
In terms of the effects of a massage on your actual muscle, there are a few direct results:
- Increased blood flow and oxidation
- Relaxation of muscles to release deeper connective tissue and nerves (nerves are something I’ve not touched on yet)
- Break down a build up of scar tissue and muscle adhesions though this is not a quick fix. A buildup of scar tissue in the muscle will take a long time and multiple treatments to recover from.
- Reduce inflammation and lactic acid buildup caused by muscular contractions from lifting weights.
There are a range of other factors that are caused by massage however I’m not going to get into the main benefits in more detail.
Benefits of a Massage for Muscle Growth
For a massage I’m talking traditional and also self massage (myofascial release with trigger point balls or tennis/lacrosse balls and foam rolling).
All of these techniques are aimed at targeting deep muscle tissue, connective tissue, ligaments and tendons and therefore these are not the type of massage that you would consider ‘relaxing’.
They can be painful depending on how tight your muscles are and what other issues you are carrying as a result of lifting weights. Something I will say though is that whilst finding a trigger point and muscle knot will be painful at first, deep tissue work has a relaxing effect afterwards.
The following are some of the benefits that you could expect to see from a massage and how it can be a useful tool for muscle growth.
The human body is a web of connective tissue, nerves and muscle fascia, an issue in one area like your neck is not necessarily caused by an issue in your neck but could actually be a tight muscle in your calf.
A flexible muscle is a strong muscle and in direct contrast a tight muscle is a weak muscle. A tight muscle can lead to overcompensation but other muscle groups (hence my reference to a tight calf leading to issues in your neck and upper traps) as well as restricting its own functions.
A tight muscle and in particular tight muscle fascia, will restrict muscle growth. Stiff myofascial tissue limits the ability of force production through muscle fibres and ultimately restricts growth.
Muscle tightness limits force output, muscle fibre recruitment, strength and the ability to work a muscle through its full range of motion. Therefore massage doesn’t aim to improve flexibility in the same way that stretching does but rather to correct any issue that could limit flexibility.
To improve flexibility you should of course focus on this directly but with foam rolling as an example, you can target specific areas prone to tightness which will of course improve your flexibility through an exercises range of motion.
It’s important to note that foam rolling improves short term flexibility and relaxes a muscle. A tense muscle is also often a tight muscle so it’s why foam rolling is good to incorporate after a workout when your muscles have been in a state of contraction.
Self myofascial release has been shown by studies to improve range of motion and soreness/fatigue following exercise but that is a point for a further benefit, for now the important takeaway is that an increased range of motion means an increased potential for muscle growth.
While training is the stimulus for muscle growth it’s actually during rest and recovery that you build and repair muscle tissue. The two most prominent factors that increase recovery time are raised cortisol levels which is a hormonal factor and increased inflammation and muscle soreness.
If you are reading this then you are likely already familiar with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), DOMS is the soreness that comes 24-48 hours after strenuous exercise and is the result of high levels of muscular inflammation.
DOMS are most common in beginners or advanced lifters that experience a new training stimulus (like switching training programs) and depending on how much inflammation you cause, DOMS could last anywhere from 2-7 days.
Your first few leg sessions when you can’t walk up the stairs or sit down on the toilet properly the next day are usually strong memories for many lifters.
I must admit that after 12+ years of weight training I rarely experience DOMS to a life affecting degree anymore (by life affecting I mean an inability to cross the road or sit down with any sort of elegance) but when I do push the boundaries of a training session you can bet that I’m foam rolling and stretching immediately afterwards to reduce the inflammation straight away.
Reduces Pain & Injury
The primary reason that many will seek massage is to actually treat or reduce pain, this can be muscular, joint, nerves or any other form of physical pain that might have some connection to muscles.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of treatments because that has little relevance to muscle growth but will instead point out that a massage can reduce pain and also the risk of injury.
I’ll keep coming back to this point but a tight muscle is an issue in so many ways when lifting weights and injury often follows muscle imbalances and tightness. Therefore it’s important to use massage as a preventative measure rather than a treatment when it’s already too late.
A tight muscle restricts your range of motion and causes other muscle groups to overcompensate, neither of which are good for muscle growth or injury prevention. To demonstrate lets take the bench press as an example:
If you don’t have the flexibility or range of motion to bring a bar to your chest with no weight on then imagine what happens when you add weight to the bar. The weight will force you to go beyond your muscles natural range of motion due to gravity and the weight on the bar, now the tension is no longer on the muscle but on the supporting ligaments, tendons and stabilizing muscles.
In this example the bottom of the press (from your chest) will mean that your chest is hardly taking any of the tension but your rotator cuff muscle is now having to be overly active with a weight that is significantly higher than what a stabilizing muscle can lift.
It’s these issues that will lead to injury with repeated actions and therefore massaging will help prevent these issues before they lead to an injury.
On a smaller note a massage will alleviate tightness and adhesions which in themselves cause pain. I’m just not going to focus on that because it’s the main selling point of a massage so I’ll leave that to the professionals.
From personal experience I can fully vouch for the benefit that massage improves sleep, sleep of course being essentially for recovery and muscle growth.
A few months ago I had a deep tissue back massage that was uncomfortable to say the least. I had knots in my lower back and even though I stretch and foam roll, working a desk job 75% of the time coupled with frequent weightlifting meant that I was still tight and had muscle knots.
Well the deep tissue massage got to the pressure point of using an elbow to get deep into the muscle and when he got to the knots he was slipping straight off muscle. Painful would be an understatement and if you like to see these deep tissues releases then I highly recommend checking out this YouTube channel.
To cut a long story short I had this massage at 7pm, got home aching at 8pm and then had possibly the best sleep of my life after this. It’s purely anecdotal from my personal experience but relieving that muscle tightness and tension put me into the deepest sleep I’ve ever experienced.
While my experience might not be backed by extensive research there are studies to show that massages do improve sleep. The reason why is not yet fully understood however the main reasoning is that a massage relaxes your muscles and nervous system and releases serotonin.
It also reduces tightness and alleviates stress so again it’s not a direct result of the massage but rather the dealing with underlying issues. As far as muscle growth goes the better you can sleep the more efficiently you can increase muscle mass.
Improves Blood Flow Through the Muscle
This final benefit of a massage for muscle growth ties in with a few of the earlier ones but warrants a section of it’s own and that is the increased blood flow to the muscle that comes with massage.
A buildup of lactic acid and toxic waste in the muscle makes it difficult to shuttle in nutrient rich blood to facilitate muscle growth. The body does a good job of flushing these toxins but with increased demand through muscular contractions and lifting weights it makes it harder for the body to cope.
Massaging helps the lymphatic system (responsible for disposing of waste toxins) and forces nutrient rich blood into the muscle by again, breaking up adhesions and knots that would otherwise restrict this blood flow.
This ties in with reducing inflammation and muscle soreness but it’s important to note that the more nutrient rich blood you can get the active muscle the greater the potential for optimally recovering and growing that muscle group.
I’m not saying that you need to start to massage in order to build muscle as that is not the case, people have been building muscle long before a foam roller made its way into the gym (though trips for a deep tissue massage and chiropractic work has long been common in competitive bodybuilding).
What I wanted to get across in this article is that massage can do a lot of things to help promote muscle growth and will limit certain factors that can in fact limit your growth potential. Therefore If you want to maximize your muscle growth then I would highly recommend you add massage and deep tissue work into your routine if you want to see optimal progress with your physique.
** Foam rollers and other trigger point tools are great for muscle growth, if you want to see some other gym bag essentials for muscle growth then you can check out my article on it here
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