Speed Up Your Regeneration and Propel Your Gains by Taking a HOT Bath Bath 2-Days Before Arduous Workouts

Image 1: Are women tougher than men, because bathe more often? If you define toughness by your muscles resistance to eccentric exercise damage, the answer could be "YES!"
If you listened to Brooks, Carl and me on Super Human Radio, yesterday (download the podcast), you may remember me stating that 48h appears to be a good rule of thumb, as far as the rest periods between workouts for individual body parts are concerned (this assumes that you are young, healthy, reasonably conditioned and lift heavy). A recently published paper by Chad D. Touchberry  does now suggest that there may be another 48h window before your workout (Touchberry. 2012). One you would use a priori to improve your recovery a posteriori - preconditioning in a hot bath for 20 min at 41°C, 48h before a hard workout or competition!

Eccentric treadmill running = maximum muscle damage

At least in a rodent model, those 20 min of heat exposure in 41°C warm water lead to statistically highly significant decreases in exercise induced muscle damage, improved and accelerated the recovery process and, contrary to what could be assumed based on previous research on the expression of heat proteins (Frier. 2007), did not hamper, but promote muscle gains in response to an exercise protocol consisting that consisted of running at 18m/min down a -16% grade for 5 min. This protocol has been used as a model for injurious exercise repeatedly in the past and constitutes one of the standard tests in rodent, but also in human studies (e.g. Pumpa. 2011).
Figure 1: Creatine kinase (CK) activity and immune cell infiltration after eccentric exercise with (EE+HS) and without (EE) preconditioning via hot bath 48h before (data calculated based on Touchberry. 2012)
As the data in figure 1 goes to show, the hot bath (EE+HS) had significant ameliorative effects on both the muscle damage (indicated by CK and the black sections in the H&E-stained soleus muscle cross-sections in figure 1, right), of which the researchers state that, despite the fact that "the mechanism by which heat shock protects skeletal muscle from damage is currently unknown", the protection of skeletal muscle against damage in mice overexpresssing HSP70 (McArdle. 2004a) as well as the differential HSP72 elevation in the HS group 2h and 48 h following exercise collectively
[...] suggest that HSP72 or another heat sensitive protein (i.e.,alphaB-crystallin) may play a role in mediating cytoprotection of skeletal muscle cells.
Moreover, Touchberry et al. explain the existing discrepancies between their own results and previous results by Mc.Ardle et al. (Mc. Ardle. 2004b), who did not find reduced muscle damage after pre-treatment with hsp-inducing concentric exercise 10h prior to the (in my humble opinion questionable) in-vitro application of eccentric strain to skeletal muscle tissue, with the "greater time for HSP accumulation prior to the exercise stressor" in their (48h) vs. the Mc.Ardle study (10h), which is obviously yet another indicator that rest is one of the most under-appreciated determiners of workout efficiency (cf. my words on SHR ;-)

Regeneration is one thing, but are muscle gains another?

Now, I am well aware that one of the main reasons regeneration isn't sexy, is that it does not trigger the phosphorylation of Akt, m-TOR and all the rest of the sciency terms with which laymen are bombarded by the supplement industry these days.
Figure 2: Total protein, new myosin heavy chain (MHCNEO) content and p-Akt expression in soleus muscle 2h and 48h after the eccentric exercise bout (data calculated based on Touchberry. 2012)
The study at hand does even show that heat pre-treatment will actually reduce, not promote the phosphorylation of AKT 48h after the exercise bout (cf. figure 2). If you do yet take into account that the total protein concentration and MHCneo (novel myosin-heavy-chain motor proteins) content in the soleus muscle of the rodents was increased profoundly, I guess you will have to agree that it is unlikely that less damage, a faster regeneration, and as a consequence less need for protein to be recruited via p-AKT only to repair the damage is going to propel, not diminish your gains!

Practical implications & open questions

Once again, the obvious message of this study is: Not he who trains the most, but he who regenerates and rebuilds the best, gains the most! And adequate rest aside, preconditioning in a hot (not a "cold thermogenic" bath ;-) can help dampen the exercise induced damage and accelerate your recovery.
Note: In February 2012, Bayley et al. published a paper that shows that the application of passive heat in form of a 42°C hot water bath for 40min immediately prior to a bout of HIT leg extensor exercises reduced the time to fatigue in seven healthy men by a whopping -36%  (Bayley. 2012). Impatience, or rather the unwillingness to grant your body the time it needs to recover is thus detrimental even if the stressor is "just" a hot bath!
Whether the same would be true if you train today and do the hot water immersion immediately, 2h, 10h or 12h post and thus 48h, 46h, 38h or 36h before your next workout is yet about as questionable, as whether or not similar effects could be elicited by switching back and forth between light and heavy days every 48h.  Both may appear likely, but aside form the fact that the optimal timing or workout intensity will still have to be elucidated, are still in the state of an interesting research hypothesis, not more, but also not less.

Update - Suggested reading: Since there have been questions pertaining to the usefulness of hydrotherapy post-workout, i.e. as a means of "classic" re- and not "precovery", I thought I rather refer you directly to my buddy Sean's E-book on the issue. Here is a snippet from the book
Image 2: Don't miss Sean's free e-book on classic hydrotherapy
Quick Hit Summary Water therapy is a common modality to enhance muscle recovery post workout. Sitting in chest high thermoneutral water for 20-30 minutes may accelerate waste removal while increasing blood flow to working muscles. Cold, hot and contrast water temps are also commonly used to assist recovery. The goal of cold water therapy is to reduce inflammation whereas hot water purportedly increases muscle blood flow. Contrast water therapy involves alternating between hot and cold water baths to induce a vaso-pumping effect. Current evidence does not support the theory behind these latter 2 therapies simply because the heat (from the water) is incapable of penetrating more than a couple centimeters into the skin. Thus, there is no stimulus to increase muscle blood flow
You can get this e-book alongside two other books for free if you register for Sean's newsletter, which is, take my word on it (!), not a weekly advertisement piece!
  1. Bailey SJ, Wilkerson DP, Fulford J, Jones AM. Influence of passive lower-body heating on muscle metabolic perturbation and high-intensity exercise tolerance in humans. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Feb 10.
  2. Briese E. Normal body temperature of rats: the setpoint controversy. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1998 May;22(3):427-36. Review. 
  3. Frier BC, Locke M. Heat stress inhibits skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Cell Stress Chaperones. 2007 Summer;12(2):132-41. 
  4. McArdle A, Dillmann WH, Mestril R, Faulkner JA, Jackson MJ. Overexpression of HSP70 in mouse skeletal muscle protects against muscle damage and age-related muscle dysfunction. FASEB J. 2004a Feb;18(2):355-7.
  5. McArdle F, Spiers S, Aldemir H, Vasilaki A, Beaver A, Iwanejko L, McArdle A, Jackson MJ. Preconditioning of skeletal muscle against contraction-induced damage: the role of adaptations to oxidants in mice. J Physiol. 2004b Nov 15;561(Pt 1):233-44. Epub 2004 Aug 26.
  6. Pumpa KL, Fallon KE, Bensoussan A, Papalia S. The effects of Lyprinol(®) on delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle damage in well trained athletes: a double-blind randomised controlled trial. Complement Ther Med. 2011 Dec;19(6):311-8.
  7. Touchberry CD, Gupte AA, Bomhoff GL, Graham ZA, Geiger PC, Gallagher PM. Acute heat stress prior to downhill running may enhance skeletal muscle remodeling. Cell Stress Chaperones. 2012 May 17. [Epub ahead of print]
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