Muscle Damage May Limit Growth

Sam Stephens

January 2020

Is your high rep, soreness inducing workout limiting muscle growth? A look at some research on the topic and how it applies to training for beginners.

In this Research Review, we’re going to briefly talk about muscle damage, high rep exercise programs, and the negative training effects these two things have on untrained exercise participants. 

In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Physiology investigated how untrained men (~27 yo) responded to high volume resistance training, specifically the relationship between muscle damage and growth. For 10 weeks, 10 participants completed 2 workouts per week containing 3 sets of 9-12 reps for both leg press and leg extension. While participants saw an increase in muscle mass at the end of the experiment, significant muscle growth did not occur until later in the study despite high levels of protein synthesis at the beginning of the program. 

Participants reported high levels of soreness in the earlier weeks and their subjective scoring aligned with indirect measurements for muscle damage. When taken together, the soreness scoring methods, measured protein synthesis rates, and markers for muscle damage indicate there is an inverse relationship between muscle soreness/damage and growth. 

This led researchers to the conclusion that although protein synthesis is high at the beginning of resistance training, if there is also a significant amount of tissue damage occurring simultaneously, muscle growth will be limited. They believe that all new muscle tissue being formed at the early stages of resistance training is being used to repair damage rather than aid in hypertrophy. 

So, how can we apply this information to our training?

If you’re new to exercise or coming back to resistance training after an extended break, take it easy on the reps (3-4 sets of ~6 reps) for at least the first month. Limit your exposure to high volume sets and focus on building strength and a solid aerobic base. Some soreness is OK, but too much of it is probably limiting your growth. 

My Beginner program follows this exact approach.

For more info, check out the paper.

Damas F, Phillips SM, Libardi CA, et al. Resistance training-induced changes in integrated myofibrillar protein synthesis are related to hypertrophy only after attenuation of muscle damage. J Physiol. 2016;594(18):5209–5222.

About Sam

Hi, I’m Sam – a personal trainer, exercise consultant, and the founder of Fitstra. My training emphasis is placed on helping my clients increase strength, build muscle, lose fat, and improve cardiovascular conditioning through research based training practices. When I’m not programming a new workout or at the gym, I’m usually either out shooting with my camera, playing PC games, or wasting time on Reddit. Follow me on Instagram and let’s talk photography!

Whatever your exercise goals or preferences are, I’d love to work with you as your online personal trainer.

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