If heat exposure is a staple in your recovery routine, or if you’d like it to be, you might not need access to a sauna or steam room.
There is always a way to mimic the benefits of daily sauna sessions. For those of you lucky enough to have one at home, read this piece through until the end. You might learn a few tips for the future if you’re ever on the road, competing away from home, or need an alternate way to get your muscles set for the next day’s workout.
As long as you can recover properly and bounce back from it, submitting your body to levels of stress is the best and only way to promote growth. From a physiological standpoint, when your body undergoes thermal stress — something like what you’d experience during your workouts — your cells up the amount of heat shock proteins released to help reduce protein build-up and transport repair proteins). (1)
Upregulating the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs) generates many positive effects on a biological level for anyone from your average Joe to your high-end athlete. They may prevent disease-causing mutations, repair damaged and misfolded proteins, and also help release more natural growth hormones. In other words, HSPs help your body benefit from conditions that otherwise could be lethal if presented at a higher dosage.
There are many ways to mimic the effects one would get from regular weekly sauna sessions in terms of DIY thermal exposure. The goal is to replicate the type of stress your body undergoes when being exposed to higher temperatures.
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Four Ways To Mimic The Effects Of A Sauna
Any activity where you find yourself feeling warmer or sweatier than at your rested state, you’ll kickstart the natural release of heat shock proteins. Most studies have recorded results from cardio-induced stimuli to the body. However, a 2001 study showed drastic changes in two types of heat-shock proteins after performing eccentric contractions to create enough damage to the muscle tissue. This suggests you might get more release of these proteins hitting the squat rack rather than choosing the treadmill. (2)(3)
The only downside? It’s harder to sustain a consistently elevated core body temperature during a training session to receive the same benefits as sitting in a sauna.
If you’re training under heavy load pretty regularly, your muscles are most likely accustomed to that type of stress. Mix it up with some clothes layering (or a hot bath below) after training to really maximize growth and recovery.
To get the most bang for your buck in terms of HSPs release, try layering up more than usual during your next session to help reduce your body’s cooling during resting periods. (Ever noticed how Kai Greene is always layered up in sweats and a hoodie when he lifts?)
A 2017 study in the Journal of Sports Science suggests that while subjects tested showed somewhat of an increase in HSP release (0.01ng/ml) on an arm crank ergometer, elevating your core body temperature produces a higher HSP release. They also recorded a 5.2ºC spike in maximal heat storage and a 3.3ºC increase in skin temperature from subjects wearing non-permeable gear. (4)
So, if you’re looking for the slightest edge in muscle growth and improved recovery, take advantage of this easy adjustment the next time you train.
Now, don’t take this as an invitation to skip all your meals today for some gains — there’s a little more to this than just not eating, period.
Most studies to evaluate the effects of fasting or calorie restriction on HSP were performed on older adult rats and were focused more on how it affected HSP production decline due to aging. One study from 2005 showed calorie restriction could impact improving HSP in humans but needed further research to prove this idea. (5)
[Related: Intermittent Fasting 101 — a Guide to Benefits, Muscle Gain, and More]
Come 2011, though, a study was published in the Singapore Medical Journal testing subjects undergoing fasting for Ramadan. On day three, subjects showed an average HSP increase of 0.3ng/ml and then an average increase of 0.45ng/ml on day 35. This suggests restricting your eating window temporarily could help your body’s production of these proteins and improve long term ability to synthesize proteins. (6)
While the degree of what you’ll get from a hot bath (or shower) might not be the same as what you’d get from a sauna, you may be able to give your body a similar response in terms of heat-shock protein release. These subjects from a 2017 study proved just that — after being immersed up to their waistline in 40°C water for one hour, they saw a spike of HSP from 23% to 39%. (7)
The one drawback to hot baths is everyone’s unique sensitivity to hot water. The 16% variance recorded from this study was largely due to differences in total body mass and body fat percentage (leaner individuals saw a bigger increase than the others).
Remember, saunas are just boxes of hot air, but your sensitivity heightens when you add water into the mix. The water should be hot enough to the point where you start sweating after immersing yourself for a few minutes.
The Training Benefits Of Saunas
Nothing will precisely replicate the exact effects you’d get from a sauna, but the options above are far better than nothing. And the effects of saunas as a training recovery tool are pretty widespread, too. From general stress relief to increased muscle mass, saunas overall are an excellent option to add to your recovery repertoire.
Increased Growth Hormone and Muscle Building
If you’ve spent enough time in the weight room, you’re probably heard about a tricky little hormone named growth. Growth hormone (GH) is what you need to repair and build more muscle mass. (8) People with low GH levels tend to have smaller amounts of lean muscle and a more difficult time adding mass. (9) So naturally, boosting your growth hormone levels with heat exposure can be excellent news for your hypertrophy goals.
Studies have long shown that spending time in the sauna can increase GH levels. (10) Just 20 minutes in a sauna, twice a week, can boost GH levels two-fold. (11) There’s even some evidence to suggest that saunas can help you maintain muscle mass if you’ve taken a bit of a break from the gym. (12) Of course, you’ll want to be hitting the weights for maximum gains, but it’s good to know that heat baths have got your back in a pinch.
Improve Muscular Endurance
Before you skip ahead because you’re a powerlifter and think muscular endurance is for marathon runners, think again. Yes, you want to be wiped out after heavy sets of five by three squats — otherwise, you probably haven’t gone hard enough. But the less often you exhaust yourself in the gym, the harder you’ll be able to work — and building endurance does just that.
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Spending time in a sauna can help you boost your endurance levels. (13) And the more able you are to tolerate the stress of working your body to near exhaustion, the better you’ll be able to train.
Physical stress isn’t the only thing that impacts your body’s recovery between training sessions. Mental and emotional stressors and exhaustion will cramp your recovery big time. You can’t often opt out of life’s many stressors, but you can help yourself feel calmer about them.
Especially if it’s something you’re already prone to enjoying, heat exposure can destress you mentally. It’s a great emotional release to allow yourself to really stop, breathe deeply, and sweat your stress away. Saunas or alternative heat exposure methods force you to take a break from the daily grind. When you hit the physical pause button, you’ll give your mind and emotions a chance to relax, too. It’ll feel good now, and the lower stress levels will help you lift heavier in the long run.
How to Incorporate Saunas Into Your Recovery Routine
Whether you have regular access to an actual sauna or not, you can integrate heat exposure into your recovery routine. Try easing into a hot bath after a long training session. Heading to work right after the gym? Save bathtime for the evening. No bathtub at home? Layer up on your walk to the coffee shop every morning — especially when it’s hot out.
Like you do in the weight room, work with what you have access to and slowly integrate new things. Spending an hour in a sauna because you want to maximize your gains isn’t the way to go. Never done it, or haven’t been in a while? Start with five minutes. Gradually build up to 10, then 20. You don’t have to — and often, shouldn’t — stay for all that long.
Of course, whenever you’re working to raise your body temperature deliberately, stay hydrated. Make sure you’re filling your shaker bottle with plenty of water and replacing lost electrolytes. Yes, you’re looking to crank up your body temperature, but not at the expense of dehydration.
Remember that hydration isn’t just about drinking during the potentially dehydrating activity. When you’re planning a hot bath, drink plenty of water in the day and hours leading up. Continue to be extra mindful of your hydration levels in the hours and days following.
More On Muscle Recovery
Ready to focus on your recovery to improve your gains? Check out these articles on maximizing training recovery.
- 7 Strategies To Improve Recovery And Adapt From Hard Training
- 5 Tips To Improve Your Recovery Between Intense Workouts
- 6 Ways To Improve Your Recovery When You’re Stressed Out
- Iguchi M, Littmann AE, Chang SH, Wester LA, Knipper JS, Shields RK. Heat stress and cardiovascular, hormonal, and heat shock proteins in humans. J Athl Train. 2012;47(2):184-190. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-47.2.184
- Archer AE, Von Schulze AT, Geiger PC. Exercise, heat shock proteins and insulin resistance. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2018;373(1738):20160529. doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0529
Thompson HS, Scordilis SP, Clarkson PM, Lohrer WA. A single bout of eccentric exercise increases HSP27 and HSC/HSP70 in human skeletal muscle. Acta Physiol Scand. 2001 Feb;171(2):187-93. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-201x.2001.00795.x. PMID: 11350279.
Leicht CA, Papanagopoulos A, Haghighat S, Faulkner SH. Increasing heat storage by wearing extra clothing during upper body exercise up-regulates heat shock protein 70 but does not modify the cytokine response. J Sports Sci. 2017 Sep;35(17):1752-1758. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1235795. Epub 2016 Sep 26. PMID: 28282757.
Selsby JT, Judge AR, Yimlamai T, Leeuwenburgh C, Dodd SL. Life long calorie restriction increases heat shock proteins and proteasome activity in soleus muscles of Fisher 344 rats. Exp Gerontol. 2005 Jan-Feb;40(1-2):37-42. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2004.08.012. PMID: 15664730.
- Zare, Ahad & Hajhashemi, M & Hassan, Zuhair Mohammad & Zarrin, S & Pourpak, Zahra & Moin, Mostafa & Salarilak, S & Masudi, S & Shahabi, Shahram. (2011). Effect of Ramadan fasting on serum heat shock protein 70 and serum lipid profile. Singapore medical journal. 52. 491-5.
Fink J, Schoenfeld BJ, Nakazato K. The role of hormones in muscle hypertrophy. Phys Sportsmed. 2018 Feb;46(1):129-134. doi: 10.1080/00913847.2018.1406778. Epub 2017 Nov 25. PMID: 29172848.
Chikani, V., & Ho, K. K. Y. (2014). Action of GH on skeletal muscle function: molecular and metabolic mechanisms, Journal of Molecular Endocrinology, 52(1), R107-R123. Retrieved Jun 28, 2021, from https://jme.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/jme/52/1/R107.xml
Kukkonen-Harjula K, Kauppinen K. How the sauna affects the endocrine system. Ann Clin Res. 1988;20(4):262-6. PMID: 3218898.
Leppäluoto J, Huttunen P, Hirvonen J, Väänänen A, Tuominen M, Vuori J. Endocrine effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta Physiol Scand. 1986 Nov;128(3):467-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.1986.tb08000.x. PMID: 3788622.
Selsby JT, Rother S, Tsuda S, Pracash O, Quindry J, Dodd SL. Intermittent hyperthermia enhances skeletal muscle regrowth and attenuates oxidative damage following reloading. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2007 Apr;102(4):1702-7. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00722.2006. Epub 2006 Nov 16. PMID: 17110516.
Scoon GS, Hopkins WG, Mayhew S, Cotter JD. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Aug;10(4):259-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009. Epub 2006 Jul 31. PMID: 16877041.
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