Massage after strength training: less muscle pain, less muscle damage
A simple sports massage after an intensive weight-training session reduces muscle soreness and probably also reduces damage to the muscle cells. Australian sports scientists discovered this. It also looks as though massage contributes slightly to muscle recovery – although the effect is not statistically significant.
The researchers, working at the Australian Edith Cowan University, published an experiment they had done with ten students [five women and five men] in the Journal of Athletic Training. The test subjects were healthy but did not do weight training. The researchers got the students to train their biceps in a way that is guaranteed to result in screaming sore muscles: after a warming up the students did six sets of ten reps with a weight they couldn't lift without help. In sports scientists' jargon this is referred to as eccentric training: the subjects had to perform the return movement as slowly as possible, and were given help with the lifting movement.
Three hours after the training session, an experienced sports masseur massaged one arm of the test subjects for ten minutes. The other arm did not get a massage.
The figure below shows how the subjects regained strength in both arms over a period of two weeks. Recovery was slightly faster in the massaged arm, but the difference was not significant.
The biceps that had been massaged was slightly less swollen after the training and, when the test subjects used it, less sore. The figures in the table below are based on the test subjects' assessment of the soreness.
When the researchers took blood from both arms, they noticed that the blood from the arm that had been massaged contained considerably less creatine kinase. Creatine kinase enters the blood when it leaks out of damaged muscle cells. It's a marker for muscle damage.
The researchers conclude that athletes who get massages have fewer problems with sore muscles after a heavy training session. Reading between the lines, you can see that they also suspect that massage may have a performance-enhancing effect as well. At least, less muscle damage after weight training can result in more muscle growth.
The researchers have a theory about how massage may stimulate muscle development. "It is also possible to assume that massage assists in flushing neutrophils and macrophages from the injured area, thus avoiding fiber necrosis and CK efflux", they write.
In 2004 Scottish scientists published the results of an experiment in which cyclists were given massages between two training sessions. [Br J Sports Med. 2004 Apr;38(2):173-6.] In that study massage did not improve performance, but did reduce the athletes' feeling of fatigue.
J Athl Train. 2005 Jul-Sep; 40(3):181-5.