4 Ways Inflammation Affects Muscle Growth

Most people don't truly understand the effects of inflammation and the benefits/consequences it has on muscle growth. Read this article to learn more.

Summer is waning and your days at the beach are numbered.

That means the shirt goes back on, the abs go into hiding and everyone boards the train to Gainzville (not to be confused with Gainesville, Florida. All hail Tim Tebow).

Winter bulk season is coming in hot. This means that everyone is shifting their thoughts from making sure their abs are shredded and oiled up, to maximizing their bulk season and increasing their biceps circumference.

One of the more hot topics lately has been the role that inflammation plays in regulating gains. This might even be a hotter topic than keto right now.

I’ve seen a few really hot and heated debates online about this. Entertaining enough for me to grab my popcorn and pull up a chair.

The funny part is, most people don’t really understand the topic. As in they don’t really understand muscle physiology, molecular biology, and immunology.

Well, that is what we are going to tackle today.

Let’s get to the bottom of this mystery and talk about how inflammation kills (and actually helps) your gains.

Related: How to Reduce Inflammation With These Foods and Supplements

1. Inflammation Actually Helps Your Muscle Gains

Before we start going into why inflammation is bad and keeping you from maximizing your swoleness we need to take a pit stop and acknowledge that inflammation is actually important and some inflammation is likely essential for eliciting muscle growth and adaptation1.

There have been several studies that show that some of the mechanisms that regulate muscle growth might rely on inflammation2, so we shouldn’t jump on the “inflammation is bad” bandwagon too fast. Furthermore, when it comes to muscle repair, inflammation also plays a pretty critical role there too3.

Athlete Creating Inflammation by Lifting Weight

So the “in the weeds” science seems to indicate that there are reasons why inflammation might be helpful for muscle growth. A recent study done in humans seems to support this. In one study of active, young men, taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for 8 weeks reduced resistance training induced muscle growth by about  50%4. I don’t know about you but that seems like some major gains thievery.

So what can we learn from this?

Well, inflammation is likely a key part of the muscle growth and repair process and that long term use of anti-inflammatories may blunt your growth response to training.

2. Inflammation Prevents You from Training with High Frequency

There are some reasons, some very valid reasons, that inflammation is crushing your gains as well. The first one is it is keeping you from training frequently. 

Inflammation is one of the contributors to DOMS and joint and muscle aches and pains – such as the kind that keep you from being able to sit on the toilet :)5.

Related: Pumps & DOMs - Are They Important for Making Gains?

We also know  that accumulating training volume is one of the biggest components of muscle hypertrophy (aka gains) so if debilitating muscle soreness is limiting your training volume by limiting how often you can train, then inflammation might be crushing your gains.

Now this doesn’t mean you should just use anti-inflammatories to not get sore (because that doesn’t really work). What it means is that your training should not be aimed at eliciting a massive inflammatory response.

3. Inflammation Prevents You from Training Your Hardest

Just like soreness and lack of recovery from inflammation can impact how frequently you train, it may also reduce the intensity with which you can train.

While there is some debate about the exact role intensity plays in eliciting growth, it is very clear that it does matter. There is a level of intensity that is needed to optimize muscle growth6.

This falls in line with our last section, the goal here isn’t to train so hard you are going to elicit a massive inflammatory response and then trample it with an over the counter medication or treatment. The goal is to optimize your training such that you are not getting a massive inflammatory response.

Athlete with Inflammation limiting Training Intensity

4. Too Much inflammation Too Often Hurts Gains

One of the things that we know is bad for muscle growth is excessive inflammation, this is the main reason for the last two points but I want to elaborate on that here. If you have chronically elevated inflammation say goodbye to your gains7. There is some evidence that as you age, inflammation plays a role in muscle loss, even if you are physically active8.

So we find ourselves in the Goldilocks paradox here. Inflammation appears to be critical for muscle growth, but too much is bad.

What we need is to get short, small bursts that can induce growth and adaptation but not so much that it prevents us from training frequently or at high intensity. We also need it to be quieted down after we are done training.

It also means that as you age you need to think about managing levels of inflammation to keep from losing all those gains from your 20s, 30s, and 40s. This often means maintaining an active lifestyle, keeping up with health eating habits, and reducing things that cause chronic inflammation (e.g. smoking, drinking, and drug use).

The Wrap Up

Inflammation is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.

Inflammation is a critical part of muscle growth and adaptation to training. In fact, if you lift weights and take anti-inflammatories the whole time you are likely limiting your gains, by a lot.

However, there are some reasons that you should try and not let inflammation get out of control. It can limit the frequency in which you train, the intensity that you train at, and if you have higher levels of inflammation around all the time it can crush your gains.

You need to find ways to get a little bit of training induced inflammation, but not so much you can’t train. You also don’t want to have inflammation increased for extended periods.