Mindful Muscle-Practicing Mindfulness to Improve Your Gains
Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD
Let’s play a game of word association! Before reading any further, ponder this question:
What state of mind do you associate with anabolism and muscle building?
What were the first words that popped into your mind?
Were they related to aggression, intensity, or stimulation? If so, you aren’t alone. In fact, most people believe this to be true and these are components of an effective “muscle-building workout”. However, psychophysiological states of aggression, intensity, and stimulation induce muscle breakdown or catabolism and not muscle building or anabolism.
When we train, our body and mind perceive our workouts as an acute state of high stress.
This state of good stress (aka eustress) alters the balance of our autonomic nervous system, whereby anabolic parasympathetic influences are diminished, and catabolic sympathetic nervous system activity prevails.
In fact, it is the catabolic stress of training that eventually drives anabolic responses as we move into recovery. Therefore, the catabolic effect of an exercise bout is merely the stimulus for the anabolism that occurs in exercise recovery. Thus, optimal gains are only realized when adequate rest and recovery follows the stress of training.
Optimizing recovery and anabolism requires the autonomic nervous system to shift from sympathetic nervous system dominance to parasympathetic nervous system dominance.
After training, the faster we can shift into parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode, the deeper and more complete the anabolic response and recovery, and the greater our muscular gains will be.
So, how can we quickly shift from the sympathetic stress of a hard workout into parasympathetic dominance or rest and digest mode? Science tells us one of the best natural ways to do this is through practicing mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Mindfulness is a psychological process that acts on specific parts of the brain that disrupt its stress pathways and directly benefit your physiological state. This is especially important when we want to optimize muscular gains!
Here are 3 mindful steps toward optimizing recovery and muscular gains:
STEP 1: PARTICIPATE IN POST-WORKOUT MEDITATION (breathwork)
Meditative practices are reported to improve anabolism by promoting parasympathetic dominance and improving anabolic status of blood hormones. It does this through decreases in cortisol (a catabolic hormone) and increases in dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate or DHEAS, which is testosterone’s precursor (an anabolic/androgenic hormone). Greater balance of anabolic and catabolic hormones can also accelerate recovery from training or injury by stimulating tissue repair and reducing inflammation.
If you are looking to improve recovery through mindfulness, soon after training, find a quiet and comfortable spot to do 5 minutes of post-workout meditation/breathwork. If you are new to meditation and breath work, there are some great apps out there to help you, my favorites are Calm and Headspace. It will take some practice to master this technique, but the benefits are well worth the work.
While you go through this exercise, you can track your level of parasympathetic activation by using one of the many wearable devices that track heart rate variability or HRV (e.g., Oura Ring or Apple Watch). The more HRV you experience, the deeper you are in a parasympathetic state and the further you are into recovery!
NOTE: Heavy stimulant use during workouts will promote prolonged and increased sympathetic dominance well into recovery.
STEP 2: BE MINDFUL WHEN YOU MUNCH
Mindful eating is a non-standardized protocol that complements meditation and breathwork to optimize digestive function. Mindful-eating practices improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients by decreasing the stress response and promoting parasympathetic dominance needed for “rest-and-digest mode”. This makes your food ‘work for you’ by improving digestion, absorption, and distribution of nutrients, to support increased muscle protein synthesis.
How to practice mindful eating:
- Prepare meals with intention and presence
- Engage all of your senses (colors, sounds, smells, taste)
- Eat without distraction, stay completely focused on your meal
- Focus on your body’s hunger and satiety cues
- Enjoy the eating experience (and the future gains)
STEP 3: DIMINISH STRESS BEFORE SLEEPING
Participating in relaxing mindful practices before bed like yoga, meditation, guided imagery, or deep breathing have been shown to decrease stress. This promotes anabolism and improves sleep quality by reducing sympathetic dominance (and cortisol levels) and concomitantly promoting activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
When we hit the sack, we want cortisol to be low to promote deep sleep and optimize recovery. During sleep, the pituitary gland secretes both FSH and LH which regulating and optimize our sex hormones. As well, during slow-wave sleep the pituitary gland secretes growth hormone, which plays a role in muscle repair and growth, as well as other metabolic processes.
Stress and sleep disturbances are closely related and feed each other. Stress before sleep promotes poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation which, in turn, increases the body’s stress responses and further promotes decrements in sleep quality. Overall, this disruption of the sleep-wake cycle results in dysregulation of hormones, increases in inflammation, and poor recovery.
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