Shedding Light: A New Way to Increase Strength, Performance, and Recovery

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Can The Right Kind Of Light Improve Your Gains? Science Says Yes!

As regular readers of this website know, coach Poliquin was always ahead of the curve with new and cutting-edge technology. Whether it was for better performance or overall health, he led the field and trained elite athletes with the newest methods and technologies to produce the best results. He told us in 2018 that he had all his clients using red light therapy as a part of their core strength training routine. It gave his athletes more motivation to train, produced better results in the short and long term, and also sped up the muscle recovery and healing process after the most grueling workouts. But he said there was one problem.

Because of the performance and strength gains his clients were seeing, he said people in the training and sports worlds had a new dilemma: red light therapy seems to be giving athletes an “unfair competitive advantage”—almost like a performance-enhancing drug, even though red light therapy is completely natural.

Advantage? Yes. Unfair or unnatural? Definitely not.

This article breaks down red light therapy, especially the clinically-proven strength training, performance, and muscle recovery benefits Coach Poliquin was talking about. We’ll also go over the most important factors to consider in a light therapy device at the end.

How Red Light Therapy Fuels Your Muscles

If you’re not familiar with light therapy, this article gives a good overview of what it is and how it works. The basics are that a light therapy device delivers safe, concentrated wavelengths of natural light to your body. These red and near infrared wavelengths stimulate the mitochondria in your cells so your body is able to make more usable ATP energy to power itself. This increases muscular strength, prevents muscle fatigue, and speeds muscle recovery after workouts and injuries—as shown in a wide range of peer-reviewed studies.

Natural red and near infrared light also helps promote antioxidants, which play a central role in reducing the oxidative stress associated with muscle fatigue. Antioxidants also increase the production of heat proteins—special proteins that help protect cells from stress and early cell death. [1,2]

Studies have also identified an increase in circulation following light therapy, indicating tissues are receiving more oxygen and other nutrients important for healing—while also ridding themselves of toxic byproducts. [3]

This is why so many pro athletes and world-class trainers use red light therapy daily: stronger physical performance, less soreness afterwards, and faster recovery so you can get back at it sooner—with less pain and fewer injuries.

Red Light Therapy for Strength Training & Performance

In addition to all the fitness and training pros using red light therapy, there’s a huge base of peer-reviewed clinical research showing it improves physical performance, especially for strength training and endurance.

Major Strength Gains: Researchers in a 2016 trial concluded that red light therapy “enhances strength gains when applied before exercise.” [4] The trial assessed men ages 18-35 who were undergoing strength training. Men in the light therapy group “showed significant changes” in max torque for both leg extension and leg press exercises.

Stronger PT & Rehab: The researchers in the above study also concluded that light therapy has additional value for post-injury rehab where strength improvements are needed.” [4]

Stronger Grip: A placebo-controlled 2014 study found that red light therapy treatments significantly increased maximum repetitions of hand and grip exercises by 52%, measured by an isokinetic dynamometer. [5] Numerous other studies have also shown significant grip strength increases during exercise after light therapy treatments. [6]

Treadmill Training: A triple-blind, placebo-controlled trial published in 2018 evaluated red light therapy’s effects on healthy men and women who were also going through endurance training on treadmills. Researchers found that pre-exercise light therapy can “increase the time-to-exhaustion and oxygen uptake and also decrease the body fat in healthy volunteers when compared to placebo.” [7]

Strength Gains for Weekend Warriors

Researchers in a 2011 trial tested the muscle performance of clinically healthy men with a beginner or moderate physical training pattern, aka “weekend warriors”. They found a 55% increase in leg-press tests in the light therapy group alone.

The men receiving light therapy were “the only group to show an increase in muscle performance in the isokinetic dynamometry test compared with baseline.” [8] This led the authors to conclude: “Strength training with light therapy can increase muscle performance compared with strength training only.” [8]

Red Light Therapy Increases Muscle Size & Bulk

In addition to improving physical performance and strength across a wide range of exercises, research also demonstrates that red light therapy can enhance muscle growth too.

Research in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation has found that light therapy can promote the growth of healthy muscle tissue, or muscle hypertrophy, naturally increasing muscle size and bulk—as well as strength. [9,10]

A separate study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared muscle growth and strength between two groups of athletes—one using light therapy combined with exercise, the other using exercise alone—and found that muscle thickness and strength were significantly improved (by over 50%) in those who used light therapy. These results were clearly measurable using ultrasound imaging and isokinetic dynamometry, as shown in the graph below. [11]

Strength Gains for Women of All Ages

The published clinical research is very positive for women of all ages and fitness levels. It shows red light therapy is highly effective for women looking to improve their physical performance and recover faster from workouts and strain.

Women 18-30 Stronger with Red Light:  In 2014, Brazilian doctors conducted a double-blind, controlled trial of healthy women ages 18 to 30 who did leg exercises with or without red light therapy. Their published report found “significant torque increase (p < 0.05) post-light therapy,” compared to the placebo group. [12]

Women 50-60 Stronger with Red Light: A 2014 study evaluated women in their 50s and found “significantly higher values of (quadricep) power and total work for the LED group.” Fatigue was also significantly lower in the LED group. [13]

Less Muscle Fatigue After Workouts

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have been published on red light therapy’s positive effects on exercise and physical performance. But better workouts can also mean more muscle fatigue and potential pain afterwards.

Fortunately, natural red light doesn’t just improve physical performance. It also prevents the onset of muscle soreness and fatigue after workouts.

Less Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: A 2014 trial assessed the skeletal muscular performance and recovery after exercise for healthy men. The researchers found that pre-exercise light therapy “significantly increases performance, decreases delayed onset muscle soreness, and improves biochemical markers related to skeletal muscle damage.” [14]

Less Soreness & Damage After Intense Workouts: A 2014 trial tested red light therapy for the muscle recovery of healthy young men after undergoing a “damaging eccentric exercise.” The light therapy group showed significantly reduced muscle strength loss, less muscle soreness, and fewer range of motion impairments, and that was demonstrated up to 4 days after a damaging exercise. [15]

Lower Creatine Kinase Levels Point to Less Muscle Damage with Red Light Therapy: Creatine kinase (CK) is a vital enzyme in your body that you make in greater numbers in response to muscle damage and tissue injury. [16] Many studies have shown a stark decrease in CK levels for light therapy groups versus placebo and control groups.

A recent 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis was conducted in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine to assess the muscular effects of light therapy, especially concerning creatine kinase levels after exercise. After reviewing 14 studies, the authors concluded that light therapy has a positive effect on the control of creatine kinase activity. [17]

Faster Muscle Recovery with Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy’s healing and regenerating effects on muscle recovery have been shown across numerous trials. In 2015, researchers performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of numerous randomized, placebo-controlled trials on red light therapy and muscular recovery and performance. Based on the body of research, the authors concluded that red light therapy “improves muscular performance and accelerates recovery.” [18]

Pro athletes recover faster: Recent clinical studies on professional rugby and soccer players assessed male athletes’ endurance, speed, and ability to recover from demanding games and workouts. Researchers found that red light therapy accelerated the players’ recovery times. The results on the rugby field matched the lab results: rugby players receiving light therapy treatments saw a “significantly decreased percentage of change in blood lactate levels (p ≤ 0.05) and perceived fatigue (p ≤ 0.05).” [19,20]

Elite Pro Athletes & World-Class Trainers Trust Red Light Therapy

In the NFL, all-stars like Patrick Peterson, Keenan Allen, and Demarcus Lawrence are Joovvin’ every day. So is 3-time Stanley Cup champ Duncan Keith, Masters & British Open champ Zach Johnson, and Gold-Medal-winning Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers.

In the training world, Charles Poliquin’s red light therapy strategy is being emulated by other world-class trainers like Ben Greenfield, Jorge Cruise, Aubrey Marcus, and Lacey Stone. You can see more of the elite athletes using Joovv for recovery and performance here, and the leading trainers who trust red light therapy here.

 What to Look for in a Red Light Therapy Device

Not all devices are created equal. If you’re ready to take the next step and invest in a light therapy device, these are the major factors to consider:

Clinically-Proven Wavelengths: The full spectrum of light is very wide and includes several colors, as well as invisible wavelengths. But all light is not beneficial. Most researchers note a “therapeutic window,” or range of wavelengths between about 600 to 1,200 nanometers. Red and near-infrared light—especially between 600-950 nm—has been studied extensively and its positive effects have been documented the most in clinical trials.

But even within that window, for the purposes of light therapy, you want to only use devices that deliver red light in the mid-600 nm range and near infrared in the mid-800 nm range. Those are the clinical sweet spots, and pretty much all the research about light therapy is specific to these ranges of red and near infrared light. [21,22]

Clinical-Grade Power: You just can’t get medical-grade red light therapy from a cheap heat lamp at Home Depot. The same is true of knock-off red light products and “happy lights” sold online. To see real, full-body health benefits, you need a quality device that delivers clinical power.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers don’t offer independently-tested power data for their devices. Some only give a power measurement in irradiance, which only tells you what the device can do, not how a treatment will affect your body.

Dr. Michael Hamblin, a leading PBM researcher with Harvard, says: “Total delivered light energy is the most accurate and comprehensive way to measure the power of light therapy devices and treatments. If you only account for irradiance—versus how much total energy a device delivers—you miss the larger picture of how light therapy positively benefits the person using it.”

Bottom line: Make sure a manufacturer backs up their product with independent light therapy data, and look for devices that measure total delivered power—ideally in the range of 18-20 Joules per square centimeter.

Treatment Area Size: It doesn’t make sense to think about a device’s power output without thinking about how much surface area the light covers on your body. Size matters a lot for light therapy devices because you get better results when you cover more of your body with an even distribution of light. Uniform coverage is key to optimal results, and a small device that only covers a fraction of your body simply can’t get the job done.

Targeted light therapy treatments can work wonders for specific areas like a painful joint. But for more full-body health benefits and shorter treatment times, coverage is everything. For optimal red light therapy, look for a system that can deliver broad coverage across your entire body.

Conclusion: Incorporate Red Light Therapy Into Your Daily Routine

Red light therapy was a favorite of Coach Poliquin and remains a daily go-to for world-class trainers and pro athletes. The best teams, gyms, and competitors on the planet wouldn’t be using red light therapy for strength, performance, and muscle recovery if it didn’t produce results at the highest levels. But as the huge base of clinical research shows, red light therapy can produce pretty incredible strength gains for anyone, man or woman, younger or older, and across a wide range of body types, fitness levels, and different exercises.

If you’re ready to give red light therapy a try, visit this page to get started.

You can also check out Joovv’s Learn page for way more info on red light therapy and the specific health benefits.

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