Red Light Therapy: Best-Kept Workout Performance Secret?
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
This is a guest post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and helps thousands of people take charge of their own health with his company Nature Builds Health. (https://www.facebook.com/NatureBuildsHealth/)
Red Light Therapy: Best-Kept Workout Performance Secret?
I know what you’re thinking: “To increase my workout performance I need to take a double dose of pre-workout”
Or: “I need to eat more protein to make the most of my gains in the gym” and: “to lose more fat I need to do HOURS of cardio every single week”
And you know what? There’s some truth to these statements.
Protein will help you build muscle (up to a certain point) and pre-workout supplements that include creatine and caffeine can help you perform better as well.
(Doing hours of cardio usually won’t help you lose weight though.)
But what if another secret weapon existed? What if the light in your environment could massively increase the gains you make in the gym?
And what if you could easily supplement that light through a red light therapy device? Let’s find out:
Red Light Therapy For Workout Performance: Quicker Recovery, Less Fatigue, More Fat Loss, And Greater Muscle Gains.
Red light therapy is hot today. Elite athletes are using red light therapy for quicker recovery so that the Wall Street Journal is reporting on the purported benefits. Even Paris Hilton is joining the game.
For a long time, you could only apply red light therapy through $40,000 - $180,000 tanning beds. Around 2015 that the first consumer LED panels entered the market. These devices were small and carried little power. Today you’ll spend $1,000 tops for a full-body light setup that lasts through the ages.
Well, red light therapy helps improve your skin quality, well-being, cognitive performance, and more. But if you work out fervently you’d probably like to know whether red light therapy aids in that domain too...
So in this blog post I’ll specifically look at using red light therapy for workout performance. I’ll consider:
Whether red light therapy can give you quicker recovery from your workouts and if red light therapy enhances muscle mass and fat loss gains
And you may think: “I won’t believe that lights will specifically help my workout performance”. In fact, many people I speak to on a daily basis don’t think that the light in their environments matters to their health.
So I’m sure you’ve got that response. The science paints a different picture though, and does show that the light in your environment has massive effects on the biology of your body. But before I dig into the science of workout performance, let’s consider how red light affects your muscles in the first place:
How Red Light Therapy Works
Simply put, cells that make up your muscle tissue contains hundreds if not thousands of mitochondria (4).
Mitochondria are the “energy-producing” factories of these cells. Food that you eat is broken down into electrons and protons, and energy is created within these mitochondria with these subatomic particles. That process is extremely complex and not fully understood to this day. Suffice it to say that these mitochondria can also be affected by the light in your environment. Specifically, one step in the energy-creation process of the energy creation process can be affected by light inputs (5; 6).
Well, for millions of years, sunlight has supplied most of the light to make those mitochondria of your ancestors work properly. The problem, however, is that most people are spending almost all of their time indoors today (7).
The result is that you’re not getting any sunlight exposure.
Now here’s the kicker:
The morning sun contains a disproportionate amount of both red and infrared light. Red light therapy mimics that light - red light therapy uses specific wavelengths of light types for their therapeutic benefit.
Both red and infrared light can penetrate up to several inches into your body, thereby affecting many tissues such as your muscles. Light that enters your muscle cells and other tissues subsequently increases performance of the mitochondria.
Now that you understand how light affects your body’s biology, let’s first look at how red light therapy can improve your workout recovery:
Red Light Therapy For Quicker Workout Recovery
Workout recovery is a complex phenomena, as many variables affect that process. Massages or cold therapy can work to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, for example (1). High-quality sleep is also essential, as well as consuming protein at the right times of the day (2; 3).
But that’s not where your workout recovery strategy should end: Red and infrared - as a new “secret weapon” - affect many domains involved with recovery, including: Muscle soreness, Oxygenation, Inflammation, Fatigue, Injury and Recovery
Let’s consider these domains one by one: Muscle Soreness
Soreness, the first thing you feel after a long and hard workout. A primordial type of cell called the “stem cell” (and other similar types of cells) lay at the basis of that recovery process (4)
So when the correct types of light enters your muscles, it stimulates the activity of these stem cells and boosts your capacity to recover.
And make no mistake:
Lowering the time you spend in soreness is a big advantage for your workout capacity. Decreasing the period you’re sore from 5 days to 2 days entails that you’re able to train much more frequently, increasing your athletic potential dramatically.
In very intense exercise, such as “plyometrics” - which includes box or broad jumps - red light therapy may also have decreased soreness (9). One study doesn’t show any benefit for soreness though, but most studies do show an advantage (10).
Let’s move to the second benefit: Improved Oxygenation
Overall oxygenation may also improve with red light therapy. How? Through a compound called “hemoglobin” carries oxygen in your blood - that compound binds more easily to oxygen when infrared light is applied to it (8)
Of course, improved oxygenation not only improves workout recovery but also performance. Your mitochondria rely on oxygen, and increased oxygenation means that more energy can be created there.
Red and infrared light also contribute to creating new blood vessels, and thus improves circulation through that mechanism (20). Improved circulation also leads to better oxygenation once again.
And although more research is needed on these topics, the initial findings are very promising.
Exercise temporarily damages your muscles just like an injury would. That damage is paired with temporary increases in inflammation. And while chronic inflammation is very bad for your body and a prelude to many modern diseases, acute inflammation helps signal your body to become stronger over time. My point? Red light therapy can lower several important types of inflammation such as “Creatine Kinase” and “Interleukin-6” (11).
That effect occurs even if you’re applying red light therapy before your workout (11). Overall, you’ll end up with less muscle damage from your workout which means that you’re able to handle higher training volumes over time.
(Whether red light therapy is best used before workouts, afterwards, or on the off days, is not precisely known yet.)
These inflammation levels may also be interrelated with the next domain I’m considering: Lower Fatigue Levels Using red light therapy before your workouts seems to have a preconditioning effect for your body.
With strength training, you can perform more repetitions and you’ll take more time until exhaustion (21). Lactate levels also decrease quicker - lactate causes “the pump” that many people are intimately acquainted with.
The fatigue-lowering-effect was also found in endurance exercise (25). Being less tired--whether you engage in more strength based athletics or endurance exercise--will always help you perform at your best.
Less fatigue also entails quicker recovery, once again. In terms of recovery, moreover, there’s one thing that scares athletes the most: Injuries.
Fortunately, there’s even a solution in that domain: Quicker Injury Recovery
So if you’re injured, red and infrared light are actually the quick and best solution.
Overall, red light therapy is thus a great means to improve workout recovery.
Let’s move on to the other side of the equation, losing more fat and building more muscle:
Red Light Therapy For Enhancing Fat Loss And Muscle Gains
For a long time it was thought that red light therapy could “spot reduce” body fat at specific locations. Right now the science points towards systemic fat loss effects of both red and infrared light (28).
The best part?
Red light therapy does reduce the amount of fat mass you carry on your body (29).
Result? You’ll remove somewhat less than an inch from your waist after 4 weeks of therapy. Of course, a year-long program will not result in a loss of 12 inches, but nonetheless promising results can be expected.
Fat loss of a couple of inches around the waist may be expected if you’re chronically deprived of sufficient light in your life. Another study confirms the pattern, showing inches being loss across different body areas, including the waist, hip, and tights (30).
It doesn’t seem to matter where specifically you apply the red light therapy - applied to the upper arms will reduce circumference there (but probably not through the legendary “spot reduction”) (31).
Overall, getting bright light exposure in combination with exercise clearly increases fat loss compared to exercise alone (32).
Humans were made to hunt in sunlight in the early morning--not to spend every second of the day in a dark building. Exercise without light is like watching television without sound - you won’t get all the benefits you expect.
More Muscle And Strength Gains
What if there’s a simple hack that could increase your muscle gains in the gym by a whopping 60%?
No: Once again, red light therapy is that “shortcut” (26). And not only did muscle mass increase dramatically with red light therapy exposure, strength gains exhibited similar results. Unfortunately, multiple high-quality studies investigating that phenomenon do not yet exist, although the initial research is very promising and consistent with other findings in this field. In one other study in elderly people, adding infrared light to the workout stack did improve workout performance more than exercise alone (27).
So if you want to become stronger or gain mass, you know what to do…
One last area to cover: Better Workout Performance
If red light therapy is carried out pre-workout, you’re able to perform more repetitions when lifting sub-maximal weights than without that therapy (22).
In essence, red light therapy could give you a great edge before a competition, for example. And when applied consistently, you’d probably improve your progression in the gym due to the ability to train at a higher level.
So let’s conclude:
Conclusion: The Best Thing That Ever Happened In Workout Performance Red light therapy is as close to a magic pill for workout performance and gains as you’ll ever get. During the 2000s, creatine was all the hype. Later on, more and more research has shown that creatine is really effective for boosting performance.
After that time, thousands of supplements came and went. Marketers tried everything to sell their products, but in studies most of these supplements didn’t show any effects
Once in a while, you do come across that amazing hack that improves workout performance. In this case, red light therapy follows the same process as creatine - only much better.