As you enter the locker room, you see a group of dudes entering the sauna. You think to yourself “Every time I come to the gym, I always see people going in there. But does it really do anything?”
That’s a very fair question to ask, and in this article, we’ll be discussing whether or not it has any impact on your muscle-building goals, or if it’s just a complete waste of your time.
Sauna vs. Steam Room
First, we have to realize that there’s two different types of “saunas” really.
Quite simply, the only difference that exists between them is that one is humid and one is not. A sauna consists of much drier air than a steam room, which is essentially 100% humid air. This is all a matter of personal preference, as there hasn’t been much difference shown between them in terms of health benefits, which we’ll get to in a minute.
So choose whichever one is most convenient, whether it be because of preference or simply because that’s all your gym has. It really doesn’t matter all that much.
So What Are the Health Benefits?
Several benefits have been touted for utilizing the sauna on a regular basis. These include:
- Improved cardiovascular functioning (improved blood flow)
- Lower blood pressure
- Positive changes in cholesterol
- Improved immune functioning
But are any of these actually true?
Surprisingly, yes! In a systematic review conducted in Finland (which is actually where the sauna originated from), regular use of a sauna could potentially delay vascular disorders such as hypertension and heart disease. Also, dementia and lung disease could be delayed or even improved with the aid of regular, consistent bathing.
Unfortunately, however, there are many limitations with studies conducted on sauna use. For example, many of the studies are relatively small and others had several types of study biases’ involved, such as being involved with a company that produces saunas or the researchers’ using invalid study designs.
In another systematic review, it was shown that regular use of a sauna showed similar benefits in cardiovascular functioning as many other studies have shown. Also, interesting findings were seen in athletes as increased bioavailiability of nitric oxide was discovered, which is what helps the blood vessels dilate during exercise, expediting nutrient delivery to the cells. Putting it simply, it helps athletes to recover faster and perform better over the long term.
The authors of this systematic review even go on to say that there are potential benefits to the metabolism and specific hormonal pathways that deal with stress responses and excrete toxins from the body. But more research is needed in this area to confirm this claim.
What About for Muscle Growth and Fat Loss?
According to what I was able to find anyway (or lack thereof), there is no direct relationship between fat loss/muscle hypertrophy and sauna use. I mean it seems pretty obvious that there wouldn’t be a relationship between hypertrophy and sauna use, as that doesn’t really seem to make much sense.
However, as it comes to fat loss, you’d think it’d make a difference, right? Theoretically, it makes sense, and until official research comes out on this direct relationship pertaining specifically to athletes, we won’t know exactly for sure why this is the case. But we can make postulations as to why this is occurring.
For one, it’s mostly water weight that you’re losing when you sit in the sauna. Water and sodium make up a large majority of the sweat that exits out from your pores, so when you weigh yourself after a sauna and you see that weight drop, that’s what you’re seeing. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s great if you’re looking to lose some extra water that you may be holding, whether it be from excess sodium intake or what have you. But it’s most likely not fat that’s being oxidized and being put to use for energy simply because you’re sitting in high temperatures for 15-20 minutes a day.
Perhaps sitting in the sauna has helped you in your overall performance in the gym. Let’s take the finding of increased nitric oxide (NO) production as an example. You’ve been able to perform more reps due to the increased amount of endurance you now have. And because of that, you’re now able to apply greater amounts of progressive overload, or the consistent increase of a training variable, to your training routine. In this case, it would be the number of repetitions.
Improved Overall Health
Let’s say that using the sauna has lowered your blood pressure and your cholesterol like the literature says it would. You know have a greater sense of well-being, therefore, you’re increasing what’s called your NEAT, or your Non-Exercise Induced Activity Thermogenesis. In other words, you’re increasing the amount of activity you’re doing during the day subconsciously, such as pacing, fidgeting, and walking around more in general. This, in turn, will help you to burn more calories over time.
Now, of course, what I just provided for you was a mix of facts and hypothetical situations. But the literature looks promising in my opinion in its usage not only for the general population but for those of us who engage in regular exercise as well. I personally believe it has helped me from both an aesthetic point of view as well as a performance standpoint.
Unless you have some sort of health condition that would make sauna use unsafe for you, I see no reason why you shouldn’t at least try to implement this into your training program for a week and see how it works out for you. 15-20 minutes for 2-3 times a week is all it takes to see benefits, at least in my experience.
So give it a shot and let me know what you think! If you have any questions about sauna usage, or have suggestions for future topics, don’t be afraid to ask!