Incorporating Steam in Your Warm-Up to Enhance Fitness Potential
Can you steam your way to a hot body? Here’s why using a steam room before your workout—not just after—may help you maximize your training results.
Taking a steam bath after a workout has long played a critical role in the exercise recovery programs of many high-performing athletes—for good reason. Steam therapy has long been associated with potentially helping to regulate hormones, decrease muscle soreness, and improve cell recovery, among other benefits.
Now, fitness experts are coming around to the idea of using a steam room before training.
It makes perfect sense when you think about it. You do a warm-up for a reason. Before you exercise, you have to prepare your body. Your muscles, connective tissue, and cardiovascular system need to be primed for vigorous physical activity, especially if you do intense functional training like CrossFit, Orange Theory, and boot camp workouts.
But merely warming up may not be enough. Evidence is emerging that hyperthermic conditioning (using heat acclimation to build physical tolerance to stress) may be a powerful tool for increasing workout gains and athletic performance. It turns out “heating up” may be better than warming up.
Let’s take a closer look at why you should consider spending 10-15 minutes in a steam room before your workout.
Jumping into a workout “cold” is never a good idea. Fitness enthusiasts have long understood the importance of gradually preparing the body before exercise to maximize performance and prevent injury.
Traditionally, stretching has been the warm-up technique of choice for many exercisers. Others advocate taking a light jog on a treadmill for five or 10 minutes to elevate heart rate. Doing a couple of light reps with dumbbells is another common warm-up.
That’s better than nothing. But over the years, sports scientists—and athletes who experimented on their own—discovered that they could get a lot more out of their workouts by utilizing novel dietary and biomechanical techniques. Let’s see how they work and how steam may contribute to their effectiveness.
Pre-workout Supplements & Steam
One of the highest selling sports supplement categories on the market is known as “pre-workouts.” These products have a combination of amino acids and other activating nutrients that help increase circulation and muscle energy.
Amino acids and amino-related ingredients like arginine and creatine are usually included in these formulas. Arginine helps increase blood volume by increasing nitric oxide (NO). Creatine helps reduce lactic acid during intense physical exertion. Lactic acid is the substance that causes your muscles to “burn” and tire at the end of a weightlifting set. By increasing NO and reducing lactic acid, you can exercise longer and harder.
It just so happens that hyperthermic conditioning helps accomplish both these goals. One study demonstrated that heat acclimation increases blood plasma in a way that helped study subjects increase their VO2 max (maximum oxygen uptake). Increasing oxygen capacity can provide significant benefits to hard-training athletes. Another study found that hyperthermic conditioning helped reduced levels of blood lactate, which can increase exercise capacity and power output.
While steam therapy may not replace your pre-workout supplement, it may help enhance its effectiveness. And for those who don’t like the idea of using these products, a steam room may be a great alternative.
Stretching & Steam
One of the main benefits of warming up is stretching the ligaments, tendons, and muscles. You want to get blood flowing into these areas, but you also want to increase the suppleness and flexibility of muscles and connective tissue.
Research shows that intermittent heat can increase muscle and ligament flexibility. More laxness in the muscles, tendons, and joints help reduce the potential for injuries. It also helps enhance circulation, making it easier for nutrients in your blood to engineer their biochemical effects on muscle growth and recovery, and act as protective buffers.
Breathing & Steam
Healthy lung capacity is essential when performing exercise. Unfortunately, people with allergies and other respiratory issues often have to cut their workouts short due to loss of breath. Even if you don’t have respiratory conditions, improving lung function can go a long way to enhancing athletic performance during training and on the field.
This is where steam therapy comes in. Steam has been shown to act as a natural expectorant and may help clear airways in the nasal passages and lungs by expelling mucus and phlegm. Steam may also lessen swelling. It potentially does this by reducing inflammation that results from respiratory issues. One landmark study found that exposure to steam “showed a significant decrease in respiratory distress” in some study participants.
The potential effectiveness of steam rooms on breathing was also studied at the Institute of Medical Balneology and Climatology. They found that steam baths helped reduce upper respiratory dysfunction in some participants. This may give hope to those with exercise-induced respiratory issues, a common affliction. With 25 million Americans suffering from this, according to the Centers for Disease Control, steam rooms may help a lot more people exercise more comfortably.
Just think what these effects may do for an already fit and healthy individual. Some research has shown that proper breathing can improve sports performance by as much as 15 percent. That’s a huge difference. This, alone, makes steam therapy a must for any athlete.
“Heat Shock” Proteins & Steam
Scientists have found that one of the mechanisms powering the exercise boost from intermittent heat is something called heat shock proteins (HSPs). Not to get too technical, but intermittent heat can create a protective stress response by inducing HSPs. These proteins may support the prevention of cell damage and may help repair damaged proteins, according to research.
This can have huge advantages for athletes. The study cited above found that those who used heat to increase HSPs enjoyed 30% more muscle regrowth than a control group that didn’t use hyperthermic conditioning. This is another indication of why steam rooms may make sense to use before and after exercise.
HOW TO USE STEAM BEFORE EXERCISE
Add it all up and even casual exercisers can benefit from these potential effects on breathing, flexibility, hormone levels, HSPs, and lactic acid. By training with less pain and more endurance, you can work out more intensely, with a quicker recovery period.
It’s time to give pre-workout steam sessions a try. But before you do, here are some rules to keep in mind when using steam rooms in general but especially before physical activity.
Keep sessions short. One of the great advantages of using steam therapy before training is that you don’t need much time in a steam room. It’s important that you keep your sessions limited to 5-10 minutes. People with more experience using steam rooms can go up to 15 minutes, but that should be it. (Of course, always check with your physician before embarking on any exercise program, and to make sure steam therapy is right for your medical profile.)
Wait 10 minutes before training. After your steam session, give yourself at least 10 minutes before you start your workout. Don’t worry: The benefits of the steam bath will still be there. You just need your body to acclimate before you get it moving.
Don’t exercise IN the steam room. Steam baths are a passive technique. Simply sit and enjoy the relaxing, invigorating environment. The workout comes later.
Always rehydrate after steam therapy. Hyperthermic conditioning can help optimize your body’s fluid retention over time, but you have to be smart when it comes to rehydrating between your steam session and your workout. You need to replace the fluids and electrolytes that you just sweated out. Make sure you drink at least 8-16 oz of water or a sports beverage before and after your steam session.
GET YOUR STEAM FIX AT HOME
If you don’t have regular access to a steam room where you exercise, you should consider installing a home unit in your residence. People who start looking into residential steam rooms are always surprised to discover how affordable they are. And installation is not a complex and difficult process. It’s easier than you think.