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Dr Ben Heathote acupuncture for performance and bodybuilding

Athletic Performance & Bodybuilding


Not For The Faint Hearted

By now anyone using social media with an interest in sports and athletic performance has probably seen some amazing photos of NFL star James Harrison having extreme acupuncture and cupping sessions that can involve the use of 200 plus needles! If you haven’t seen these incredible photos go now and check them out here. Some NFL players have even reportedly had sessions that involve around 400 needles! It sounds crazy, but when it comes to athletic performance and bodybuilding, sometimes, that’s exactly what it takes.


While this may seem an extreme form of acupuncture it actually does suit its intended purpose. If you’re in to bodybuilding, power lifting, CrossFit or mixed martial arts this style of “Performance Acupuncture” is for you. I’ll get to the why soon. I’ll even share with you the secret to improved results from all the hard work you’re putting it to your workouts. What’s more this is not just about acupuncture, there is even more that can be done to improve your results. Before you go I’ll even explain what you should stop doing – highly controversial but we’ll get there!


Why Acupuncture?

Most people that have experienced acupuncture will be aware that a usual session involves the use of around 10-20 needles being placed carefully at various locations throughout the body. These needles are stimulating the flow of Qi and Blood through various regions to restore proper function that, for one reason or another, has been disrupted resulting in either pain, dysfunction or injury.


In Chinese Medicine, we believe human physiology is negatively affected by overuse and excessive strain, lack of use, diet and mental or emotional stress. And who doesn’t experience at least one of those, right? For athletes, bodybuilders, figure competitors, MMA stars and especially those that are training four or more times per week, overuse of muscles may lead to not only pain and injury but also a decrease in ability of muscles to grow and perform at their true potential. That’s right, overtraining can be just as bad for you as not training enough. If you want to perform to your true potential then read on.


The Secret to Improved Workouts

So what’s the best way to get the most out of all the hard work you put in to your training? It’s simple and in fact you probably already know the answer - all you need to really do is increase blood flow. Yes, blood flow is the key. This needs to be the focus for anyone that trains more than four times per week. Sounds too easy right? What’s even better is that there is a number of ways to achieve this. Anyone can get on the right path by using heat packs, saunas and avoiding cold environments (yes, avoid cold – I’ll explain that shortly) but by far the best way to increase blood flow to muscles is by stimulating the muscles with acupuncture. As we can see by the James Harrison photos the acupuncture used is aimed at every major muscle of the body. Acupuncture, in this sense, can be used in three ways – Pre-Workout, Post Workout and Injury Recovery. Keep reading and I’ll discuss these differences shortly.


So How Does It Work?

Performance Acupuncture works because it hijacks the body’s own natural response to trauma by creating micro trauma that in turn signals the body to increase blood flow to that particular region. The body’s own natural reaction to trauma is to increase blood flow to the site allowing the supply of oxygen and nutrient rich blood to carry out any repairs needed and to optimise healing in the area. The micro trauma created by an acupuncture needle is insignificant, in that no real damage occurs, but the signal is strong enough to stimulate the body’s innate response and therefore increase blood flow to the area. It seems too easy that all you need to do is stimulate blood flow is stick a few needles in – well, there is a bit more to it than that. I’ll explain the other half of the equation shortly but first another system has been overlooked. So what about the forgotten component of the circulatory system? That’s the lymphatic system Unfortunately, it is often forgotten about but its importance is on par with that of blood vessels and blood supply. The lymphatics are coming up next!

Never Forget Your Lymphatics

So with all the talk about muscles and blood flow it’s easy to forget about the other major player in the cycle of strain, recovery and growth. And that’s the lymphatic system. It’s an important player but very often forgotten. Yes, the arteries bring in fresh blood laden with oxygen and nutrients, the veins take away blood that’s had its oxygen and nutrients extracted but what takes away waste products? This is where the lymphatic system comes in to play. 


When in good working order the lymphatic system takes away waste products and also plays an important role in the immune system. A sluggish lymphatic system means waste products are going to hang around where they’re not wanted and the immune system can also be compromised. Stiffness, soreness, lack of energy and frequent colds and flus can be signs of a less than optimal lymphatic performance. Lactic acid is just one of the waste products taken away by the lymphatic system – the longer it hangs around the longer muscles are going to be stiff and sore. It’s time to stop suffering from a sluggish lymphatic system do something about it. And it’s not just about acupuncture, the other game changer for your lymphatics is cupping. This will be covered shortly.


Break The Cycle

For anyone that is hitting the gym more than four or five times a week you’d know that in the process of building muscle mass, improving tone and increasing muscle strength, tired muscles, sore muscles and injury are all part of the process. This cycle means the next time you’re hitting the gym you’re already sore, tired and even injured. Acupuncture can help break the cycle, decreasing post muscle soreness and fatigue by simply increasing blood flow. The better the blood flow the healthier the muscle tissue is!


But that’s not all, post workout treatments can be just as important as pre workout treatments. It all depends on what sort of training you’re undertaking and how your body responds. Athletes really listen to their bodies. You know what feels right and what feels wrong. Being in tune with how you feel means you can choose what your body really needs in order to advance in your fitness regime, increasing muscle bulk or shaping and toning muscles.


Pre Workout Treatment

So you’ve been hitting the gym for a while and your goals are set. You know where you want to be but you’ve hit a stopping point – you’re pushing through too much pain during each workout and you’re now at the risk of doing some damage, becoming injured or even giving up because it’s just all too hard. Pre workout treatments relax muscles prior to treatments allowing them to access improved blood flow. Makes sense right?


Relaxed muscles have better blood flow! If you don’t believe me do this simple test: Hold your two hands up in front of your chest. Hold one in a tight fist and keep the other relaxed.  Hold one hand in a fist for a good 30 seconds. Now ask yourself which hand has better blood flow? It can only be the relaxed hand. This is because relaxed muscles have better blood flow than tight muscles. Muscles that have better blood flow are going to work more effectively and take on a greater workload without the same risk of injury that muscles preloaded with tension have. Now read on.


We know that acupuncture helps muscles to relax so it makes sense that having an acupuncture session prior to your next workout is going to allow your body to perform better and at the same time lower your risk of injury. No, the risk of injury cannot be eliminated completely as too many factors are at play but by softening muscles and improving blood flow your workouts will be more enjoyable and less like hard work. The results will speak for themselves.


Post Workout Acupuncture

Exhaustion, pain, mental fatigue and emotional strain can all result from following a high frequency and/or high intensity workout regime. Every athlete knows that after years of training it doesn’t get an easier. If anything it gets tougher.


If you’re ready to drop after your workout sessions or post workout fatigue is stopping you from doing other activities you enjoy then your recovery phase needs to be improved. Acupuncture treatment following a workout out gets muscles to relax and puts them in a state where blood flow improves and lymphatics take away waste products faster. Most people having acupuncture describe a deep sense of relaxation occurring during a treatment allowing the mind to calm and become focussed. Keep reading to find out about the importance of a calm mind, emotional balance and why it’s something that every athlete needs.


Watch Out For That Cliff!

So what happens when you do get injured? Muscles tear, tendons rip and ligaments are strained. Unfortunately, if more weight is pushed than soft tissue can handle it will become injured. Soft tissue injury usually takes 6-12 weeks to repair, depending the location, type of tissue and then level of strain that has occurred. Imagine a car rolling very slowing towards the edge of a cliff. Once the edge is reached there’s only one way to go and that is down. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments are just like this car, as they slowly become tighter and lack their natural suppleness they are just like the car getting too close to the edge. When they finally fall off the edge is when injury occurs; injury becomes unavoidable.


So what’s the answer? Stay away from the edge of the cliff! If you train hard you need to keep muscles, tendons and ligaments as far away from injury as possible. The only way to do this is to ensure they retain suppleness. Suppleness or softness of muscles, tendons and ligaments allows for greater stress loading compared to soft tissue that is already stressed. This is why recovery time is important for proper soft tissue recovery but what’s equally important is seeking the right treatment to ensure muscles, tendons and ligaments are ready to take on load again by the time it gets to your next workout. Every time you go into a workout with preloaded tension in soft tissue it’s just like that car rolling towards the edge of the cliff. Sooner or later that car is going to take a dive straight over the edge.


So You’re Injured

This can potentially be a massive set back. Even a simple injury can set back your progress by weeks or months. It could mean you miss goals, targets and even mean that you need to drop out of upcoming events. When you’re injured the answer is higher frequency care. By increasing blood flow and decreasing inflammation, recovery time may be reduced. Avoiding aggravating factors and creating a new regime will also be necessary but high frequency acupuncture needs to be added into this new regime so that the injured area is stimulated in the right way. This can mean seeking treatment 3-5 times every week until the area has full function and is pain free. And please, forget the ice! This is controversial but ice is out. Read on to find out why ice is not going to help healing.


Blood – Food For Your Muscles

Not only is good blood flow important for the health and function of soft tissue but the actual quality of the blood is equally important. If the nutrition isn’t available for muscles, tendons and ligaments then how can they function at their best? It’s a bit like choosing between petrol containing 91 octane and petrol containing 98 octane. The higher the octane the better it is for your engine. In this same way, high quality food is key. Selecting foods that are in season, grown close to home and grown without toxic insecticides makes for the best diet to create high quality blood.


Once the selection of food is corrected the processing and delivery systems must also be at their best. The processing system is your digestion. The breaking down of wholefoods and extraction of nutrients is the next key to ensuring the blood is high quality. Any signs of bloating, distension after eating, heartburn or irregular bowel movements are indicators that the processing and extraction of food is not up to scratch. Using Chinese medicine the function of internal organs may also be improved. Using specific herbal formulas and the right acupuncture points allow this part of food processing to also be at its optimum function


Internal Organs

So we now know how Chinese medicine helps to improve blood quality by improving digestion itself. There is a whole other article that deals with which foods to eat and why. You’ll have to wait until next time for that one.

Bringing the focus back to internal organs I want to explain the two other major systems that have a strong influence on blood quality. The Lungs and The Kidneys.


The Lung System

The Lungs are an obvious choice, as we all know it’s the role of the lungs to push oxygen into the blood. The better our lungs function the more oxygen in our blood being delivered to the soft tissue of the body. Therefore the more work they can do. Anyone that has a disruption of the Lung system including symptoms of childhood asthma, hay fever, sinusitis or frequent colds and flu need to have the Lung system strengthened. According to Chinese medicine there are certain points on the body that can improve Lung system function and therefore eliminating a potential weakness that affects your workouts and overall progress.


Incredibly, it was recently discovered that the Lungs also play a role in blood production. This is very recent and new knowledge regarding the function of lungs and gives yet another reason why they should be the focus of treatment.


The Kidney System

The last organ system to cover is the Kidneys. The Kidneys are important in Chinese medicine, as they are the foundation of everything else. You can think the of the Kidney system as your back up batteries for life. Once weakened, everything else physiologically, psychologically and emotionally speaking, can be effected. Sore knees, weak lower back, poor memory, clouded thinking, exhaustion and general lethargy can all point towards a Kidney system weakness. Again by accessing the right points acupuncture may help to restore function of the Kidney system and therefore restore the supporting foundations of the rest of the system.


Cupping Or Acupuncture

If you’re trying to choose between having a cupping or acupuncture treatment, forget it. These two approaches work hand in hand. Cupping and acupuncture support each other and give greater results than either one by itself. There’s no question about it cupping should be used first to loosen and stretch the skin, fascia and underlying soft tissue. This gets the process started and encourages improved blood flow into the local area.

Yes, the cups can cause bruising, but if muscles are healthy and blood flow is normal then no bruising should occur. That’s right bruising that occurs with cupping only shows in the muscles that have been overworked. Ideally cupping should not produced dark bruising at all. A light redness is acceptable but any dark bruising indicates the area needs more treatment. Ideally the area should be cupped until not more bruising occurs. Once bruising no longer occurs during a cupping session you can be confident that blood flow through the area is how it should be. So long as there is bruising it is considered that blood flow is poor. And we know what poor blood flow means right – lack of nourishment to the muscles, tendons and ligaments. And these are the guys you want to keep strong. So look after them - go and get cupped!


Mindset – Clarity, Perseverance, Determination

So you now know about acupuncture, blood flow, blood quality, the importance of the internal organs and cupping - but what about the mind? What about attitude, clarity of thought, perseverance and determination? The mind is an aspect of the self that can either improve your performance or stop it dead in its tracks. There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness training at the moment. It seems to be being used by everyone for everything. So what’s so good about it? Speaking from first hand experience Mindfulness meditation calms the mind. Again, this one sounds so simple and in truth it can be.


A calm mind allows for clarity of thought, improved focus, better decision making and above all can improve perseverance and determination. I first studied Mindfulness meditation in Nepal and India in the 1990s and continued instruction in the UK before returning to Australia to find more teachers. I have now been practising Mindfulness meditation for nearly 20 years and if you do nothing else this is really something. I encourage Mindfulness meditation during every acupuncture treatment to ensure the treatment is not only benefitting the physical level. If the mind is stressed then the body will also be full of stress. Stress in the body can also cause stress in the mind. Each one affects the other.


Say No To Ice

Now this is pretty controversial but it is catching on. I just had to include something about ice because the tide really is turning. Put simply – ice will not hasten recovery from injury. Recent research papers are available that back up this claim, even the bloke that coined the term RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevate), Gabe Mirkin, agrees that using ice on an injury can actually increase the healing time. Check out what Gabe has to say here: Why Ice Delays Recovery


In Chinese medicine, we’ve always said no to ice and it’s really simple to see why. Cold constricts blood vessels and constricted blood vessels means less blood flow. And less blood flow means less of everything that you muscles, tendons and ligaments need to grow, repair and remain healthy.


Next time someone suggests using an ice pack or taking an ice bath remind them that ice constricts blood flow and starves your body of what it needs most. When it comes to inflammation, this is the body’s own natural approach to injury – who are we to mess with nature? Our body survives by keeping itself warm; warmth helps dilate blood vessels and encourages blood flow. The better the circulation the faster healing occurs.


So there is one time in which ice may be used. And this is when a part of the body, perhaps through injury, is so painful you just want to numb the area in order to feel more comfortable. Even this should only be done for around 10 minutes at a time and only in the first 48 hours of injury.


Where To Now?

I’ve been working with various trainers, athletes, bodybuilders and fitness fanatics for years now and once the benefits of Chinese medicine are realised these guys rarely miss a session. Working with athletes also brings rewards as I get to see their progression and achievements as they meet and even surpass their goals. If I have one piece of advice for all athletes whether you are a marathon runner, pro bodybuilder, arm wrester or gymnast – go and find yourself a Chinese medicine doctor and get some acupuncture! If you need any more information about “Performance Acupuncture” then get in touch. Find out what suits you as an individual and keep doing what you love.

Ben Heathcote currently practices out of rooms at True Health, one of Melbourne's best complimentary health service providers, in the Bayside suburb of Ormond just 15 minutes from Melbourne.

Dr Ben Heathcote has rooms at True Health is registered with CMBA AHPRA and is a member of AACMA Ormond near Carnegie and Bentleigh for acupuncture, cupping and chinese medicine
Dr Ben Heathcote has rooms at True Health is registered with CMBA AHPRA and is a member of AACMA Ormond near Carnegie and Bentleigh for acupuncture, cupping and chinese medicine

Only see a fully qualified acupuncturist that is registered with the Chinese Medicine Board of Australia as part of the Australian health regulatory body AHPRA; and a who is also a member of the Chinese medicine practitioner association AACMA.

Dr Ben Heathcote has rooms at True Health is registered with CMBA AHPRA and is a member of AACMA Ormond near Carnegie and Bentleigh for acupuncture, cupping and chinese medicine
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