Understanding How Exercising Can Cause Stretch Marks
When we think of stretch marks, we primarily see them as a result of rapid weight gain or growth, particularly in an obese person or pregnant woman.
But people can also acquire stretch marks from exercising frequently and increasing their muscle mass in a short period of time.
How Are Stretch Marks Formed?
Stretch marks are caused by a tearing of the dermis, or the inner layer of skin made of connective tissue.
The dermis protects the body from stress and provides cushion to blood vessels and organs below it.
The marks typically are from a quick growth or weight change, but hormones, particularly estrogen and cortisone, create an environment in your skin that makes it easier to get stretch marks.
When the body grows at a normal pace, your skin expands and stretches slowly and is able to keep pace with the growth. When that growth is sped up, those dermis fibers get stretched and break, creating stretch marks.
The onset of stretch marks can vary from red, pink, or purple lines. These are blood vessels showing through the layer of broken dermis.
They eventually fade into white lines that take on a near silver appearance as those blood vessels fade and fat underneath the skin takes its place. The longer they are there, the more they fade and can turn nearly invisible.
Losing weight can make the appearance of stretch marks more apparent as that skin is no longer stretched and is looser.
Exercising And Stretch Marks
Exercising naturally puts stress on the body, and causes all kinds of disruptions of its normal processes. Your heart beats faster to pump blood to the muscles you’re using. Your stomach slows down digestion.
Blood vessels dilate and your skin gets warmer. Your muscles get ‘micro tears’ as you’re using energy, and you get stronger as the muscles rebuild.
Your brain thrives on the increased oxygen and blood flow, making you feel more alert. The brain releases endorphins, which help diminish pain and trigger positive emotions.
For the most part, exercise has a good influence on our bodies. It makes us healthier, prevents illnesses, gives us endurance, and more.
But exercise can also cause stretch marks, particularly if you are doing a lot of strength training.
If you are working out and also eating nutritiously or in a way that promotes building muscle bulk, your body will use up its fat reserves first.
If you have a lot of fat stored and in turn you’re burning it off quickly, your skin can’t tighten up as fast. This excess skin can lead to stretch marks, particularly as you build muscle to replace the fat.
Building muscle puts pressure on the skin
Your skin cannot grow fast enough to accommodate the growth. Thus stretch marks form from the dermis fibers breaking.
It takes a lot to build up a significant enough amount of muscle to cause stretch marks.
It requires a diet high in protein, as that both builds and maintains muscles.
Though we tend to think of carbohydrates as a contributor to weight gain, it’s actually needed to give the body energy as you’re working out, for both your muscles and brain.
Adding bulk to your muscle also requires discipline in your exercise routine.
You need to work out all parts of your body, particularly your core (stomach, hips, chest), which act as a stabilizer for the rest of your body.
Exercises which are common muscle builders are:
- Bench presses
- Lateral raises
- Dumbbell curls
No matter what method you’re using to gain muscle, your muscle fibers end up tearing.
When you’re at rest, those tears repair themselves by forming additional tissue around the injury, thus increasing the size of your muscles.
This build up of muscle tissue results in increased strength and the ability to lift heavier weights. You can increase your strength by 20 to 40 percent with regular, consistent exercise.
Your body also remembers where it has gained muscle in the past. So if you built up a lot of muscle in your youth, then lost it, and then started working out again, your body remembers the muscle that was there before and will regain it more easily.
The most obvious reason for building muscle is to have a sculpted or “built” look. Your muscles will be visible to the naked eye and will likely boost your self-esteem.
And contrary to popular belief, women will not gain as much muscle mass as men by lifting weights or doing strength training.
Women do not have enough testosterone in their body to accrue as much muscle mass, and will get a toned and defined body in addition to light muscle visibility.
Common places for stretch marks from exercise
- The inner part of the upper arm (where your biceps are)
- Thighs (quadriceps)
- Chest (pectoral muscles)
- Back/upper shoulders (trapezius muscles)
The impact of steroids on stretch marks
The use of steroids can also make you more susceptible to stretch marks.
Steroids are banned in most professional sports and are considered a controlled substance in the United States.
Anabolic steroids help muscle cells produce more protein, which in turn leads to increased muscle size and strength (Sports Sci).
They have dangerous side effects including:
- Hair loss
- Liver and kidney disease
- Increased aggressiveness
They also decrease the collagen levels in the skin, which makes skin both strong and elastic, leaving it susceptible to tearing and stretch marks.
Exercising Correctly To Avoid Stretch Marks
While there is no cure or remedy for stretch marks, there are some things you can do to limit the appearance of stretch marks.
One is to not gain muscle extremely rapidly. If you’re sticking to a plan where you’re slowly building muscle mass, your skin is more likely to be able to keep up with the growth and not tear and create stretch marks.
Start with lighter weights and increase the weights slowly over a number of weeks. Limiting the weights you use in your biceps and triceps can also help.
Incorporating cardio exercises into your workout is a good way to keep exercise in your routine but avoid more muscle build up.
This includes exercises that increase your heart rate:
Cardio burns calories and fat, which is helpful for eventually building muscle as your body will burn fat first before it adds mass to your muscles.
Staying hydrated while you work out is not only important to keep your fluid levels balanced while working out, but also to maintain your skin’s elasticity.
Methods To Prevent Stretch Marks
Vitamin E creams and lotions are also purported to help diminish the visibility of stretch marks.
A study showed that pregnant women who used a cream with a type of vitamin E in it developed fewer stretch marks than those given a placebo (PubMed).
Though it did not have a significant enough impact for it to be recommended by doctors, there are plenty of lotions and creams with vitamin E available over the counter.
Other treatments include tretinoin cream, which showed to reduce the length and redness of stretch marks (PubMed).
These prescription creams are derived from vitamin A, which helps to build up the levels of collagen in the skin and improve the appearance of newer stretch marks in particular.
Laser therapy at a dermatologist or plastic surgeon’s office can stimulate elastin and collagen production in your skin to recolor the stretch marks and make them less visible.
It typically takes multiple laser treatments for this to be an effective method of reducing the appearance of stretch marks.
Laser treatments also tend to work best on new stretch marks that are red, and old ones that have turned white.
While exercising does not inevitably lead to stretch marks, those who are bodybuilders or looking to add a visible amount of muscle are more susceptible to getting stretch marks where their skin is growing and stretching rapidly.
Making sure you’re adding muscle slowly is a way to prevent stretch marks, but once you have them they are difficult to get rid of as they become a scar on the skin.