Muscle tissue adaptations to hypoxia

J Exp Biol. 2001 Sep;204(Pt 18):3133-9. doi: 10.1242/jeb.204.18.3133.


This review reports on the effects of hypoxia on human skeletal muscle tissue. It was hypothesized in early reports that chronic hypoxia, as the main physiological stress during exposure to altitude, per se might positively affect muscle oxidative capacity and capillarity. However, it is now established that sustained exposure to severe hypoxia has detrimental effects on muscle structure. Short-term effects on skeletal muscle structure can readily be observed after 2 months of acute exposure of lowlanders to severe hypoxia, e.g. during typical mountaineering expeditions to the Himalayas. The full range of phenotypic malleability of muscle tissue is demonstrated in people living permanently at high altitude (e.g. at La Paz, 3600-4000 m). In addition, there is some evidence for genetic adaptations to hypoxia in high-altitude populations such as Tibetans and Quechuas, who have been exposed to altitudes in excess of 3500 m for thousands of generations. The hallmark of muscle adaptation to hypoxia in all these cases is a decrease in muscle oxidative capacity concomitant with a decrease in aerobic work capacity. It is thought that local tissue hypoxia is an important adaptive stress for muscle tissue in exercise training, so these results seem contra-intuitive. Studies have therefore been conducted in which subjects were exposed to hypoxia only during exercise sessions. In this situation, the potentially negative effects of permanent hypoxic exposure and other confounding variables related to exposure to high altitude could be avoided. Training in hypoxia results, at the molecular level, in an upregulation of the regulatory subunit of hypoxia-inducible factor-1 (HIF-1). Possibly as a consequence of this upregulation of HIF-1, the levels mRNAs for myoglobin, for vascular endothelial growth factor and for glycolytic enzymes, such as phosphofructokinase, together with mitochondrial and capillary densities, increased in a hypoxia-dependent manner. Functional analyses revealed positive effects on V(O(2)max) (when measured at altitude) on maximal power output and on lean body mass. In addition to the positive effects of hypoxia training on athletic performance, there is some recent indication that hypoxia training has a positive effect on the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Altitude*
  • Bolivia
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / genetics
  • Hypoxia / pathology
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • Indians, South American
  • Mountaineering / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiopathology*
  • Nuclear Proteins / genetics
  • Tibet
  • Transcription Factors*


  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • HIF1A protein, human
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Transcription Factors