How Do Muscles Get Bigger And Stronger? A Guide
When I started out as a scrawny 125 lb teenager, the idea of building an impressively muscled physique initially seemed to be as unlikely as my reaching the summit of Mount Everest. Surrounded by a cacophony of often contradictory information on the subject of muscle building, I took it upon myself to stop reading the books and magazines (the Internet wasn’t around then, thank goodness!) and focused instead on the science of how the human body actually works. It wasn’t easy, but with the help of some great mentors and my thirst for marketing free knowledge, I was able lead a successful career as a drug free bodybuilding champion and develop my own method of high intensity training. Going from 125 lbs to 225 lbs with a body fat percentage always under 6% without the using steroids or any other kind of hormones required an intricate understanding of how muscles get bigger and stronger. Helping other men and women build world class bodies has gone a long way in helping me come to an even deeper understanding of how muscle growth really occurs and in the following lines I hope to pass on what I have learned to you as well.
How Do Muscles Get Bigger & Stronger- The Role Of Stress
The first and key element required for our muscles to get bigger or stronger is stress. Physiologist Walter Cannon came up with the term ‘homeostasis’ to explain the way in which our body does its best to always stay within a comfortable operating range where our cells can function optimally. The concept is that while external forces can sometimes bring about drastic changes in our body, it always reverts to a default position. Your heart rate is a good example of homeostasis as it beats constantly within a set range under ordinary conditions, but that rate can either go up or down depending on what type of activity you are doing. In spite of these fluctuations, as long as you are healthy, your heart rate will always return to its regular resting rate. Stress is a key reason for your body to change, and having observed soldiers returning from World War One he coined the oft used phrase ‘fight or flight’ to describe the hormonal reactions in our body in response stress. In addition to life threatening situations, more mundane activities such as exercise also evoke a homeostatic response.
A Polish endocrinologist named Hans Seyle furthered these concepts when he discovered in his experiments that rats who were exposed to certain chemicals all suffered the same
failure of several major organ systems in a way that could be reproduced no matter what chemical was used. He called it, the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) and it encompasses the state of an organism in relation to how it adapts to its environment. The systematic organ failure he saw in the rats was a failure to adapt to stress. He found that there were three clearly defined stages within this particular syndrome, the first being the ‘alarm reaction’, very similar to the ‘fight or flight’ response described by Walter Cannon. The second stage being an adaptive response- where the organism tries to adapt to the stress as a form of resistance. Finally if the stress is too large for the organism to handle, the exhaustion phase where cell death occurs.
As negative a connotation that the word ‘stress’ carries for us today, the reality is that it is an extremely important stimulus in our daily lives as it allows us to adapt to our surrounding environment. Without stress, we wouldn’t exist and in many ways it can be a very positive thing as it is how the body acts to remove or minimize the effect of a stressful stimulus. A common example of stress at work is a callus. If you wear shoes that are a bit too tight and it rubs repeatedly against a part of your foot, if the action isn’t so strong as to form a blister (the exhaustion phase) As long as the action is not strong enough to create a blister (exhaustion stage) over time the layers of skin that rub against the inside of your shoe will begin to harden. The skin will continue to get thicker and harder until a callus is formed. The callus then, serves as a way your body protects the deeper layers of skin tissue from being destroyed by the action of rubbing against your shoe. In essence adaptation works to minimize the effect of stress on the body.
How Do Muscles Get Bigger & Stronger- Adaptation
The way in which our muscles get bigger and stronger is a prime example of the General Adaptation Syndrome. Understanding how it works can help you make the most out of your workouts. Let’s look at the most ubiquitous of muscles: the biceps. Your biceps are responsible for any movement involving elbow flexion such as a biceps curl. Now your body, over the years is already adapted to the weight of your arm and the regular activities that you do on a daily basis, so you could do lots of biceps curls with no weight and your arms would not get bigger or stronger. You’d get tired, the way you would by performing any kind of calisthenics, but your muscles wouldn’t increase in strength. In order for your muscles to get bigger and stronger, you would have to apply overload. To overload means that the muscle experiences a load above and beyond what it previously adapted to in order to trigger the sequence of a new adaptation.
So in a way, it sounds pretty straightforward- put some weights on a barbell, more than you have ever done, but not so much as to bring about injury and do some curls to increase the strength and size of your biceps. But there are some more principles involved, if not everyone that picked up a barbell and did some curls would have arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger! Our muscles, and our body in general tries its best to remain in homeostasis (remember that word?). So, in a way our body is reluctant to adapt and when it does adapt to a particular stimulus, it will stay where it is until there is a greater degree of stimulation. It is very similar to the way most people do their jobs, if you think about it. We tend to do just what is required of us to get the job done and if the minimum amount of effort works the first time around, then everything is fine. Only if it doesn’t do we increase our efforts incrementally, not in leaps and bounds until the job is done. Our body works exactly the same way, and you might even say it is a bit on the lazy side.
So, back to our biceps curl. When you subject your biceps to the overload of lifting weights they undergo a cascade of cellular events that lead to an increased production of contractile proteins. This process, called anabolism, also increases the size of the muscle. As the muscle gets larger the mechanical stress from the adaptation is spread out over a larger surface area and consequently places a smaller stress on the muscle. To sum it up, increased size equals increased strength. Physiologists will say that increase in contractile proteins is an expression of the muscles’ capacity to generate force. The strength of a muscle, therefore is often relative to its cross sectional area. Now, that doesn’t mean that if you keep lifting weights your muscles would continually get bigger and stronger until you could lift a Honda with one arm, as there are limits determined by our gender and hormones. Men have more testosterone than women, and so will have bigger and stronger muscles, and women not using anabolic steroids or hormones have little chance of naturally developing male sized muscles, no matter how hard they train.
Now after doing the bicep curl with an overload high enough to trigger an adaptation, a number of hormonal and chemical events occur. Among them are factors that bring about adaptive anabolic muscle building. These chemical actions, along with the mechanical stress to the point of overload leads to increase in muscle size, which we call hypertrophy. But, and this is important- the adaptation does not happen while you are training, but while you are at rest! What does that mean? It means that if you really want to maximize your results in terms of strength and muscle size you need to do three things:
1. Always train to a point where your muscles are seriously taxed- as if you do not, there will not be adequate stimulation for the adaptation response to be triggered.
2. Always keep changing the exercises you do and the way you do them so your muscles do not adapt too quickly to the work you are doing.
3. Make sure that you spend more time resting that you do training. Physiologically, training is about breaking down your muscles, while resting is about building them up, so if you are serious about increasing your results, you should train harder but less frequently. My rule has always been, train three days- rest and grow for four days.
What Can Stop Muscles From Getting Bigger & Stronger- Overtraining
Say the words ‘Train less’ to most serious exercise enthusiasts and they will look at you as if you have two heads, but it makes perfect sense. Remember the General Adaptation response model? If the action is too great and the organism is unable to adapt to the stress, it results in the exhaustion phase, where on a cellular level instead of a building (or anabolic) action, there is a destructive action (catabolic). This, in terms of exercise stress, is what is called overtraining and is defined as a physical, behavioral, and sometimes emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of your exercise exceeds your body’s capacity to recover. You stop making progress and in many cases find yourself getting weaker more fatigued and generally less motivated as time goes on. Overtraining can also lower your immune system and increase the incidence of injury. (See figure 1)
In my experience, the number one reason why most people don’t make the progress they expect in the gym is overtraining. Having put on over 100 lbs of muscle using short high intensity workouts lasting from ten to thirty minutes in duration three days a week, I can say with authority that less is indeed more. Unfortunately, many look to the examples set by those using anabolic steroids as an example of how they should train. In doing so, they fail to take into account that one of the primary advantages of steroid use are faster recovery times and that overtraining is no longer an issue. It is an issue, however for those of us who train without the benefit of such potentially dangerous drugs and while it may be hard for many to consider training less frequently and for shorter times, it is hard to argue with the results it can bring.
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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to network TV, Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. Learn more about his award winning personal training services here!