Gaining Muscle Strength

practical-fitness-10-31-08-logo-copyby Dan Felix, CFT

The human body is a very reluctant living organism. It doesn’t want to change. It doesn’t casually add muscle mass or strength. It doesn’t casually tap into its body fat reserves. And, believe it or not, it doesn’t casually add weight to itself, muscle or fat.

When we try to change our body we have to expect it to take some time. In the case of adding muscle mass, it can take months to see real muscle tissue gains and years to reach the big gains we see in the muscle magazine pictures. Here’s why.

The body is always trying to conserve its food supply: both the calories available to eat and the calories stored as body fat. Muscles consume calories. Even when they are doing nothing, they consume calories. The body will grow the strength and size of a muscle to just about match the daily demands that muscle experiences, and no more. This conserves calories.

Growing muscle strength and size requires us to change the daily demands the muscle experiences. If we are consistent in this change, the muscle will change, referred to as adaptation. Let’s start with an imaginary muscle that weighs one pound and occupies one pint and uses 100 calories during a normal day. If we begin to exercise this muscle, then the first noticeable change will be its efficiency. It will become more efficient and will use the same 100 calories to accomplish the same daily demand plus the new workout. With the new exercise routine, the muscle is now doing more on the same 100 calories.

If we continue to increase the workout difficulty, the muscle will experience another adaptation; it will become measurably stronger. It will now be able to lift weights it could not lift when the workout program started. A person’s appetite often goes up because the new strength needs new calories for fuel. By this time our muscle is still one pound and still only one pint in size, but it now consumes more than 100 calories and performs more work, counting the workout. The adaptations have only improved the existing tissue, not created new tissue..

As the workout difficulty increases, our muscle must make a third adaptation. It must now store its own fuel, inside itself, so that blood sugar is more readily available during the workout. The workout has become too intense to continue to rely only upon the blood stream to supply the needed fuel. The muscle now begins to store water and glycogen in the muscle itself. Think of glycogen as concentrated blood sugar. Now, when the muscle needs fuel, it can change the glycogen, with the help of the stored water, and create a very quick supply of blood sugar. With these added elements in our imaginary muscle, the muscle is no longer only one pint in size. It is now bigger, not because the original muscle cells have become bigger, but because water and glycogen are now stored in and among the existing muscle fibers, making the muscle look bigger.

At some point, the frequency and intensity of the workout persuades the muscle to make yet one more adaptation. Hypertrophy is the increase in size of individual muscle cells, not the number of cells, for the purpose of creating more power from a contraction of the muscle. This is where true muscle growth occurs. The body resists this major adaptation since it is a fundamental change to the muscle cell itself. The resistance is so strong that if the workout difficulty were to decrease, the body would let the muscle decrease in size and strength to meet the new lower workout demand. It is at this hypertrophy point where a person’s appetite and need for sleep would dramatically increase. This level of muscle strength and size is artificially sustained only as long as the person maintains a rigorous workout, nutrition, and rest routine. Athletes in strength sports, such as professional football, bodybuilding, power lifting, and wrestling are good examples of this artificially sustained strength and size.

If you start a muscle building program, you need to know it will take some time to get the results you are looking to achieve. Some people want the maximum they can get in size and strength. Others will be quite satisfied to achieve more modest goals. Everyone can acquire good strength and appearance changes if they give themselves, and their reluctant bodies, the time needed for the changes to surface. Send questions to

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