What are Muscles?
Everyone wants more muscles.
Getting toned. Bulking up. Surfboard abs. ‘Lit’ back. Chiseled arms.
Different expressions. But essentially, it all equates to “Give me more muscle!”
Outside of ‘losing fat’, ‘gaining muscle’ must be the single biggest fitness agenda in the world. But unlike Fat, we rarely discuss it.
What exactly are these muscles? What’s their purpose? What are they up to as I type and you read this? What role did they play in me typing and you reading this? What does any of this have to do with fitness?
Here are my top 6 things you need to know, about Muscles:
What are Muscles?
Muscles are fibers. Small, elastic, soft tissues. Thousands upon thousands of musculus fibers. There are over 600 muscles in our bodies. Made of millions of such fibers. That’s an astonishingly useless number.
What’s useful, is knowing what muscles do.
First of all, when I say muscles, I mean Skeletal Muscle. The heart, lungs etc are also muscles but I am not talking of those. I’m talking of the stuff attached to your bones. The stuff that makes your bones move. These are called voluntary muscles. Ones you can choose to move.
Unlike the heart. Or the lungs. Muscles that God decided to make involuntary. Because, god knows we can’t be trusted with the really important stuff.
When you want to raise your hand, your brain sends a signal to motor neurons in your arm muscles. These neurons, once ‘fired up’, signal your muscles to contract or relax. Which btw, is all that muscles ever do. Contract or expand.
The muscles, on receiving this signal, pull on your bones to perform the desired function. Voila -the hand rises.
Tougher the task you’re trying to accomplish, or the heavier the load you’re trying to move, the stronger both your motor signal and your muscles need to be. In the absence of either, you won’t gain strength. Won’t grow.
But why do I need to grow?
What’s the option?
Muscles, like everything else in life, are never stagnant. They either grow, or they decay. The sad thing is the do-nothing-scenario: decay.
So as you grow old, you lose muscle. In fact, that’s a pretty accurate description of aging.
Saggy skin, wrinkles, ligament pains, loss of strength. That’s aging — right?
That’s actually muscle loss.
Muscle-loss is aging.
So if you want anti-aging, don’t buy that cream- Gain muscle.
Ok. I want to grow my muscles. So how do I grow ‘em?
By breaking them down. (Muscles really are like life!)
You need to badger them to grow them. Put them under stress. Put them under more and more stress.
You beat them. You tear them down. They fight back. They grow.
Because the body is built to survive.
If you’re someone who’s spent his life finding ways to avoid carrying back grocery bags, and you suddenly try to lift a 5kg dumbbell, your body, initially…won’t take you seriously.
‘Oh this is an aberration’, it’ll read.
’Our boy’s having a fit. It’s like the other time he decided to give up chocolate. He’ll get over it soon’
But this time you’re serious. So you keep lifting that dumbbell everyday.
Now you’ve scared your body.
‘He’s trying to kill us’, it now reads. ‘We must fight back.’
‘Motor minions — send out a signal to the muscular system. It must not buckle under this 5kg load’.
So the body prepares for 5kg. By growing muscle. Next time you lift 5kg, the body won’t be under stress. Because it has more muscle, it’s grown stronger. Lifting 5kgs isn’t a problem anymore.
But you’re the bees knees. The King of Wakanda. So next time you lift 10kg.
‘He’s again trying to kill us’.
Muscles grow when you Progressively Load them.
What grows, when muscles grow?
Do they grow in number? Do they increase in size? Do they increase in density? What does muscle growth really look like?
Muscles are kind of like the movie 300. Their number, is decided. All that can grow, is their strength and size. Or scientifically speaking — density and diameter.
Different approaches to weight-training determine which of the two is the dominant growth.
When you see someone in the gym who doesn’t look extremely buffed, but can lift insane weights — that person has chosen strength over size. Density over diameter.
When you see a huge, super bulked up fellow lifting a measly weight — that guy chose the opposite.
Contrary to popular belief, lifting heavy actually doesn’t give you size. It gives you strength. Lifting a bit lighter than you can, for higher repetitions, gives you size.
So that trainer of yours who suggested you do light-weight high-reps to get ‘cut’, didn’t know what he was talking about. Unless you are trying to be Arnold, gaining strength should be your primary aim.
When do muscles grow?
Not in the gym. That’s, in fact, where they break-down.
When you put increasingly more stress on muscle fibers, they rupture. In the gym, your aim should be to rupture as many fibers as you can.
Once you stop pounding it, the body triggers its repair mechanism. It starts right after your workout. And continues well into the night. And goes on for the next 2–3 days.
Most repair work happens in the night, when you sleep. That’s one more reason why you need to get your 7–8 hours of sleep. Without sound, deep sleep, your efforts in the gym will be very sub-optimally rewarded.
And since the repair goes on for 2–3 days, once you’ve properly broken down a muscle set (biceps, triceps, abs, legs), DO NOT train them again within the next 3 days.
You’ll feel you’re putting in so much more effort. But it’ll actually be counter productive since you hadn’t yet juiced the benefits of the last beating. And the lack of results will leave you demotivated.
What role does nutrition play?
A massive role.
Remember 6th standard biology? Proteins are the building blocks of our body. So when the body goes into repair mode, it needs protein.
But it also needs energy. Proteins are the bricks, but you need energy to lift the bricks and cement them in place. That energy needs to come from carbs. So when you’re seriously trying to gain muscle — you need carbs.
Why should gaining strength be your PRIMARY fitness goal?
I started my fitness journey with running. I found it the fastest way to lose weight. And then, as I got better at it, I discovered the mental benefits of running. That feeling of flow. The mental toughness needed to push your body beyond its limits. The ability to enjoy and appreciate the repetitiveness of the task.
Running, I found, was beautiful in every way.
But long-distance running left me muscle-less. I had strong legs, but my upper half was a loose, saggy heap.
I was weak.
When I started working out, I couldn’t hang from a bar for a minute, forget about attempting a pull up. I couldn’t curl a 5-kg dumbbell for 10 reps. And I couldn’t bench more than 15kgs.
I felt that my physical strength lagged the mental strength I’d developed due to running, by 42 country miles. And that I wasn’t fine with.
I can tell you the about the many health benefits of gaining physical strength — the good looks, the boost in metabolism, the anti-aging effects, the increased productivity and energy. But above all it comes down to this.
Getting better than yesterday
Better, both physically and mentally. I want to run longer, lift heavier, and think harder and better than I did yesterday.
I want to progress.
And fitness, is the best, most rewarding, most compounding form of progress I know.