The Science of Iron

I have mentioned before that I am something of a casual gymgoer- it’s only a relatively recent hobby, and only in the last couple of months have I given any serious thought and research to my regime (in which time I have also come to realise that some my advice in previous posts was either lacking in detail or partially wrong- sorry, it’s still basically useful). However, whilst the internet is, as could be reasonably expected, inundated with advice about training programs, tips on technique & exercises to work different muscle groups (often wildly disagreeing with one another), there is very little available information concerning the basic science behind building muscle- it’s just not something the average gymgoer knows. Since I am fond of a little research now and then, I thought I might attempt an explanation of some of the basic biology involved.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a biologist, and am getting this information via the internet and a bit of ad libbing, so don’t take this as anything more than a basic guideline

Everything in your body is made up of tiny, individual cells, each a small sac consisting of a complex (and surprisingly ‘intelligent’) membrane, a nucleus to act as its ‘brain’ (although no-one is entirely sure exactly how they work) and a lot of watery, chemical-y stuff called cytoplasm squelching about and reacting with things. It follows from this that to increase the size of an organ or tissue requires these cells to do one of two things; increase in number (hyperplasia) or in size (hypertrophy). The former case is mainly associated with growths such as neoplasia (tumours), and has only been shown to have an impact on muscles in response to the injection of growth hormones, so when we’re talking about strength, fitness and muscle building we’re really interested in going for hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy itself is still a fairly broad term biologically, and only two aspects of it are interesting from an exercise point of view; muscular and ventricular hypertrophy. As the respective names suggest, the former case relates to the size of cells in skeletal muscle increasing, whilst the latter is concerned with the increase in size & strength of the muscles making up the walls of the heart (the largest chambers of which are called the ventricles). Both are part of the body’s long-term response to exercise, and for both the basic principle is the same- but before I get onto that, a quick overview of exactly how muscles work may be in order.

A muscle cell (or muscle fibre) is on of the largest in the body, vaguely tubular in shape and consisting in part of many smaller structures known as myofibrils (or muscle fibrils). Muscle cells are also unusual in that they contain multiple cell nuclei, as a response to their size & complex function, and instead of cytoplasm contain another liquid called sarcoplasm (more densely packed with glycogen fuel and proteins to bind oxygen, and thus enabling the muscles to respire more quickly & efficiently in response to sudden & severe demand). These myofibrils consist of multiple sections called myofilaments, (themselves made of a family of proteins called myosins) joined end-to-end as repeating units known as sarcomeres. This structure is only present in skeletal, rather than smooth muscle cells (giving the latter a more regular, smoothly connected structure when viewed under the microscope, hence the name) and are responsible for the increased strength available to skeletal muscles. When a muscle fibril receives an electrical impulse from the brain or spinal cord, certain areas or ‘bands’ making up the sarcomeres shrink in size, causing the muscle as a whole to contract. When the impulse is removed, the muscle relaxes; but it cannot extend itself, so another muscle working with it in what is known as an antagonistic pair will have to pull back on it to return it to its original position.

Now, when that process is repeated a lot in a small time frame, or when a large load is placed on the muscle fibre, the fibrils can become damaged. If they are actually torn then a pulled muscle results, but if the damage is (relatively) minor then the body can repair it by shipping in more amino acids (the building blocks of the proteins that make up our bodies) and fuel (glycogen and, most importantly, oxygen). However, to try and safeguard against any future such event causing damage the body does its bit to overcompensate on its repairs, rebuilding the protein structures a little more strongly and overcompensating for the lost fuel in the sarcoplasm. This is the basic principle of muscular hypertrophy; the body’s repair systems overcompensating for minor damage.

There are yet more subdivisions to consider, for there are two main types of muscular hypertrophy. The first is myofibrillated hypertrophy, concerning the rebuilding of the myofibrils with more proteins so they are stronger and able to pull against larger loads. This enables the muscle to lift larger weights & makes one stronger, and is the prominent result of doing few repetitions of a high load, since this causes the most damage to the myofibrils themselves. The other type is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, concerning the packing of more sarcoplasm into the muscle cell to better supply the muscle with fuel & oxygen. This helps the muscle deal better with exercise and builds a greater degree of muscular endurance, and also increases the size of the muscle, as the increased liquid in it causes it to swell in volume. It is best achieved by doing more repetitions on a lower load, since this longer-term exercise puts more strain on the ability of the sarcoplasm to supply oxygen. It is also advisable to do fewer sets (but do them properly) of this type of training since it is more tiring; muscles get tired and hurt due to the buildup of lactic acid in them caused by an insufficient supply of oxygen requiring them to respire anaerobically. This is why more training on a lower weight feels like harder work, but is actually going to be less beneficial if you are aiming to build muscular strength.

Ventricular (or cardiac) hypertrophy combines both of these effects in a response to the increased load placed on the muscles in the heart from regular exercise. It causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken as a result of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and also makes them stronger so that the heart has to beat less often (but more powerfully) to supply blood to the body. In elite athletes, this has another effect; in response to exercise the heart’s response is not so much to beat more frequently, but to do so more strongly, swelling more in size as it pumps to send more blood around the body with each beat. Athletic heart syndrome, where the slowing of the pulse and swelling of heart size are especially magnified, can even be mistaken for severe heart disease by an ill-informed doctor.

So… yeah, that’s how muscle builds (I apologise, by the way, for my heinous overuse of the word ‘since’ in the above explanation). I should point out quickly that this is not a fast process; each successive rebuilding of the muscle only increases the strength of that muscle by a small amount, even for serious weight training, and the body’s natural tendency to let a muscle degrade over time if it is not well-used means that hard work must constantly be put in to maintain the effect of increased muscular size, strength and endurance. But then again, I suppose that’s partly what we like about the gym; the knowledge that we have earned our strength, and that our willingness to put in the hard work is what is setting us apart from those sitting on the sofa watching TV. If that doesn’t sound too massively arrogant.

Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.