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.

Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.