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.

OK, this WILL be the last money post…

First up, an apology for lateness- I know I said that this post would be up on Saturday, but had forgotten at the time that I would be spending my Saturday doing an 80km hike (18 and a half hours, if you want to know- it hurt). My feet have thankfully recovered since then, and since I really CBA to do a Six Nations Post given that there was only one game at the weekend (France-Ireland), it was a draw (17 all) and I only saw the last half hour, I thought I would give it a miss and concentrate on wrapping up my recurrent theme of money.

To quickly summarise what we’ve covered so far:
1) Money is an arbitrary human situation to give us a reference point for relative value
2) The economic system is based upon the world’s value being increased by doing work on raw materials, and people making money from it by the difference between the value the workers increase the raw materials by, and the amount they get paid [This differential is partly a necessary artificial creation, and is partly due to the price of labour being effected by the workforce’s size and attitudes itself- see point 4]
3) The process of people buying stuff in an economy almost invariably leads to inflation. A low level of inflation is indicative of this- a high level indicates an economy getting desperate, and a negative level a stagnant one
4) The process of value increase and inflation is necessary to balance out the human race’s resource consumption (for living resources we have reproduction- for finite ones, economics)
5) The fundamental rule of economics- when supply goes up, or demand goes down, the price drops.

I want to proceed from point 3, with a quick (and possibly overly simple and completely unnecessary) detour into exactly why economists and politicians want people buying more stuff. The explanation is simple really- every time something is bought, a process of value-increasing is completed. The money you pay for anything will always be greater than the total cost of supplying, making, processing and serving it (serving here meaning everything from customer support and IT to the bloke behind the counter taking your money), so when stuff is bought the company who made it makes a profit. This is the bottom line that demonstrates the process of value-increase and provides the money for more of it. Thus, people buying things means, in the long run, that the value of the economy as a whole gets increased. This is what causes economic growth, and thus growth is vital for our way of existence.

This is the classical way that businesses, and economies, make money- people buyin’ stuffs. There is a fairly well-accepted model for the stages industry goes through to make money in this way. Primary industry concerns the acquisition of raw materials (so farming, logging or mining), secondary is manufacturing, tertiary is the service industry (so selling things to you) and quaternary is basically R&D- the development of new products to push companies forward. In addition to this, modern-day business has a huge sector dedicated to helping the business function properly- this is why you have the IT, HR and customer services departments, whose aim is to ensure that other companies do not get the edge on theirs in competency.

However, in the last 400 years or so, with the advent of more organised, larger-scale and less geographically restricted business (think the East India Company or modern-day multinationals), a new form of business has risen up- that of the stock market. The idea is fairly simple- instead of companies building and saving up their profit over time in an effort to gain money and grow slowly, they persuade other people to give them money in exchange for a slice of the profits, as a way of picking up some fast cash. This as a concept at first seems rather flawed, as it basically involves gambling on the individual skill and potential success of both business and businessman, but it is often a far more preferential strategy. For smaller businesses, accruing some serious cash, or getting past the point where meeting rent is a struggle, could take several years that the owner does not want to spend tearing his hair out, so a quicker way of making cash is highly preferable (although on a smaller scale all dealings will be private, rather than in the madness of the stock market, and are more likely to be in the form of loans to ensure ownership of the business). On a larger scale, dealing with all the attempts to buy and sell bits of the company gets far too complicated to deal with privately, so larger companies who want to trade themselves on a larger scale will ‘float’ themselves on the stock market- basically this means dividing their company up into several million tiny bits and waiting for people to buy them. From hereon in, the bits of the company itself behave like any other commodity- as the price fluctuates up and down (supply and demand again), professional stockbrokers will buy and sell them in an effort to make money. As a company becomes more valuable, its shares go up in value and people buy them, hoping they will continue to go up. As the price falls, people sell them in an effort to make a profit, or at least minimise the loss. This fluctuation can happen rapidly, over the course of mere hours, which is why pictures of stock exchanges seemingly all consist of men in suits screaming into phones- the stock market changes very, very fast.

However, the stock market itself presents a huge problem to an economy- while the investment of large amounts of money in companies is undoubtedly vital to the proper functioning of an economy, this can all go rapidly wrong. The problem is that because buying shares in a company involves giving that company money, it makes the company more valuable and so its shares more valuable. Thus, people buy more shares in it because they see the price rising- you see the problem. At its worst, this leads to people investing in a company solely because other people have invested in the company, meaning that the value of the shares is artificially high based solely on investment and speculation- nothing concrete. The problem arises when everyone suddenly decides to start selling their (now very valuable) shares- this pulls the invested money, now the backbone of the company’s high share price, out of the company, and the price begins to fall. Suddenly, all the investors (sensing the price is about to drop) sell all their shares too (incidentally, they don’t actually sell them to anyone- the rules of the stock market say the company have to buy them back at the appropriate price) and suddenly, all the money is gone, with nothing real for the company to trade to make them money the old-fashioned way (or at least not enough to justify their high share price). Suddenly, the company has had all its investment taken away and is facing the prospect of having to pay back dozens of aggressive investors, and has no cash left.

This story has repeated itself several times over the years- it is known as an economic ‘bubble’. It first occurred on any significant scale in the ‘South Sea Bubble’ in 1720, which disgraced an entire British government, collapsed a company and sent the economy into chaos (although the speculation and willingness to buy everything just before the bubble burst led to pleas for investment in square cannonballs and ‘a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is’. Genuinely). The largest ever such collapsed was the American Wall Street Crash of 1929, which (among other things), condemned a large chunk of the richest nation on earth to living in slums, provoked massive rioting, bankrupted large swathes of Europe as well (and was arguably responsible for the rise of the Nazis), lead the Democrats to control both the White House and Congress and let Franklin D. Roosevelt show the American government that a little liberal socialism now and again can work wonders, advice that they have so far steadfastly ignored for the last 80 years. So yeah- bad thing.

This is the (now muchly belated) point I was trying to make whence I first started out upon this trilogy- the Stock Market is a mental place. While investment is part of the economy we now live in, the way the stock exchange handles it does, in my opinion, far more harm than good (I know I promised to try and keep my Views out of this blog, but this is just an analysis so bear with me). The stock market does not exist for the good of the companies being invested in, it exists for the good of the stockbrokers themselves- basically, professional gamblers, betting on the economy which controls the well-being of thousands with one aim and one aim only in mind: to get rich as quickly, easily and with the least hassle possible. Don’t get me wrong- I’m sure the majority of them are just as nice, normal people as the rest of us, but as for their trade… its not one I’m a fan of.

I’m not sure I support the Occupy movements, leftie though I may be, and I certainly don’t advocate the overthrow of the entire capitalist system. But, to all those who think they are just a bunch of stupid hippies, just look at the suicide rates for 1930 and ask yourself this- do you want to live in a world where the actions of so few can ruin the lives of so many?