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.

Aging

OK, I know it was a while ago, but who watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump? If you haven’t seen it, then you seriously missed out; the sheer spectacle of the occasion was truly amazing, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re fairly used to seeing skydives from aeroplanes, but usually we only see either a long distance shot, jumper’s-eye-view, or a view from the plane showing them being whisked away half a second after jumping. Baumgartner’s feat was… something else, the two images available for the actual jump being direct, static views of a totally vertical fall. Plus, they were so angled to give a sense of the awesome scope of the occasion; one showed directly down to earth below, showing the swirling clouds and the shape of the land, whilst the other shot gave a beautiful demonstration of the earth’s curvature. The height he was at made the whole thing particularly striking; shots from the International Space Station and the moon have showed the earth from further away, but Baumgartner’s unique height made everything seem big enough to be real, yet small enough to be terrifying. And then there was the drop itself; a gentle lean forward from the Austrian, followed by what can only be described as a plummet. You could visibly see the lack of air resistance, so fast was he accelerating compared to our other images of skydivers. The whole business was awe-inspiring. Felix Baumgartner, you sir have some serious balls.

However, I bring this story up not because of the event itself, nor the insane amount of media coverage it received, nor even the internet’s typically entertaining reaction to the whole business (this was probably my favourite). No, the thing that really caught my eye was a little something about Baumgartner himself; namely, that the man who holds the world records for highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight, fastest unassisted speed and second longest freefall ever will be forty-four years old in April.

At his age, he would be ineligible for entry into the British Armed Forces, is closer to collecting his pension than university, and has already experienced more than half his total expected time on this earth. Most men his age are in the process of settling down, finding their place in some management company and getting slightly less annoyed at being passed over for promotion by some youngster with a degree and four boatloads of hopelessly naive enthusiasm. They’re in the line for learning how to relax, taking up golf, being put onto diet plans by their wives and going to improving exhibitions of obscure artists. They are generally not throwing themselves out of balloons 39 kilometres above the surface of the earth, even if they were fit and mobile enough to get inside the capsule with half a gigatonne of sensors and pressure suit (I may be exaggerating slightly).

Baumgartner’s feats for a man of his age (he was also the first man to skydive across the English channel, and holds a hotly disputed record for lowest BASE jump ever) are not rare ones without reason. Human beings are, by their very nature, lazy (more on that another time) and tend to favour the simple, homely life rather one that demands such a high-octane, highly stressful thrill ride of a life experience. This tendency towards laziness also makes us grow naturally more and more unfit as time goes by, our bodies slowly using the ability our boundlessly enthusiastic childish bodies had for scampering up trees and chasing one another, making such seriously impressive physical achievements rare.

And then there’s the activity itself; skydiving, and even more so BASE jumping, is also a dangerous, injury-prone sport, and as such it is rare to find regular practitioners of Baumgartner’s age and experience who have not suffered some kind of reality-checking accident leaving them either injured, scared or, in some cases, dead. Finally, we must consider the fact that there are very few people rich enough and brave enough to give such an expensive, exhilarating hobby as skydiving a serious go, and even less with both the clout, nous, ambition and ability to get a project such as Red Bull Stratos off the ground. And we must also remember that one has to overcome the claustrophobic, restrictive experience of doing the jump in a heavy pressure suit; even Baumgartner had to get help from a sports psychologist to get over his claustrophobia caused by being in the suit.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Red Bull Stratos was a culmination of years of effort in a single minded pursuit of a goal, and that required a level of experience in both skydiving and life in general that simply couldn’t be achieved by anyone younger than middle age- the majority of younger, perhaps even more ambitious, skydivers simply could not have got the whole thing done. And we might think that the majority of middle-aged people don’t achieve great things, but then again in the grand scheme of things the majority of everyone don’t end up getting most of the developed world watching them of an evening. Admittedly, the majority of those who do end up doing the most extraordinary physical things are under 35, but there’s always room for an exceptional human to change that archetype. And anyway; look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and certified geniuses on our earth, our leaders and heroes. Many of them have turned their middle age into something truly amazing, and if their field happens to be quantum entanglement rather than BASE jumping then so be it; they can still be extraordinary people.

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, or exactly what conclusion I was trying to draw from it; it basically started off because I thought Felix Baumgartner was a pretty awesome guy, and I happened to notice he was older than I thought he would be. So I suppose it would be best to leave you with a fact and a quote from his jump. Fact: When he jumped, his heart rate was measured as being lower than the average resting (ie lying down doing nothing and not wetting yourself in pants-shitting terror) heart rate of a normal human, so clearly the guy is cool and relaxed to a degree beyond human imagining. Quote: “Sometimes you have to be really high to see how small you really are”.

The Curious Tale of Jack Dunlap

If, gentle reader, you happen to be from the USA, and especially if you happen to live in or in the vicinity of Washington, then you are likely to be more familiar than the rest of us with Arlington National Cemetery. This is a huge graveyard near the centre of Washington DC, and contains a number of war memorials and similar. It also contains the grave of John F Kennedy, whose final resting place it became 4 years after his assassination in 1963 (he had originally been buried in a small plot in the same graveyard, but was later moved to a plot containing a memorial). However, not long before Jack Kennedy was finally lain to rest, another Jack was buried just a little way away- one whose political significance was also huge, but went unknown to almost everyone. His name was Jack Dunlap, and his story is an extraordinary one.

In 1960, Dunlap led an unremarkable life. Married to an unworking wife and with five children, he was a sergeant in the US army with a distinguished record of service in the Korean war and the medals to show for it. However, now he was confined to more mundane work as a clerk-messenger, ferrying important documents around Fort Meade, the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Washington. This made him around $100 a week, which even in 1960 wasn’t much to feed seven hungry mouths.

However, in late 1960 Dunlap encountered a big slice of luck. A distant great-uncle of his died, and bequeathed him a plantation in Louisiana. Suddenly, the dough was rolling in, and Dunlap began living the high life. A new Cadillac, fine suits, smart restaurants, his own cabin cruiser, and his newfound passion for speedboat racing were now within his financial grasp, he told his friends, but he hung onto his job out of a sense that it was important. He didn’t tell most of them about the mistress he had set up in her own apartment, but to her he told a different story. He put on his swagger, and began to brag about how he ‘wasn’t what I say I am’, and all the top-secret stuff his job required him to handle, ending with the old line “If you knew what I actually did, I’d have to kill you”.

Still, the Louisiana story was enough for his NSA bosses, and he received red carpet treatment. Not only was he given days off to go speedboat racing, but after an accident in which he injured his back they sent an ambulance and transferred him to a military hospital. As Jack joked to his friends “They were afraid the sedatives might make me tell a lot of secrets I know”

But to find out the real truth, you’d have to know about a curious fact of his work.  Some of the documents and papers he was entrusted to deliver would turn up late. Very late in fact- nobody noticed, but it might take a day or so for an important paper to get to where it needed to when it passed through Dunlap’s hands. This was because it had taken a little detour- first up Jack’s shirt, then to a man in Washington who would photograph or photocopy them, before being taken back to their intended recipient. The man in Washington was a Soviet agent, and Dunlap was selling his country’s secrets to the USSR.

This was where his newfound wealth had come from- a $50,000 annual salary, around ten times his NSA one, had been offered to Dunlap by the agent in a meeting that autumn ‘to help him bear the expense of his five kids’, in exchange for the information he provided. And provide it he did. Jack Dunlap carried on playing his game of betrayal for nearly four years, on one occasion even bringing an unsuspecting mistress with him to a meeting with his Soviet contact.

However, all good things come to an end, and in Jack Dunlap’s case that end was rather abrupt. In March 1964 his NSA term had come to an end, and he was due to be posted elsewhere- somewhere he might not be able to continue his lucrative trade in information. To try and keep his position (and thus his illicit income), he said that his family were too settled in Washington to move, and asked that, if he could not work for the NSA as a soldier any more, perhaps he could resign and assume work as a civilian.

This would have been a great plan had it not been for one catch- the lie detector. Whilst Army personnel were considered safe, all civilian NSA staff were required to take a session on it before assuming work and, try as he might, Dunlap could not persuade them that his military record excluded him from that. He tried to persuade himself that four years of casual espionage had kept him cool, calm and collected enough to beat the lie detector (which was a fundamentally flawed and eminently cheatable device), but unfortunately it was not to be. Measurements of his muscle movements, breathing, perspiration and heart rate when answering rather sensitive questions altered the NSA opinion of him from a trustworthy, honest, efficient worker to a habitual sneak ‘capable of petty theft’. Whilst not a damning indictment of the high treason he was performing, it was enough to get Dunlap transferred to a desk job and to get his bosses asking around. The plantation in Louisiana was found to be bogus, and they started trying to find out where Dunlap’s wealth came from.

For Dunlap, this was a terrifying time. Without any secrets to ferry and sell, he was abandoned by his Soviet contact. He knew perfectly well that four years of betraying such sensitive information was more than enough to send him to the electric chair, or at least the rest of his life in maximum security without a hope of parole. His mental state began to unravel- he had paranoid fears of shadowy men in dark corridors asking him to ‘just come this way’, or a platoon of soldiers kicking down the door. Finally, it all got too much for him, and on July 22nd, 1964, he drove to an abandoned creek and suffocated himself with his car’s exhaust fumes.

During his time as a spy, Jack Dunlap ‘told’ the Soviet Union almost everything about the United States’ coding machines, revealed exactly what the US knew about Soviet military power, and handled some information concerning Oleg Penkovsky a Soviet double agent working predominately for the British that went straight back to the Soviets and almost certainly helped lead to the eventual capture and execution of one of the most influential intelligence tools the western powers had (Penkovsky was a Soviet colonel who, disillusioned with his country’s politics, had begun to play exactly the same treacherous game as Dunlap). And that’s only the stuff we know about- the KGB have (understandably) never released the information they got from Dunlap, so he could even have contributed to Kennedy’s assassination for all we know (far be it from me to add yet another string to that particular conspiracy theory). Many might consider him a traitor, a villain who gave up both his principles and his country for a couple of hundred thousand bucks- but then again, we might consider Penkovsky, playing the same game, a hero who died in the fight against communism. What we can all be sure of, however, is that Jack Dunlap almost certainly changed the course of history in his own little way- much like the other famous Jack spending his eternal slumber just a stone’s throw away.

Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing  (which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…