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.

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Muscle time

OK, time for part two of my ‘gym-less workouts’ guide, this time dealing with the important stuff- muscular strength. Strength is a fairly blanket term, covering every one of the (numerous) muscle groups, different motions and the various aspects of size, explosive power, maximum strength and endurance. The general rule that applies to pretty much any exercise is that less reps on a higher load (so more weight, more difficult technique, doing the motion in a slower, more controlled fashion etc.) will build more power and strength, whereas more reps on a lower load will build lean, wiry muscle built for speed and endurance. It’s also important, as with fitness exercises, to do a quick warm-up to ensure your muscles are ready for work- this generally takes the form of a few very easy exercises just to get them moving and the blood flowing. A quick note on sets and reps too- it is standard practice among gym goers to do exercises in ‘sets’ (normally three of them, but any number from 1-5 is fine), each of them containing a fixed number of repetitions, or ‘reps’ of that exercise. Each set is separated by a break of anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This way of working allows you to do more stuff than you could in a single sitting, but the resting and then reworking of your muscles will also pay dividends in terms of effectiveness. I have tried to offer some advice as to the amount you should be doing, but adjust to whatever feels right for you. Try to set yourself small, achievable targets to work towards, as these can be the difference between somebody who turns into a muscle-bound hunk to just a bloke who works out and always looks the same way.

One final thing- it’s not good to go and blow yourself out with a high-intensity session every day. These exercises are probably best done in one big ‘gym session’, and if you cycle through the various exercises, giving that muscle group, rather than your whole body, a rest, then this circuit training will be a great fitness workout too. But they can work just as well done whenever is most convenient, and trying to do a big session every single day will just tire you out to the point at which your muscles can’t recover (and thus can’t build effectively) and you won’t be able to keep up a good intensity. A gym goer will rarely do more than three sessions a week, with rest days spread between them , to ensure maximum effectiveness. Sessions should also be well planned in advance (it makes sense for anyone who wants to get serious about this to plan a weekly routine and just change the number or reps & sets as you improve)- good planning separates those who are always improving and the blokes who go to the gym three times a week for years and never look any different.

OK, now to start on the actual exercises (for which a rucksack will be necessary for a number of the exercises), working from the bottom up:

LEGS
Where
: Quadriceps (quads) are located at the front of the thigh, hamstrings (or ‘leg biceps’) at the back and calves down the back of the foreleg, behind the shin bone
Exercise: Run. Or cycle, if that’s more your thing, but to my mind you can’t really do better than running- it’ll do everything. Sprint sets, running as fast as possible over short, 20 metre distances, will work for strength (try sprinting out and then back-pedalling for a good, mixed workout)- sets of 10 sprints, separated by a minute rest, should do nicely, increasing the number of sets you do as you get fitter and stronger. A good run at moderate intensity should will work wonders for both muscle mass and endurance- it should start to hurt from about 10-20 minutes onwards, in both heart and legs, but try to push on through the pain and it’ll be worth it. However, if you feel a stitch coming on then slow to a walk and take a rest for it to subside, otherwise you’ll be in for a very uncomfortable time and you won’t work as effectively. If you can manage regular half-hour runs, at whatever speed you can, that will do nicely
If you really want to work on your leg strength but for some reason don’t want to do sprints (wanting to mix it up a bit is a good reason- laziness is not!), then load up a backpack with as much weight as it can take, and stand with feet shoulders-width apart. To work the quads, squat down as deep as you can, trying as much as you can to keep your feet flat to the floor, and then stand up- if you really want to feel the burn then do so as slowly as you can. Three sets to destruction (as many as you can do), with a 90 second rest between each should work. For calves, just go up onto tiptoes and back down again repeatedly. These should be done as quickly as possible for as long as possible- but make sure your calves are well-stretched beforehand, as they are particularly prone to cramps and pulling. If this is too easy (which it probably will be), try doing it on only one leg at a time, and do lots of fast reps

ABDOMINALS (ABS)
Where:
 As the name suggests, in the abdominal area- around the belly. These muscles are what form a six pack, and are often hidden by a belly- so if you want to show them off, you’re going to need to lose the flab (which I have yet to do!)
Exercise: There are a huge variety of abdominal exercises you can do- sit-ups, medicine ball drops, leg raises etc.- but one of the most reliable is crunchesLie with your back flat on the floor, hips and knees forming right-angles (so your shin should be parallel with your back). Grab your ears with your hands (you can let go if you’re used to the motion, but it helps to prevent your arms swinging you up), and sit up very slightly, pulling your shoulder blades just off the floor and touching your elbows to your knees. Then drop back down and repeat. Try to keep your knees in position, and do not pull yourself up with your arms. All abdominal exercises are done in an isotonic fashion (low load, fast motion, high reps), and this is no exception- crunches should be done as fast as you can, each one ideally taking around a second (but if you can’t quite keep up then don’t worry- it’ll come). After 20-30 reps, your belly should start to hurt- keep on pushing until you physically cannot do any more. Then take a 90 second break and do another set to destruction, for as many sets as you can do comfortably.
Another muscle group typically grouped with the abs are the obliques, which are similar muscles down each side of your body. A lot of exercises (and gym goers) tend to ignore them, but they are important nonetheless. A small adaptation to crunches can work the obliques- when lifting yourself off the floor, twist your body so that your right elbow touches your left knee. Then, on the next rep, touch your left elbow to your right knee and so on, continuing to alternate. The same ‘burning’ sensation should be felt down your sides as well as in the belly, which tells you you’re doing a good job.

OK, all that rambling at the start took up quite a lot of room, so I’m going to have to continue this in my next post. Until then- see what you can do on the aerobic and flexibility fronts, and try not to burn yourself out too quickly (advice I have been breaking recently =] ).