Why Big Muscles Don’t Mean You’re Strong
Have you ever wondered why some people have big muscles but don't seem very strong? What about that friend who trains a lot but doesn't seem to be very big even though you know they are crazy strong? This article is going to give you a very broad overview of how different types of training impact muscle types and is going to give you a thrilling insight into the differences between myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy! Let's jump on in!
Muscles (or pipes...) grow most efficiently when they experience periods of moderately tough work at relatively high volumes.
Imagine a PVC pipe that has a whole bunch of weird electrical wires running through it. These weird little wires fire off but then they take a break for a few minutes before they will work again. The owner only has a limited budget to upgrade the pipe, so he takes a look at the activity and makes a choice. The usage, whether there are high ongoing peaks that overload the circuitry or individual bursts that use almost everything in one hit, will dictate how he upgrades it.
Owner number one has a pipe that experiences regular bursts of lower charge usage. So he finds that he needs to put more wires into his pipe. For this owner, it makes sense to buy a bigger pipe to house a greater number of wires, but the wires don't need to have a high capacity so he spends his budget on a bunch of cheaper wires to deal with the regularity of the bursts. Owner number two has a pipe that experiences relatively infrequent bursts of high energy. His wires are usually back on again by the time the next charge comes along, but each charge uses up almost all of the wires’ capacities. Owner number two decides to spend his budget upgrading the wires to handle an infrequent but incredibly powerful charge. His pipe doesn't get bigger, but his wires are incredible and can transmit much larger amounts of energy per wire.
Finally, owner number three has wires that are constantly buzzing but barely putting any charge through. This guy looks at what’s going on and decides that he can spend his money higher up the chain on a more efficient device. So his pipe is still small, and his wires are still cheap, but the charges that his system puts out are very efficient, small and predictable. In this instance, owner number one's pipe system mimics sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
This is the type of training that stimulates muscular growth. Muscles (or pipes...) grow most efficiently when they experience periods of moderately tough work at relatively high volumes. A good example of this type of training is Charles Staley's Escalating Density Training or Geoff Neupert's Kettlebell Muscle. Both of these programs are about putting a large amount of work into a short amount of time with some rest involved, but not enough to fully recover (for the wires to become active again). If you want big muscles, then you want to ensure that you are using most of your wires and then reusing them again before all of them have come back online to ensure that your body's adaptive response is to create a bigger pipe - more space for more wires, in other words, a bigger muscle with more fibres to utilise.
Owner number two is experiencing Myofibrillar hypertrophy. When our body experiences a heavy load (typically several reps at 65% - 85% of a load that we could lift once going as hard as we can) that demands a lot of our system, but then gets a decent amount of rest before it needs to go again, then it becomes more efficient neurally. Our ability to utilise our muscles gets better, and the muscles get denser without necessarily getting much larger.
As we age (and this is from our 30's onwards) we start to lose muscle (3-5% per decade!) if we don't do something to maintain it.
Some of the best examples of this are Pavel Tsatsouline's Power To The People, and Steve Justa's Justa Singles Program. Both of these programs involve people lifting a moderately heavy load (65-85% of 1RM) on a very regular basis but allowing themselves plenty of rest to ensure that the muscles can recover very well before lifting again. They aren't remotely interested in fatigue, but rather in neural efficiency - the ability for our brain to effectively recruit motor units to move our muscles (better wires in the same size pipe).
Owner number three is all about cardio. His system has developed greater efficiency because it experiences periods of longer demand. The workload here is hardly even enough to overload the wires for a fair while and helps the body to become dramatically more efficient. It's not likely to build huge muscles or strong muscles though... Each of these adaptations is important and valuable as we age. In younger people, training for big muscles is often a vanity/mating choice. That doesn't mean that it isn't valuable.
As we age (and this is from our 30's onwards) we start to lose muscle (3-5% per decade!) if we don't do something to maintain it. This has implications for our health in a whole bunch of different ways including negative impacts upon our balance, strength, metabolism and our hormone balance. Basically, we want to ensure that we have the muscle mass to help keep us moving well and feeling young!
Myofibrillar hypertrophy, or strong muscles, is important for ensuring that our muscles stay strong and useful. If you have good muscle density then that will allow you to stave off a lot of the negatives mentioned above, as well as dramatically improving your athleticism for as long as you live. If you want to keep up with your grandkids, then having muscles that don't just look strong is really important. This type of muscle also helps your clothing to sit nicely even if you're carrying a couple of extra kilos…Cardiovascular health is obviously important for us as we do things. It's all there in the name - cardio (heart) vascular (lungs). If your heart and lungs are behaving efficiently and doing their job well then that dramatically lowers your risk of heart problems as well as a bunch of other illnesses that are a massive tax presently on our public health system. Alongside this, it has obvious benefits for endurance as well as providing significant benefits for muscular recovery.
It's not about doing one or the other with these. In most cases, it's about doing a little bit of each on a regular basis, while having seasons of focus upon each one individually. I believe that you should always be doing some cardiovascular work and some strength training. Either one on its own really isn't optimal. It doesn't have to be much. If you were to do 30 minutes a day of either one or both, whether it is a 30 minute walk one day, followed by some swings or squats and push-ups on the next, then you would find that you were doing pretty well. We deliberately design our class programs to help people to do enough work to give them more energy on a regular basis, and in such a way that they can come every day and improve their quality of life. Training doesn't have to be complex, but if you're struggling with it, please get in touch so that we can help.
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