Muscle Building Myths
Before we delve into the science behind strength training and muscle building, let’s take a look at some of the main myths that may be influencing your thinking on the topic.
MYTH #1: The fitness industry has a generally agreed upon definition of fitness.
A key component of fitness should include muscle mass. Unfortunately, many kinds of exercise have no positive impact on muscle mass. A useful definition of fitness, for the purpose of this article, is having optimum body composition of muscle and body fat. Ideally, any exercise program should reach these twin results, although most muscle building workouts fail to do so.
MYTH #2: The standard strategy of alternating weightlifting workouts every other day for multiple muscle groups is the most effective way to build muscles.
Indeed, new and old research shows that this is pretty much a stupid strategy, for several reasons. Fitness gurus who still advocate this standard strategy are either ignorant of this body of scientific research or they choose to ignore it.
MYTH #3: You can look just like the folks on TV infomercials and other kinds of advertisements if you just buy whatever they are selling and do what they tell you to do.
The reality is that most people are not predisposed to get those results. Only a select few can.
Looking into Actual Science
The best workout advice based on actual science is presented in a 2009 book by Dr. Doug McGuff and John Little, titled Body by Science: A Research-Based Program for Strength Training, Body Building, and Complete Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week. That’s right – 12 minutes a week. This claim is not a hyped up, empty marketing promise. It is a reality that McGuff and Little substantiate with impeccable science.
My advice, therefore, is simply to get and read this book. You may find, like I did, that bookstores do not always have it in stock. If so, just order it online. You can no doubt get a good used copy on Amazon for a reduced price.
Regardless of whether you plan to dig into the Body by Science book, you can see a lot of what Dr. McGuff has to say on the subject in a set of free videos on Youtube. These videos outline the reasoning behind his advice and show you exactly what the workouts should look like.
To save you the trouble of hunting them all down, I have linked the entire set, by title, on this page: Fitness.
There is a lot to know about the Body by Science protocol: frequency, duration, intensity, recovery time, keeping track of progress, exercising different muscle types (not muscle groups), time under load, etc. Nevertheless, everyone can get good results with this protocol. No need to buy expensive DVD sets, fitness equipment, supplements, special food, or high-priced coaching.
The only drawback is that, if enough people catch on to how good the Body by Science protocol is, we might see an economic downturn due to the lost sales of all the fitness crapola now on the market (P90x, CrossFit, etc.). Sorry about that.
The Key is Slow, Not Heavy
Weightlifting conjures up grunting, sweaty guys who seem to live in the weight room. No wonder it turns so many people off. Throw out that vision right now. It is irrational and unscientific. Most significantly, it does not apply to most people.
Imagine instead sitting down at a weight machine, selecting an appropriate weight, and being done with it for the week after just one set. All you have to do to reap maximum benefit from each exercise is to lift slowly, to a count of 12 or so, and return slowly to the same count. Repeat until you have had a total exertion time of 90-120 seconds. Do the same for 3-4 other machines that address different muscle groups, and you are done. That’s it for the week!
In fact, research shows that if you do more than that, or do it more often, you will undermine the benefits of exercise. Even adding additional recovery time, as much as 10 or even 14 days between workouts, still gives you the same benefits.
The Senior Special
Seniors often give up entirely on building muscle. This is a huge mistake. Maintaining strength and muscle mass is more important than ever as we age.
One of Dr. McGuff’s videos specifically addresses the importance of his program for seniors.
Getting stronger is just one of many benefits of proper strength training. The following is a short list of what you can expect, based on scientific research. This list applies to all age groups, especially seniors.
- Gain muscle strength and function
- Increase muscle strength and muscle size in senior men and women, including nursing home residents
- Enhance walking endurance
- Reduce body fat levels
- Increase metabolic rate
- Reduce resting blood pressure
- Improve blood lipid profiles
- Increase gastrointestinal transit speed (anti-constipation!)
- Enhance glucose utilization
- Alleviate low-back pain
- Increase bone mineral density
- Ease arthritic discomfort
- Relieve depression
- Improved post-coronary performance
And the icing on the cake is that not one of these studies reported any training related injuries!
So get with it, folks. Check out the videos (or buy the book), adopt the right exercise program, and feel stronger and better in many, many ways. Make life good today!
Bonus Thoughts for Workout Geeks of All Ages
Muscle building exercises usually focus on either fast-twitch muscles or slow-twitch muscles. The most efficient workouts build both types at the same time, if you know how to do them correctly as outlined in Dr. McGuff’s Body by Science approach.
Which Muscles Are Which?
Skeletal muscles have been classified since the 1970s into two main types, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Refinements of the original classification now divide skeletal muscles into four subtypes.
Type I: Slow-Twitch Muscles
These are endurance muscles that drive distance and endurance activities such as long-distance running. They are loaded with aerobic enzymes, blood vessels, mitochondria, and myoglobin (an oxygen-storing protein). These ingredients make Type I muscles very powerful aerobically – i.e., highly oxidative. They do not, however, create much force.
The term ‘slow-twitch’ means that these muscles are slow to fatigue (and fast to recover from fatigue). It has nothing to do with twitch velocity!
In fact, the twitch velocity of slow-twitch muscles is faster than that of fast-twitch muscles.
Type IIA: Fast-Twitch/Fatigue-Resistant
This muscle type is also oxidative, although poor for endurance compared with slow-twitch muscles.
Type IIAB: Fast-Twitch/Intermediate-Fatigability
This intermediate fast-twitch muscle type can be oxidative or glycolytic. ‘Glycolytic‘ is a fancy term for the type of metabolism that breaks down glucose in the absence of oxygen – i.e., anaerobic.
Type IIB: Fast-Twitch/Fatigable
This type is fully glycolytic (anaerobic), yielding lactic acid upon fatigue. These muscles have less myoglobin and fewer mitochondria than the other types. Type IIB muscle fibers are the slowest to contract (twitch), the fastest to fatigue, and take the longest to recover. They require the highest amount of energy to engage, and they provide the most power when they are engaged.
One More Thing: The Motor Unit
A single muscle is infused with all muscle types, distributed homogeneously throughout the tissue. Each type of muscle, however, is stimulated by a system of main nerves that branch out to individual fibers. A motor unit is a group of same-type muscle fibers that is controlled by a single main nerve. A typical slow-twitch motor unit includes 100 individual fibers, whereas a typical fast-twitch motor unit is comprised of 10,000 separate fibers.
This just means that, engaging all of the fiber types in one muscle requires activating 1,000 slow-twitch motor units in conjunction with 50-100 fast-twitch motor units.
The Big Challenge
When you work out by lifting light weights through multiple repetitions, the slow-twitch motor units will fatigue slowly, recover fast, and recycle back into the contraction process before you can even engage the fast-twitch motor units.
On the other hand, when you lift heavy weights that allow only one or two repetitions, you can recruit all of the available motor units at once. However, by the time your fast-twitch (high power) muscles fail after only two reps, you will not have fully stimulated the majority of your slow-twitch and intermediate-twitch fibers.
The ‘Big Challenge’, therefore, is to choose the appropriate weight that you can lift for the right amount of time. This is a concept that McGuff and Little call ‘Time Under Load’ (TUL). A good example TUL with the right weight would be 90-120 seconds. The right weight would ideally be an amount that takes you to muscle failure within that time period.
Activating all fiber types simultaneously, given the right weight and TUL, depends on ultra-slow movement. This method was originally described as the ‘Nautilus Method‘, after the equipment company, and more recently the ‘Super Slow‘ method. Combining recent research with all of these key points, into an individual workout plan, is the basis for the Body by Science book.
WARNING! You’ve Got to Know This Above All Else!
If I made that sound scary, then I meant to. One key component of ALL workout protocols is recovery. Unfortunately, almost all workout programs fail to understand just how much time you need for full recovery from a workout and the consequences if you do not get it.
Here is the surprise:
Full recovery from any comprehensive muscle-building or strength-building workout that engages fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles takes at least 7 days!
Yes, that’s right. All the enzyme indicators, inflammation indicators, rebuilding indicators, whatever can be measured, say the same thing. In fact, if you do not wait at least 7 days between workouts, then you can undermine your progress. Yup, all those workout programs that your fitness trainer assigned you, 3 or more times in the gym each week, are counterproductive. They do more harm than good.
Can I say it any more clearly? You do more harm than you can imagine when you don’t allow for a recovery period of at least 7 days! Got it?
That ought to be enough food for thought for now. Enjoy!
All the fitness best,