It used to seem obvious. You trained for strength, you need more muscle for strength, you got big, you’re happy. Experience tells me it’s not as straight forward as that. You can be very strong but not very big. Because pure muscle size isn’t the only reason some one is strong.
I see a lot of people who say they want to be strong but really just want to look it. To have the large muscles. It fascinates me because I feel an understanding of this is key to understanding our bodies, their adaptation to exercise and the best training methods for sports and for life.
Ok, sounds a bit far fetched I expect but stick with me. I’ve been noticing things for years and finally feel I have a simple way to explain what I see.
Back when I trained for strength, yep many moons ago :-), I followed the standard 6-8 rep maximum lift kind of protocol. It worked well. I got very strong in the areas I trained but I didn’t get very big compared to the strength I had. At one point during my time at uni I was working part time for a gym so could train for free any time I managed to lift around 165 Kg which equates to 26 stone in a squat. I couldn’t believe it. My legs were and still are relatively small. Not like some of the rugby players I saw yet I could lift quite a lot.
Any way it became apparent that strength isn’t all about muscle size. Watching documentaries on people like Bruce lee and sports stars it becomes even more evident that this is true since the biggest feats of strength often come from some relatively ordinary looking people.
So the question remains how and why do muscles get big and what are big muscles good at?
I can’t say I have all the answers but I feel now it’s got much more to do with strength and endurance training combined and particularly regular, preferably daily training so much that large muscles may in fact represent enhanced recovery from an intense training load.
Ok, what does that mean in English. Well I noticed playing Fifa (a football game on many consoles) that the players legs are huge. They’re like twice the width of the player. And footballers don’t need strong legs. They need fast ones. Yet back in the 70’s they didn’t have legs this size so what’s changed. Training methods, they’re in the gym more, but also, particularly at the top level, they have to last the whole game. Some times 120 minutes plus penalties week in, week out. There’s no real summer break cos they’re off round the world playing in show tournaments and friendlies so they’re always active.
The point being I see no requirement whatsoever for strength. For power I see plenty of need but few sprinters seem to have huge legs. In fact their calves seem plain tiny considering they get up to 26 mph. So if power gave you big muscles I’d expect sprinters to be John Regis big atleast but they aren’t.
What footballers have to be able to do is sprint the length of a football field several times in a game and be ready to receive the ball at the end of it, go round a few players, take a shot, then run back the length of the pitch to cover their position in defence. They do this time and time again and have to recover each time. I think it’s this requirement that is the key. I think that the bodies solution to this demand requires a lot of kit that pads out muscles.
So what would this mean?
First off it would mean more glycogen (glycogen is a carbohydrate) stored within the muscle right next to the fibres that need it. I don’t know if glycogen is stored in muscle in one place but I’d expect it to be dotted around so it’s more available when required. I’d also expect there to be a certain amount stored inside the muscle cell itself given the regular high turnover it must be prepared for.
Where glycogen is stored, water must follow. For every gram of carbohyrdate around 5 grams of water is stored with it. Thus the cell voume would swell considerably. To sidetrack a little and understand how important water is in making cells both big and firm we only need to consider fruit and veg stored in the crisper in the fridge. The main difference between a fresh orange, apple or nectarine that’s firm and one that’s been around for a few weeks and is getting soft is that the older one is drying out. The individual cells are losing water so there is more give in each cell. That’s why they’re soft.
Think of this in a muscle and it would explain why some are really hard when tensed and others aren’t. It could simply be that the hard muscles contain a lot of water and which they need because they also contain a lot of glycogen.
I’d expect there’d be other adaptations too and maybe these would contribute to a larger muscle size. More mitochondria perhaps.
The implications I see is that this training effect is brought about because there’s a need for regularly high intesity recovery. The training effect is every day, perhaps twice a day. And the body is adjusting to the training by finding ways to fix all the damage from activity within a day and not taking 2-3 days to recover. This implies that the whole body is quick to mobilise itself but it’s also about recovery within a game. The difference between the top and bottom teams in many leagues is who still has plenty in the tank at the end of the game asnd season not at the start.
So I feel that the adaptations we really care about in this context are those concerned with restoring the body within minutes and hours rather than days and weeks. I wonder whether these adaptations need larger cell ‘machinery’.
I also wonder whether this implies a very different training strategy. After all the ability to recover in a very short while is a bonus to pretty much every one involved in sport.
I also wonder whether the driver for a large muscle size could be the repeated, prolonged high intensity bursts within the sport. those where you cover a larger amount of distance, running back, forwards, sideways etc without much of a break. You push your energy supply right to its limit along with your systems ability to tolerate lactate build up. I’ve mentioned a lot about glut 4 and mscules ability to convert lactic acid back into glycogen quickly during sport so you can maintain intense acitvity for longer. I wonder if the ability to do this could make the cell larger.
The focus on recovery also implies the ability to regenerate cells and fix damage over night or, potential, during the day aty enhanced rates. This also implies a need to protect our DNA blueprints. If this holds true then it could be an important approach in preventing ageing and maintaing health. For if the way we train leads our body to preserve and protect our DNA then we should be better at fixing our body correctly instead of introducing unhealthy cells through bad DNA.
So in essence I feel a second benefit may come, though I have no proof, that this kind of training may in fact train our processes that use DNA to fix our body. it may provide the impetus to protect our DNA from damage and ultimately keep us healthy and strong in the long term.