“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein
I often apply this concept to myself, checking my own perceived understanding of something I think I’ve grasped. Today, I seek to demonstrate how well I understand the quest that Homo Sapiens have pursued since time began: to know where muscle and strength improvements originate.
From whence do they arise?
Dedicated students of strength have, over time, come to understand that the body is an adaptive organism. Honed over millions of years of biological evolution, it is a marvel of survival mechanisms. It can be taught, via the application of specific stressors, to improve its ability to withstand that same stress again.
Unfortunately, the higher cognitive functions of our brains are a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation. The brain’s primary function is still to just keep us alive. The problem-solving, thinking part of the brain has to contend with innate biases that stand as obstacles to new information and further advancement. We are susceptible to misinformation, disinformation, superstition and illogical conclusions drawn from faulty assumptions. This is evident in all aspects of living, and developing muscle and strength is no different.
There is an almost limitless amount of information available to the would be strength enthusiast, from all manner of sources. Our fellow primates may be well intentioned with the advice they proffer, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. The information superhighway that is the world wide web is a treasure trove of knowledge, but it’s open sourced and anyone, literally anyone, can pontificate and bloviate, so the truth seeker must filter and use logic, reason and evidence to find the real nuggets of wisdom, which brings us back full circle to the susceptibility we all suffer from.
If one wants to add muscle and strength to their physique, how should one proceed? By applying a specific stress to the body, disrupting the status quo and creating a cascade of biological responses to this stress as the body, without purpose or intent, goes about the ancient ritual of survival. Just as a civil engineer will buttress a bridge to withstand more weight than it’s ever intended to hold, the body will buttress itself against this onslaught of resistance it endured to ensure it’s prepared for the next stressful event of such a magnitude. The adaptation takes place, and the body super-compensates. Muscle fibers are strengthened, tendons and connective tissues are fortified, neurological connections are established so that should this body have to Squat, Bench Press or Deadlift against this resistance again, it will be ready! It won’t be stressed again dammit!
Therein lies the secret. In that one paragraph is the underlying premise for strength and muscular enhancement. Apply a stress, allow the body to adapt to the stress, and be rewarded. But what if one wants more? Applying the same stress isn’t going to create any need for further adaptation. The bridge is built, the foundation has been laid. The body handles it with ease. No, more stress must be applied. The resistance must be greater. So we add weight to the bar and repeat the process, again seeking to disrupt homeostasis and force adaptation and recovery. That is Step One.
Step Two requires brick and mortar, as well as labor. After all, the bridge isn’t going to build itself out of thin air. We need building blocks, which are amino acids. Protein supplies the needed materials to repair the damage done by Squatting, Bench Pressing and Deadlifting enough weight to stress the system. This protein must be provided through the diet in sufficient quantities to get the job done. Here is where myth and legend often steer people astray. If protein provides the building blocks, and we need enough to repair the damage done and bring us bigger, stronger muscles, then certainly we should eat as much of it as we can! This is sadly not the case. We cannot force feed our way to massive gains. Assuming Step One was accomplished–and many who strive to seek gains fall short of disrupting homeostasis–our survivalist human organism will adapt and super-compensate, but once that is accomplished, more building blocks aren’t required. The engineer isn’t going to add extra pylons to support the bridge that is already supported after all. Here we must look to the evidence so that we may draw reasonable conclusions regarding how much protein we need to accomplish our goals. As with most things biological, there isn’t a hard, fast number we can hang our figurative hat on, but rather a range of reasonable probabilities. Because having our genome sequenced and having muscle biopsies, blood draws and urinalysis on a regular basis is a bit daunting, we’ll select a protein target that evidence suggests is more than sufficient to get the job done, and that quantity is 1.8 grams of protein per KG of body weight, or roughly 0.82 grams per LB. More than that isn’t required and won’t create further gains. Our bodies just don’t work that way. And that brings us to Step Three: labor.
Being alive is a labor intensive process. Our bodies maintain an almost 100-degree internal temperature, and they do this in every possible environment. We need to provide fuel to burn to keep ourselves from dying, let alone to move about and Squat. The adaptive process we’re after–the gains–require fuel as well, and we must provide it. But we are again faced with the same conundrum as with the building blocks. We need enough, but not too much. We cannot force feed our way to massive gains. If we insist on providing more energy than needed to do the job, our bodies will respond by storing away this extra energy for later use. It has an almost endless capacity for storage, shoving extra nutrients into the liver, muscle cells and fat cells. The liver and muscle cells have a finite capacity, but the fat cells, why they are very pliable. They can expand and even multiply if more space is required. Those aren’t the kinds of gains we’re after.
Step Three requires us to provide fuel in the form of carbohydrates and fats, in whatever combination we prefer, but this fuel comes from both the food we eat, and the previously mentioned warehouse of energy supplies we all walk around with. While it may seem counterintuitive that one can grow stronger and larger muscles without eating enough fuel, it has been demonstrated time and time again. The body is an adaptive organism built to survive. It will use the energy it needs to recover from the stress we applied in Step One, using the building blocks we provided in Step Two, and the energy it needs, whether it’s the easy way–from the food we eat–or the slightly more difficult way of opening the warehouse and getting at the stored energy. The key is to have enough energy stored so the body doesn’t fear imminent death from famine, and supply the rest with food. While I often joke one can never be too rich or too lean, that is mere hyperbole. One can in fact be too lean, causing a crisis for the body trying to survive. It will not find our desire of building more muscle very appealing when death is imminent, so it will take drastic steps to stop you from doing basically anything as it tries to hold on to its needed energy stores for more primal requirements. Fortunately, very few ever reach this stage of shredded leanness, so it’s not something we must be overly concerned about.
And this process, Faithful Readers, is where gains come from. A three step process, repeated over and over again, will produce a stronger more muscular body. Its seeming simplicity belies the deeper truth, and that is that the gains are not infinite. The body, once fortified against the stress we’ve thrown at it time and time again will require ever larger amounts of stress for continued progress, and this can be difficult to accomplish. More creative means of applying cumulative stress, rather than single bouts of Herculean effort may be required. Longer periods of recovery may be needed to allow for adaptation. Our DNA, inherited from the parents we had no say in choosing, will apply a governor to our growth engine that cannot be naturally exceeded. But despair not, for few will ever reach this exalted apex of gains. For most mere mortals, diligent application of the three step process will produce satisfactory results that will put us among the elite levels of physical specimens. We will walk tall and proud, confident in our strong and chiseled physiques that are capable of great feats of strength when compared to the untrained individual. We sought the gains, we fought for them, and we conquered.