By: Dr. Payton Busker, PT, DPT
It is one thing to intellectually understand the benefits of building muscle. It is another to act upon it! In today’s post, we will discuss WHY we should care about muscle growth (especially us millennial women!!), the dichotomies of muscle building, what genetic factors are at play, and what to do IF you are truly ready to maintain your muscle mass as opposed to continuing to build it.
Why you should care about muscle growth.
Building muscle is crucial for healthy aging, especially for women! As we age, sarcopenic changes begin to occur. Sarcopenia can be defined as age-related loss of skeletal muscle tissue.
In his invited review on aging and sarcopenia, Timothy Doherty analyzes the current data. Doherty highlights literature findings that reveal the following:
- Losses in strength that occur due to aging are directly correlated with a decrease in muscle mass
- Decrease in strength is mainly affected by loss of muscle mass, NOT an inability to contract the muscle
- Age-related losses in muscle mass and strength can begin as early as your thirties, but really advance in your 50s and beyond
- Although muscle strength and mass are shown to decrease more significantly in men, it may be more pertinent to women due to increased life expectancy and incidence of disability in the female population
- In one study, “sarcopenic women had 3.6 times higher rates of disability” as compared to non-sarcopenic women. This study also found a lower incidence of assistive device use and falls in the group with larger muscle mass.
I like to think of muscle building as an investment.
I am putting in the work now when I have a greater capacity to build muscle for when it becomes exponentially more difficult to build new muscle tissue. Although it is possible to build muscle later in life, hormonal and satiety changes do make this process much more challenging!
When you build up your muscle reserves in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, you set yourself up for success in your 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond!! Investing is not always the sexiest topic, BUT it’s hard to deny the benefits. Let’s make building up your muscular nest egg a thing!!
If you are reading this post and you’re in your 50s or above, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED. Studies show that resistance training at >50 will attenuate age-related muscle loss. Keep up the great work!!
The dichotomies of building muscle
There are often two dueling ideas when it comes to muscle growth. Many (not all) strive to
- Look “lean and toned”
But are afraid to
- Get “big and bulky”
So what do we do? Turn to cardio. Run to programs promising to make us “long and lean”. Cut out carbs entirely. Throw fats out of the window. And avoid lifting weights at all costs in hopes to avoid getting “big and bulky”.
Although turning to nutrition and exercise is important, the above “solutions” may not be the way.
When we avoid strength training due to fear of growing bigger, we might need to do some digging!
What is our fear of “getting bigger” rooted in? Do we currently hold the belief that our inherent self-value is held within the size of our body? Do we think that being in a smaller body will lead us to ultimate happiness? Is our environment (both IRL and digital) playing a role in the glorification of smaller bodies?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you are not alone. The intention is not to shame anyone. So many of us have been here!!! The intention is to highlight that we (and our goals) are often a product of our environments.
It is not bad to have aesthetic goals.
However, I firmly believe in the power of cultivating a positive relationship with your body in conjunction with implementing these goals. Let’s build our bodies up instead of tearing them down, both mentally and physically!!
On a physiological level, when we avoid strength training, we lose out on the many benefits of increased muscle mass including
- Potential increase to resting metabolism (muscle tissue is metabolically expensive and our bodies have to work hard to keep it!!)
- Improved joint health/protection
- Enhanced insulin sensitivity
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Attenuated sarcopenia (you know all about this from the first section!!)
From an aesthetic perspective, the “lean and toned” look IS increased muscle mass. However, it comes in conjunction with fat loss. Often, it is not strength training/muscle growth on its own that is producing a “bulky look”, but rather an increase in mass in general.
Again, this is not a bad thing!! BUT if significant body composition changes are what you are seeking, we highly recommend seeking out legitimate nutrition sources.
Although Evlo is not a weight or fat loss program, members have access to nutrition modules from Functional Registered Dietitian Katherine Andrew. Following Katherine’s guidance in conjunction with the hypertrophic benefits of Evlo can lead to body composition changes overall.
Let’s talk about genetics.
It would be a disservice to leave genetics out of the conversation when it comes to body composition and muscle growth. In “Body by Science” by Dr. Doug McGuff and John Little, the authors do a deep dive into the genetic nitty gritty behind muscle growth.
In summary, it’s typically hard to build muscle.
They list the following as just SOME of the genetic factors at play:
- Somatotype (or your natural body type)
- Endomorph: soft, round body contours
- Mesomorph: muscular
- Ectomorph: skinny
- Muscle length
- Skeletal formation
- Fat distribution
- Neuromuscular efficiency
- Muscle-fiber density
- Muscle shape and size potential
The above factors cannot be altered. Meaning, there is a natural limit on how “muscular” you will appear based on your unique genetic makeup.
When I first learned, it made me sad (and a bit skeptical). However, I now find it very freeing!! When I am chugging along in my strength and aesthetic goals, I am truly focusing on being the best possible version of myself as opposed to looking like any other individual.
There are also more “in the weeds” genetic factors involved including:
- Ciliary Neurotrophic Factor (CNTF)
- Myosin Light Chain Kinase
- Angiotensin Converting Enzyme
Although we are (again) kind of set on what we get with the above, the more recent field of epigenetics (or the effect of our current environment on our/our offspring gene expression) demonstrates that we may have more of an effect here than we originally thought.
Interestingly, the human testing of the above factors has proven to be somewhat difficult in part because people don’t want to identify that they have a genetic advantage to building muscle. This could potentially damage an image that they have benefited from professionally and financially. SO FASCINATING!!
In this vein, there are people who are genetically more inclined to build muscle quicker and more easily. I am not one of those people. BUT if you find yourself in that boat and you have reached a place where you feel you have adequate muscle tissue, let’s chat about muscle maintenance!
So….. can I just maintain now??
Not to beat this into the ground, BUT I implore you to really evaluate here. Maybe even re-read the above sections!! If it is your lean muscle mass that you feel is at max capacity and not overall mass in general, read on!
While building muscle is typically relatively difficult, maintaining it can be much easier!
As muscle hypertrophy is our goal within Evlo, we standardly cue to nearly reach muscle failure within each set (think: only 3-4 more reps in the tank). However, in order to maintain muscle mass, you just need to achieve moderate muscle fatigue (think 5-8 reps left in the tank)!
Here are two ways to adapt your Evlo routine for moderate fatigue:
1. Decrease your weight and maintain your repetitions.
Typically, if you are decreasing the weight you typically use for an individual exercise, you will be able to perform about the same amount of reps as usual and have 5-8 more reps left as opposed to your usual 3-4.
2. Maintain your weight and stop the set before your instructor.
While we as instructors are getting towards that point of near muscle failure, you will simply stop your set early! This will allow you to use your same weight while achieving moderate muscle fatigue. This might correlate with stopping when the instructor begins the countdown.
This will be a highly individualized experience. Enjoy playing around with the above suggestions to find what works best for your body!!
We are in this for the long haul.
Whether you’re still building up that muscular nest egg or ready to maintain, remember that this is not a race to the finish line. Let’s build our bodies up. Let’s cultivate positive relationships with ourselves. Let’s turn inward for body composition goals. And let’s enjoy the process!!