How, When & Why do MUSCLES Grow?
Updated: Sep 10
There are close to 600 muscles in the human body, including smooth muscles, cardiac muscles and skeletal muscles. Smooth muscles and cardiac muscles are involuntary and skeletal muscles are voluntary. A muscular body looks great. Having said that, what is the easiest and the fastest way of Building or Toning Muscles? Does building muscle also help in Burning Fat and resulting in Weight Loss? How, When, and Why do Muscles Grow (hypertrophy) or Shrink (atrophy)? Let’s understand the science of Muscle Building.
Primarily, there are two ways muscles grow:
Hyperplasia relates to the increase in the number of cells resulting in Muscle Growth. Hyperplasia is observed during the growth phase of humans due to the action of anabolic hormones like insulin-like growth factor 1 (somatomedin C). Somatomedin C is a hormone whose molecular structure is similar to insulin. It is primarily unknown whether hyperplasia can occur due to exercise.
Hypertrophy relates to the increase in the size of existing muscle cells resulting in Muscle Growth. As fitness enthusiasts, we should be only concerned with hypertrophy as science has proved it already.
The most optimum way to burn fat is by increasing muscle mass. The higher the muscle mass, the higher is the basal metabolic rate or BMR, and the higher is the fat (adipose tissue) burn.
Hypertrophy Tripod for Muscle Growth:
Hypertrophy rests on three pillars:
Rest and Recovery
Let’s compare these three pillars of hypertrophy to the three pillars of a camera tripod.
Just like a camera tripod which has three pillars, a hypertrophy tripod also has three pillars. Of the three legs of a camera tripod, if one leg is shorter or longer, the camera will become unstable, lose equilibrium and crash. In a similar analogy, if any pillar of the hypertrophy tripod is shorter, longer or missing altogether, it may result in reduced hypertrophy or no hypertrophy at all.
Let’s try understanding what each leg of the hypertrophy tripod means and why is each pillar equally important.
#1 Progressive Overload:
We bench press, dead-lift, squat, etc., deploying resistance to the muscles. Muscles are challenged with each repetition to work beyond their capability. When muscles face this type of challenge, microtrauma occurs at the cellular level. Workout by itself is highly catabolic. It breaks down the muscle, and this is unacceptable to the body.
Progressive overload is a stimulant for hypertrophy.
Unless the body has a solid reason to strengthen itself, it will not do so.
As the body adapts, it brings the muscle cells to their original size and further super-compensates by increasing their size, making them more significant. Once the body adapts, the same weight/ repetitions/ speed is less of a challenge. Our body becomes adapted and can handle more stress.
Now, a more significant challenge will increase the scope for hypertrophy or muscle growth. It could mean increasing the intensity of our training, lifting heavier weights, increasing speed, increasing the number of repetitions etc. To again initiate hypertrophy, overloading has to increase progressively.
We need to look at what works the best for muscle growth and fat loss or what guarantees us the highest return on investment with the least cost, time, risk and effort.
Nutrition for muscle building comes into the picture once the stimulus is given to the body to initiate hypertrophy. The most important raw material to build more muscle is first-class protein.
Progressive overload would only remain a stimulus for hypertrophy unless our diet is fortified or supplemented with enough first-class protein. Protein is the only component capable of muscle repair. Protein will repair the microtrauma caused by progressive overload and help muscle super-compensation, making our body stronger and fitter.
The amount of first-class protein consumption depends on the extent of microtrauma damage. If we end up falling short on first-class protein, hypertrophy may not occur.
We should always choose first-class protein over the inferior second class protein relating to plant sources like pulses, cereals etc. First-class protein relates to animal protein sources like milk, curd, meat, eggs etc. First-class proteins are better absorbed as they are complete protein sources, while second-class proteins are not efficiently absorbed as they are incomplete proteins.
Along with first-class protein, all other macronutrients and micronutrients should be consumed in enough quantities to ensure optimal hypertrophy. Always choose nutrients with high biological value. Micronutrients like calcium, vitamin C, vitamin E, B-complex vitamins, trace elements etc., play a crucial role in repairing microtrauma.
Please do not exceed the recommended dosage of fat-soluble micronutrients as they are incapable of dissolving in water and would be toxic to the body if consumed in excess. For example, vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, and its recommended dose falls between 400 to 600 mg per day. Anything higher than that can be potentially dangerous.
#3 Rest and Recovery:
Rest and recovery forms the third leg of the hypertrophy tripod.
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t build muscle when we exercise, but when we are resting (sleeping), recovering and recuperating.
During the recovery phase, we give time to our body to rebuild muscle and repair the damage using micronutrients and macronutrients. Please do not overtrain as this will cause excess catabolism and would not allow anabolism to take over catabolism, and you may suffer from muscle loss.
Refer to the diagram below to understand the relation between Catabolism and Anabolism. Together, both play a vital role in Muscle Growth, i.e. Hypertrophy.
Strength training is the most optimum way to achieve dramatic results in the shortest possible time with the least effort compared to any other way.
Muscles can grow in two ways - Hyperplasia and Hypertrophy.
All three legs of the hypertrophy tripod are equally essential. Shortening/ lengthening/ missing any of the legs would imbalance/ crash the hypertrophy tripod or at least, result in suboptimal hypertrophy.
Muscle gain (Hypertrophy) results in Fat Burn.
We need to train with sufficient intensity to cause microtrauma at the cellular level.
Maintaining proper (quality and quantity) micronutrition and macronutrition intake supports muscle growth.
Have enough rest and recovery periods between workouts.
Now we understand How, When and Why do Muscles Grow.
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