Muscle basics

I promise, I may have just one more theory post before we get into exercises and diets. I am now working in parallel on recording some exercises to publish next week. If this is the first article you are reading, I encourage you to explore the top menu and start with “My journey” and work your way through posts because it will motivate you and re-affirm the fact that you can succeed. The earlier articles build on essential concepts that you need to know to make the time you invest in the gym worthwhile.

Today we talk about muscles and why exercise builds muscle. Why we need to take protein in our diet to supplement workout and why sleep is an essential component to complete the process.

First off, here is an illustration of what a muscle unit looks like.


The Z-discs can be considered like anchor columns to which thin filaments called Actin are anchored. The M-Line is the anchor that holds thick filaments called Myosin. Actin and Myosin are proteins.

To perform work, muscle contracts and relaxes. In the image above if you imagine that the thick filaments could use their tentacles and pull towards the Z-Discs, then muscle contraction will happen. Then the muscle unit would look like below.


You will notice in the picture above that the thick filament almost touches the Z-Disc. In order to make this contraction, the muscle uses ADP (we spoke about this in our earlier post on energy systems). The thick filament uses units of ADP to grip the thin filament, grab further in the thin filament and release the previous anchor point on the thin filament. If you are interested in the detail, you can find a lot on google.

A series of muscle units are adjacent to each other and form a muscle fiber. Conceptually it would look like below:


There are three categories of muscles but our focus here is only on one type and that is the Skeletal muscle. the other categories of muscles are organized differently. Skeletal muscles are anchored to the skeleton and perform work on our command. As discussed in earlier posts, we have fast twitch and slow twitch muscles.

When we exercise our muscles, our objective is to stress the muscle and gradually overload it so that muscles form micro tears. These micro tears become points where the body will perform repairs while we sleep. Every micro tear when repaired strengthens the muscle and adds bulk. To repair the muscles, the body needs protein. This is why exercise without proper protein intake in diet will invalidate your exercise.

Lack of proper sleep prevents the body from properly repairing the micro tears. You can know that you had a proper work out session if you get DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) in  24 – 30 hours after your work out. In my opinion, as long as you are on a body building phase, lack of DOMS after workout indicates that you have not stressed your muscles adequately. You need to increase loads or Reps. Never work out the muscle before DOMS is gone. This is why we need to plan a workout targeting different muscle groups for different days of the week.

If you are able to do 12 reps of an exercise with 15 pounds and feel intense strain to complete the last few reps of the third set, you are adequately loaded. The moment the last three sets cease to be challenging,  you need to increase your weights. High rep sets lead to what is called as Hypertrophy which is characterized by increase in muscle volume. In other words you build muscles.

A beginner is advised to start with low weights and 12 – 16 reps because this helps recruit maximum motor units and muscle fibers. Once you are established with good technique, you can begin progressive overload. There are various techniques to design workouts to safely incorporate progressive overload.

Similar to high rep sets, we have low rep sets where you lift weights that you cannot repeat for more than 3 reps. These sets produce strength with little addition of muscle volume. The body has a way of optimizing motor unit recruitment under heavy weight and low reps. This is the reason why you may see skinny guys benching 60 pounds while much muscular guys are on similar or lesser weights. This also explains why construction workers can heft unwieldy heavy objects way better than a body builder.

Ask yourself what your objective is. If it is strength, go for low reps after your foundation is built. If it is volume, go for high reps. For ideal results, you need to work somewhere between focus on strength and focus on volume. that is where workout tailoring comes into play. We will take a case study next post and discuss further.

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Filed under: Athletic


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