Muscle growth should be a fitness goal

Health & Fitness column

In most of my fitness articles I give advice on sensible ways to lose weight and burn body fat. Although I get fewer requests for advice on gaining weight and building muscle, this should be a goal of most. Even those wanting to gain weight do not want to gain fat and those that want to lose weight should not want to lose muscle.

Many of my clients, especially women, say they just want to “tone” and not build. Although I also use that term because it is less intimidating, toning really does not exist; it is a misnomer. Muscle is already firm. There is no such thing as a “flabby muscle”, only flabby fat. The toning effect is what occurs when we build muscle and strip away the overlying fat. If you’re concerned about getting too big by building muscle, don’t be. A pound of muscle is a lot denser than a pound of body fat. If you’re over 35 and have been inactive, especially females, any muscle you gain is probably less than what you have already lost.

Muscle growth, known as hypertrophy, is the development of muscle cells usually through proper exercise induced stress. The amount of muscle growth that occurs depends on upper genetic limits of cell size. Muscle size increases through increased volume of fluid in the muscle cell and by increasing the contractile proteins. All of these proteins comprise about 20% of muscle. Water, and other nutrients comprise the other 80% of muscle.

Although growth can occur in all muscle fiber types, fast-twitch fibers are more likely than slow-twitch fibers to respond to intense strength training. This may be one reason why strength athletes and sprinters tend to be more muscular than endurance athletes, and why heavier loads tend to stimulate more muscle growth than light loads.

Muscles respond to the demands placed on them, but muscle growth with inadequate nutrition is less likely to take place. There are 600 calories in a pound of muscle; a pound of fat contains 3,500. The way our hormones respond to training, and affect muscle growth, depends a lot on our nutritional status, not just how many calories we’re taking in. One bout of resistance training can stimulate protein turnover for at least 48 hours. During this time, if energy intake is adequate and protein represents at least 12 percent to 15 percent of our energy intake, growth can occur. This equates to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. A kilogram equals about 2.2 pounds. For those on an energy-restricted diet for fat loss, protein needs for muscle recovery and growth are likely closer to 1.5 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.

Additional guidelines to assure that muscle growth occurs include the following:

— Train towards contraction failure; 6-12 repetitions per set is the optimal range for muscle growth.

— Take relatively short rest periods of 30 to 90 seconds between sets.

— Perform sufficient work per muscle group along with sufficient recuperation time between workouts.

— Be consistent with training.

— Get adequate sleep — 7 to 8 hours a night.

Most of us who weight train do so to improve the appearance of our body. Women who gain muscle mass while remaining relatively lean appear firm and more “toned.” Men who gain muscle mass while remaining lean appear stronger, and more athletic. Those that go on a restricted calorie diet without proper exercise often lose muscle and develop the dreaded “skinny-fat” look.

More important than just the way we look, muscle growth improves function. Gaining muscle makes us stronger, leading to improved daily functioning. Muscle is metabolically active, and affects the way the body handles nutrients. For instance, people who are more muscular and leaner typically have better insulin control.

Strength training is not just for the young. In our facility we have several members in their 90s. Growing older is associated with a loss of muscle mass, better known as sarcopenia. Preserving muscle mass can preserve strength, and minimize the loss of muscle function as we age. Muscles respond to the demands we put on them. By demanding your muscles to lift loads, they’ll respond by getting stronger. By just sitting on the couch muscles atrophy from disuse, leaving you weak and prone to many health issues.

No matter what your ability or age, including relatively intense exercise, particularly strength training, in your fitness regime is essential.

Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine, and Fitness Nutrition Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He has been in the fitness industry for over 35 years.