Muscle: 5 real facts
The word ‘muscle’ is quite evocative in the fitness media.
Muscle is good, fat is bad. Every fitness promise is built upon the guarantee to build, sculpt, tone, lengthen, strengthen it.
The flexed bicep is a universal symbol for strength, power and vitality.
From a biological and evolutionary perspective it makes sense that muscle is attractive but muscle worship and the idealisation of a ‘perfect’ body has probably only become mainstream for the last 40 to 50 years, thanks to Schwartznegger and Co.
It’s pretty fair to say the whole fitness industry is basically constructed around it, and the quest for it.
As a result the bulk of the marketing budget has been poured into making this interest in muscle into profit, leading to a lot of ‘creative licence’ when it comes to propagating myths and untruths about it in the name of selling product.
The industry has been so good and so persuasive that many of these myths are now taken as ‘common sense’ by the general public.
As always, it’s important to know the truth so you can set yourself realistic expectations and to stop spending money on unless products and routines.
Here are some common misconceptions about muscle and the truth behind them.
Myth #1 You can shape a muscle
There’s a big difference between fully developing a muscle and changing its shape.
If you’re into bodybuilding or weight training there’s a lot of articles out there about how to make your bicep more ‘peaked’ or pronounced by doing a certain exercise or holding the bar in a certain way.
The thing is, the way your particular skeletal muscle is put together is unique to you. The shape of your arms or your chest is genetic and you can’t drastically change it.
Truth: What you can do is develop your muscle fully by making sure you practice full range of motion and use good form. Then you’ll develop it to its best potential. But you can’t change its shape.
Myth #2 You can turn fat to muscle
Muscle and fat are two different types of cell.
You may have heard of the term ‘hypertrophy’. This is the primary way a person’s muscle size increases when working out: not adding new muscle cells (that’s called hyperplasia), but increasing the size of the cells.
Studies have also shown that you acquire the quantity of fat cells in your body during puberty. Getting fat works the same way as the muscles: your existing fat cells get larger, rather than you gaining more.
So if you gain or lose muscle or fat you are actually just enlarging or shrinking the cells that you have. They don’t change their characteristics.
One thing important to note is that you can’t spot-reduce fat. What I mean is that you can’t target an area and try to lose fat there or turn the area into muscle.
Fat loss is a whole body process: you need to lower your overall body fat levels to get a toned stomach or reveal your abdominals.
Related article: How many sit-ups should I do to lose fat around my waist?
Truth: If you are fat and want to get muscular, you have to decrease your fat first by lowering your calorie intake, eating healthy, doing cardiovascular exercise and working out.
Myth #3 Muscle turns to fat once you stop working out
Again, muscle is a different cell from fat; it can’t change into it.
Muscle mass is acquired because your body adapts to get used to handling a larger load. When you stop, all that happens is that your body realises the same stimulus is not being applied, so it has no reason to be ready: your muscles shrink and you lose muscle mass.
This myth probably comes from the images of former bodybuilders or athletes who become particularly fat once they retire.
This isn’t due to their muscle changing to fat, it’s most likely because they didn’t change their dietary habits after they stopped heavy exercise.
Muscle cells require quite a bit of energy to maintain them and therefore if you have a high muscle mass you need to eat more to keep it. When you exercise or work-out you’re also placing energy demands on your body through the activity itself.
So those who exercise regularly get used to eating more, and more often. Once they stop their caloric demand drops but they continue to eat the same way. When the energy is not used, it is stored as fat.
They look like their muscle has turned to fat.
Truth: You should moderate your calorie intake according to your current exercise regime. If you stop exercising for a few week to go on holiday don’t expect to eat the same way as when you were exercising four times a week and not put on fat.
Myth #4 You can lengthen or shorten a muscle
Try this out: flex your arm in the bicep pose, with your fist facing away from you. Look at the shape of your biceps muscle.
Now turn your fist so the palm is facing towards you.
You should see that the bicep shortens when you twist your hand. Now look at the gap between the bulge of your bicep and the bend in your arm.
If there is a gap more than an inch then you have a long tendon attaching the muscle to the bone (like me). If the gap is less than an inch you have a short tendon.
Unlike your muscles, you can’t grow your tendons. They’re purely there to attach the muscle to the bone. The gap you have is genetic and you can’t change it.
The muscle itself can get larger but the size of that gap will never change, no matter how many ‘lower biceps’ movements you do.
This is true for all muscles in the body: you can be born with short biceps tendons but have long tendons in your calves for example.
From a bodybuilding and muscle size perspective you’re lucky if you have a short tendon: this means that there is more potential for the muscle to grow and the muscle will look bigger and fuller as result.
As you can see, I’m not that lucky!
People like Arnold Schwartznegger were blessed with short tendons pretty much everywhere, which contributed a lot to the full and aesthetic look he achieved.
Truth: Like shape, muscle length is down to the genetic length of your tendons and where they attach. Trying to focus on something like developing the lower bicep is not going to make it longer or fuller.
Myth #5 Muscle size is dependent on how hard you train and what you eat
For those of you who regularly read this blog I know I keep hammering this point. But it is a crucial one, because I think it is one of the biggest scams out there.
Obviously I’m not saying that training intensity and eating right has no effect on your muscle growth.
It’s pretty obvious that you need to train correctly and challenge your muscles which then adapt and grow by consuming enough calories and protein. This will help you get to your genetic potential.
Pretty quickly though you are limited by your hormones: you only have so much natural testosterone (the hormone needed to build and maintain muscle) which means that there is a natural limit for how big your muscles can get.
Truth: What you eat and how consistently and intensely you train are major factors in how well you develop muscle size, if that is your goal.
However there is a very real limit to how big you can get without drugs, which from studies of natural bodybuilding champions is actually a lot less than you have been led to believe by the supplement companies and others.
Read the related article above for more.
So 5 basic facts. These might not be that important to you if you’re not training specifically for muscle, but just remember that you can’t always believe what you hear!
Use these facts to help you set yourself real expectations and plan your training.
Subscribe below to get the free monthly newsletter!