by Aaron Friday, 11/14/2017
Part 1 describes how muscle mass improves body composition and helps to reduce disease risk as we age. Part 2 discusses another important benefit of muscle mass, which is…
During the first couple months of a weight-training program, we get stronger primarily due to nervous-system adaptations like increased motor-unit recruitment (i.e., using more of the muscle tissue we already have).
As we continue to train beyond a few months, however, our muscles eventually get the hint and start to grow in response to the repeated stress. This is known as hypertrophy — the increase in muscle cross-sectional area. Muscle fibers that are stressed over and over will increase in size and number, resulting in a bigger overall muscle that can produce more force and power than it could before. All else being equal, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, and stronger muscles increase our physical abilities across the board.
When it comes to muscle strength, there is no difference between men and women. A given amount of muscle mass will produce a certain amount of force, whether that muscle mass belongs to a man or a woman. The approach to gaining muscle also does not depend on one’s sex. We all need growth-stimulating workouts, repeated frequently and over a long period of time, combined with a diet that contains enough protein and calories to repair and build new muscle.
Strength, Muscle Mass, and Aging
Losing muscle mass as we age (known as sarcopenia) results in the loss of physical abilities – and not just recreational or athletic skills we may have acquired like playing tennis or skiing, but basic activities of living such as walking, getting up off the floor, and climbing stairs. Quality of life is clearly diminished if we don’t maintain our muscle mass as we age.
The only way to fend off sarcopenia is resistance training. Regardless of age, people who train with weights can increase muscle mass, get stronger, and improve their balance as well as maintain quickness, coordination, and other physical abilities they’ve cultivated during their lives. This is truly a case of “use it or lose it.”
Objections to Gaining Muscle
Interestingly, the thought of putting on muscle seems to worry some people. Here are some objections I’ve heard.
I don’t want to gain weight; I’m here to lose weight!
Typically, when we talk about losing “weight,” we’re actually talking about losing fat. Gaining muscle boosts your metabolism, which helps you lose fat. Get your metabolism healthy first, then pay attention to body composition. See Part 1.
I don’t want to have huge muscles like those… [vague reference to professional bodybuilders].
It is highly unlikely that you will get huge muscles without trying! Even among competitive bodybuilders, the vast majority are nowhere near as big and muscular as professionals, although though many of them are trying.
I don’t want other people to think I’m vain.
There are excellent reasons to care about muscle mass that have nothing to do with one’s appearance. However, improving one’s appearance is as valid a reason as any, if that’s what you want to do.
I just want to be strong. I don’t want a bunch of “useless” muscle mass.
There is no such thing as useless muscle mass. If it’s not needed, nature makes sure that it goes away. Rest assured, any muscle mass you gain from kettlebell training will be highly functional body weight.
I’ve seen smaller people lift more weight than bigger, more muscular people.
A lot of factors besides muscle mass determine how much weight a person can lift. Here are a few:
- Skill in doing that particular lift (coordination, timing, sensitivity, balance)
- Relative limb lengths and placement of muscle insertions (i.e., leverages) for that particular lift
- Amount of fast- vs. slow-twitch muscle fiber (genetically predetermined)
- Thickness of the bones, ligaments, and tendons (largely genetically predetermined)
- Body symmetry vs. asymmetry
- Motivation, perseverance, and pain tolerance
A lot goes into lifting. And yet, more muscle mass equals more strength, all else being equal.
I don’t want to look masculine.
Women have a harder time gaining muscle mass than men because they have only a small fraction of the testosterone that men have. My wife has state records in weightlifting and powerlifting, is very lean and muscular, and doesn’t look masculine at all. Masculine physical characteristics come from male hormones, so stay away from the anabolic steroids!