Is Muscle Hypertrophy Good, Bad, or Somewhere in the Middle? 3.5 Things to Consider

A thought-leader and respected friend, Mike Boyle, told me that this article (Muscle Mass, BMI, and Mortality Among Adults in the United States: A Population-Based Cohort Study) is too complicated and not KISS¹ certified. I said “agreed, but there is something important here that Coaches, Trainers, or humans, in general, need to understand. I’m going to take a page out of your book and aim to be an interpreter on this one.”

The info below is intended to do just that.

If you want to skip all of the below and just snag the goods, then you suck but here are the goods: Muscle size is not enough. It is deeper than that especially if you are training for, or even care a small amount about,  longevity (longevity: being awesome for as long as possible). The muscle fiber that is responsible for fast movement is too often neglected and the longevity benefits kick in when all of our muscle types are targeted in a training program.


 

If you’re still here that means that you want more and don’t suck like those jacka**es who took the best parts and left.

Maybe you’re wondering why this matters? Or if it’s too complicated and now I’m scared? Or if the White Walkers will end up in the Throne?

 

*Update: Thrones is over since starting to draft this article, but Ima leave this here just to rub in the fact that BRAN GOT THE THRONE. WHAAAAATTTTT TF?!

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Ben Greenfield discussed the same article (referenced above) in one of his PodCasts (full transcription here)

There is a TON to unpack with all of this.

I’d like to start with adding some context for the lens that I am looking through when considering this information.

That lens being: 80% of people who work out to look a little better, feel more athletic, improve their health and wellness for the long-term, and/or generally enjoy how it feels to make fitness a PERMANENT part of their lifestyle. What I did not include in there are the 20%-ers who have some form of sport tied to fitness like Bodybuilding, CrossFit, Powerlifting, etc.

All of which have their benefits, but also carry an assumed risk² both for short and long-term health.

*did I just lose 1/2 of you with that above statement? 3/4? All of you? Hello?

*that or you threw your phone and while throwing it finally tore your labrum becuse it was all jacked up from the last 356 (+/- 23) Kipping Pull Up thing-things.

 

There are 3 .5 things to look at with all of this:

  1. The Muscle Mass, BMI, and Mortality Among Adults… study essentially says that the more muscle mass someone has, the less chance they have of dying. This statement refers to the fact that people with too much body fat and not enough muscle are prone to a multitude of scary things that lead to mortality. The problem with that is that people take that information and swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and think that a ton of muscle must be good. This is where we start to see the assumption that the massive bodybuilders are the epitome of health and we should all strive for that. The thing that a lot of people don’t know is that these impressive physiques come with a cost. Which brings us to the next point.

2. There are health risks associated with too much muscle. Ben Greenfield did a great job summarizing that with the following:

“And I actually don’t like this study [Muscle Mass, BMI, and Mortality Among Adults], I don’t like this study because muscle mass, in the absence of any other considerations is actually something that I think is a reason that a lot of bodybuilders we see dying young, we see them getting left ventricular hypertrophy and what’s called cardiomegaly because they have way too much muscle, especially in their heart, cardiac tissue. They have a lot of muscle to carry and cool, which is metabolically expensive, the more muscle you have, the more free radicals are generated from the muscular activity so the more antioxidants you need. And I think that these studies that look at muscle mass in the absence of actual muscle quality are flawed.”

“It turns out that the insulin resistance of a muscle, the fast-twitch/slow-twitch muscle fiber capacity of a muscle meaning a muscle that’s more equipped with explosive fast-twitch fibers appears to confer longevity benefits more than the slow-twitch, endurance-based muscles. The ability of a muscle to have motor units that are recruited like the nervous system’s ability to be able to grab more muscle fibers and recruit them, the ability of a muscle to be able to burn fatty acids, the mitochondrial density of a muscle, essentially the quality of a muscle trumps the quantity of the muscle.”

link to that statement

That “free radicals” part is something that I wish more people understood and took seriously. Free radicals are confusing because you need a basic understanding of Chemistry. In short, they occur in all of us and when they are out of control they can be associated with all types of issues. The top 3 being: Central Nervous System diseases (such as Alzheimer’s,) diabetes, and chronic inflammatory issues such as cancer.

Am I saying that if you have big muscles, you’re going to get cancer? Absolutely not, but I do think that most of us write-off free radicals because we can’t see them and they can be confusing. Having a lot of muscle (hypertrophy/size) can lead to more free radicals. The more anti-oxidants you get through food and quality water help to keep the free radicals under control.

3. Having said all of that, the point of all of this is that we need to have a sufficient amount of muscle on our bodies. Not too much and not too little. A good balance allows our body to be strong, to be fueled with energy, and have reduced risks of chronic diseases. The problem is that if someone just trains for the muscle to be big they will develop muscles that aren’t good at all of the things that lead to longevity benefits. We need to do exercises that train those explosive wiry muscles as well so that we can gain all of the benefits.

3.5: How: Throw medicine balls and do Box Jumps the right way in every single workout. Yes, do traditional strength training, but we all need both. Fast work, over a short period of time, needs to be a focus during the weekly recipe of workouts.

The answer is not that difficult when you think about it because like most things in life it is: somewhere in the middle. We want muscle that is strong, fast and explosive and has endurance capabilities. This is how we will maximize longevity benefits.

I’m proud to be involved with the MBSC Thrive Program which systematically balances training to target both strength and power development in a safe and effective way. Put simply, making people better at life for as long as possible.

 

Note: if you have a critically low amount of muscle in general, then just starting to move and build some muscle is a lot more important than worrying about the quality/quantity. That can be a later focus.

 

Thanks for reading and Kaizen on

 


 

¹Keep It Stupid Simple

²Assumed risk: like dropping in on a halfpipe in the X-Games the assumed risk is injury and the reward is being at the top of your sport. For some people that reward is worth it. 

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