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Body Composition, 15. Meathead

You didn’t know your body was a meathead, did you? When it shoves glycogen inside of the muscle, the glycogen is locked away solely for the muscle! Ha! Screw you brain, the muscle is more important than you!

Except, for most people alive and breathing, the muscle isn’t more important than the brain. And this is why most human beings are wired for fat gain. Body fat can keep you alive under times of harsh nutritional duress. It can be broken down into ketone scraps and give the brain what it needs. But muscle glycogen has no chance for that fate.

So it seems your body would rather be stricken physically inept yet breathing and cognizant if it meant staying alive. This is starvation 101. Can’t do much physically, but at least you’re still ticking and tocking.

Doesn’t make sense to store precious energy inside a permanently locked vault. You wouldn’t put money in a permanently locked vault, would you?

Luckily, muscle isn’t a permanently locked vault. It’s locked under most circumstances, but not all. And your body is more than willing to bust open the vault when needed.

Muscle glycogen is muscle fuel (shocking, I know) of a certain flavor. So how to open the vault? Use your muscles a certain way.

You eat. You eat enough. You have excess. Brain and sedentary logic says, “Flinch excess to body fat. Because, ketones and all that jazz. Fat is the safest place to put the extra in the long term.”

But now you throw yourself in a city rampant with lions and where you have to regularly sprint (not jog or walk, for reasons you’ll come to know soon) to stay alive. What if you have to run away from lions and you don’t stock your muscle with energy? Suddenly, there’s conflict.

On the one hand, you have the safe bet in body fat storage. On the other hand, if you don’t cater to your muscle, you’ll get eaten by a lion. When you get excess, where’s the best place for storage?

 

Thoughts on sets, repetitions, volume, and building muscle

Anthony Mychal Front Double Biceps

I’m often asked about the relationship between repetitions, volume, and building muscle. I used to kill myself over matters like this. I used to worry about whether five reps (or maybe six reps!) would be my golden ticket. I’ve since relinquished most worry because I’ve adopted a certain worldview. Below is the meat of this worldview, followed by some equally as meaty takeaways.

How muscle is built

First, if you’re caught up in this, you’re over thinking things. To this day, no one really knows how muscle is created. There are theories. But before you get all sticky in the theories, ask yourself: why do you care? There are a lot of people that learn how to build muscle without knowing the sloppy details (ahem, “theories”) of muscle building.

Go to any gym in your area. Even terrible gyms, like Planet Fitness. You’ll see a lot of meatheads with muscle. They won’t be able to tell you the first thing about a sarcomere. (I don’t know if I can tell you much about a sacromere either.)

There’s a difference between the phenomenology and the phenomenon. Find the latter. The list of theories on muscle growth grows with time. There exists caveats with each explanation. You can listen to ideas of micro-trauma via weight-training and whatnot, but there are no lions and gorillas pumping iron and worrying about microtrauma.

Empirical evidence

Trying to hack the human body requires first accepting (that is, unless you’re trying to be a con artist and trying to fool others into buying the next gimmick) that there are more causal factors affecting any given outcome than we typically attempt to fathom. See emergence. See reductionism. We try (unsuccessfully) to peg muscle building down to one thing, but it’s rarely one thing.

What do we know? I’m a fan of empiricism. That’s my backbone. So we’ll start with some consistent observations. We know that astronauts wither into nothingness when living in the vacuum of space. Their bone density and muscle tissue plummet. So there’s something about the stress of gravity and gravity-esque stress that appears to support muscle.

But we also know gravity isn’t the lone factor enabling muscle growth. Otherwise women and men would have the same muscle mass on average. Not the case. So you dig further. Hmm, hormones. Yeah. Those seem to impact things. Then dig further and understand that food impacts hormones, so there’s nutrition to consider.

n-Body problem

Already I’ve introduced three factors impacting muscle growth. And if I can playfully borrow, from physics, the three body problem: when more than two things are involved in a system and you’re trying to predict outcomes, get a pocket protector, stop going to the gym, get some glasses, and become a full time scientist. Because that’s your only shot at making a prediction.

Muscle mass, to me, isn’t sets or reps. Overtly, at least. It’s nothing glamorous that can exist on an enticing blog headline (accompanied by a number, creating a listicle). Muscle mass is, instead, a manifestation of an existence that demands the creation of muscle mass. And then giving the body what it needs to support the investment.

If living in the vacuum of space eats muscle and living on Earth vomits muscle, then its best, if you want to be even more muscular, to live on Jupiter. Barbell and bodyweight training are the best gravitational replicators. Maybe you knew their power. Good. Still doesn’t solve the set and rep quandary. But it’s not supposed to.

Think of existing on Jupiter. Dealing with a constant stressor. The Soviets (just about all worthwhile sports science was born here, and most western studies simply regurgitate what has already been known for decades) found one thing correlated to muscle growth more than anything else: volume. And volume is (SETS x REPS x WEIGHT). What kind of training allows you to accumulate the most volume? Something that’s of decent enough weight that you can do for decent enough reps and repeat for decent enough sets.

Muscle building formula

Ambiguous, right? Perhaps this is more hardcorely put by Dan John, who might have stolen it from someone else (I can’t remember): the answer has never been high reps for low weight or low reps for high weight, it’s always been high weight for high reps. You need a combination of stress and volume.  For stress, think relative load. More weight = more stress. For volume, think reps across a training session (or even week), not necessarily reps in one set.

Ultimately, the closer you train to your maximum (and thus, lower reps per set) = better for the grand stimulus. But training at 1RM intensity isn’t sustainable. You can’t accumulate a lot of volume.

  • Too heavy = can’t accumulate a lot of volume because you’re held back by sets and reps.
  • Too light = can’t accumulate a lot of volume because you’re held back by weight.

Being cliché, there’s something to the 5-10 repetition range that seems to be an ideal blend. But get away from repetitions and all that jazz for now. Go back to Jupiter. Think of two things: (1) being able to exist shortly within the higher stress environment, (2) being able to tolerate for a longer time the higher stress environment.

  • Higher stress environment = better.
  • More tolerance within said stress = better.

So the higher your strength, the better. But, also, the more you express that strength, the better. There are two ways to express the strength:

  • Strength-endurance = many sets in one session without much rest between sets.
  • Strength-tolerance = ability to express strength at a high frequency.

I’ve seen some of my best muscle gains doing high frequency training (strength-tolerance). It bridges the gap between strength-endurance and volume, in my eyes. For instance, people often forget, unless you can crank out 20+ consecutive chin-ups, you’re often working with, say, a 15RM doing just bodyweight chin-ups for a set of 10 reps.

Where a lot of people may be able to do one set at 10 reps, they may not be able to do 2, 3, 4, or 5 sets without gnarling into a ball of fatigue or taking serious breaks in between sets to finish the workload. So if you’re trying to accumulate more volume, you’re probably better off spreading the workload across multiple sessions. Maybe do 2 sets of 10 chin-ups three days per week instead of 6 sets of 10 chin-ups one day per week.

Of course, this ignores the fatigue and metabolic accumulation that happens when condensing the workload into one session with minimal rest in between sets vs. condensing the workload into one session with generous rest in between sets vs. spreading the workload across multiple sessions. The absolute adaptations in each scenario won’t be the same. Just like eating 5000 calories one day and 0 calories for four days won’t be exactly the same as eating 1000 calories for five straight days. But I feel that most biological questions are filled with more uncertainty than we tend to estimate.

I think the muscle mass should be seen in flux, like the rest of the body. Sometimes not caring about muscle (or losing muscle) can be the most powerful way to eventually trigger muscle building. Sometimes boosting neural abilities can help future muscle building pursuits. Sometimes boosting metabolic…

…you get the idea. Emergence. Everything is connected in ways we probably can’t fathom, and in ways we are probably hurt by trying to fathom. So let’s get to some meaty takeaways.

A. You need to give your body reason to build muscle.

Beyond what’s going to get programmed with Earthly gravity stress and being human, you need to signal for the creation of more muscle mass. There are two facets of this: stress (higher gravity, AKA more weight to overcome) and volume. So I’d say anyone stronger has the potential to be more muscular.

And then beyond strength, the next qualification is expressing said level of strength frequently. And to calculate “frequently” you’re probably best looking at SETS x REPS and considering the weight used in relation to your 1RM.

B. 20RM to 10RM.

Save for edge cases, I’d say training with a weight that’s between your 10RM and 15RM is the way to go, with your 10RM being a weight you’re going to chuck multiple sets of 5’s with and your 15RM being a weight you’re going to chuck multiple sets of 10’s with.

You can extend to 20RM for edge cases, methinks. Anything lighter and you’ve extended beyond the realm of traditional strength training, perhaps into the realm of slow-twitch protocols. But I wouldn’t worry about those until you’re already plenty strong and muscular and thus probably not asking this question to begin with.

On the other end, it’s not that anything heavier can’t be of use. It can be. But you then have to do many many sets, which can become about as fun as smashing your head into a wall until it bleeds. It can also be rather aggressive on your joints and your body.

C. Consider food.

Energy can’t be created or destroyed. If you want your body to fathom more tissue, your body has to get the materials from somewhere. If you aren’t eating more food than you need across an extended period of time, then your body won’t have the supplies needed. Your body isn’t going to break down and sacrifice your internal organs in the name of building muscle. Muscle is extra. Plumage. It’s like a boat. You only buy a boat if your basic needs are covered and you have some extra cash.

D. Don’t give yourself the chance to care.

Getting into behavior economics has impacted my training more than any anatomy, physiology, or sports science book. I’m an overthinker with the inability to make decisions and the propensity to be handcuffed by choices. And so something I strive to do more and more: eliminate my chance to choose.

Back when I was trying to create programs for myself, I made it easier by storing all of my equipment away save for a barbell and gymnastics rings. This forced me into hammering away a handful of exercises.

If obsessing over sets and reps is destroying your progress (not feeling confident, always changing and looking for something magical) then here’s what you do: eliminate your choice to care.

We’re a product of random rules. Convention. We have plates of certain weight for no good reason, save for it helping Olympians lift one more pound than the next goober. What if you created a kind of training atmosphere that demanded you go through times of both high repetitions and lower repetitions?

A lot more guys (me included) would be better off playing the 10-25-45 game, which is another Dan John thing. You either add 10’s to the bar, 25’s to the bar, or 45’s to the bar. This forces you make harsher jumps and train both with a weight you’re less comfortable with for low(er) repetitions and with a weight you’re more comfortable with for high(er) repetitions.

Final takeaways

Given the advice above, there are some final guideposts.

  • For Level 1 n00bs, getting stronger (handling more weight on the bar) is the way to go because strength allows you to accumulate more volume.
  • Those that want to get strong without gaining muscle should be mostly worried about keeping volume to a minimum.
  • There’s not as much of a dichotomy between strength and muscle mass as most people believe. There are some differences, philosophically, when training solely for muscle. But that’s a conversation for another day.
  • There’s an inverse relationship between training frequency and volume per training session. More volume in one session = more fatigue = more rest needed. So if you train a movement pattern less often, you need to do more sets to hit the needed volume.

And I’m sure there are more things I’m missing. This started out as an email reply and blossomed into this essay you’re reading now. Hopefully it’s helpful. When it doubt, think gravity + tolerance. More gravity = better. More tolerance (via reps, sets, frequency) = better. I don’t know if it needs to get more complicated.

 

Body Composition, 14. Roadkill

Certain carbohydrates preferentially restock liver glycogen. So if you have a relatively empty liver glycogen tank and eat these carbohydrates, you fill the tank. But the tank isn’t all that big.

If you eat an excess of carbohydrates, beyond what fills the tank, your body uses its wizardry to turn glucose/glycogen into fat. And, to understand why, think about survival. Remember, Hjaarn is worried about the future. He won’t just throw money (or potential money) down the dumpster.

Your body doesn’t gain fat as punishment for you sins. Body fat is a miracle, really. You can survive longer in dire situations (no food) with more body fat. (There was actually a study done on this, by the way.) Bears fatten up before hibernating because they won’t have a lot of incoming food. 

Imagine if you didn’t have any fat inside of you. I’m not talking about being lean and having a six pack. I’m talking about no fat cells. You don’t eat for one day, so your liver glycogen runs out. No liver glycogen, no brain food. So your brain goes to the backup in body fat. But, oh, wait! That’s gone, too. MUSCLE, THEN. WHAT ABOUT THE MUSCLE? Nope. Glycogen in the muscle is locked away to be used only by the muscle. So one day without food and you’re close to becoming roadkill. Bummer.

  • Liver glycogen – more immediate need, short term
  • Muscle glycogen – locked away
  • Body fat – long term need, future

The only choice for brain food without body fat and liver glycogen is muscle tissue itself. So, say bye bye muscle tissue. But breaking down muscle tissue isn’t ideal. It’s like selling the tire of your car. It’s useful in the short term if you need the immediate cash, but in the long term it’s going to hurt you if you need to drive anywhere.

And in the evolutionary scheme of things? Famine was a real thing. If you listen to the paleolithic pushers, humans routinely went without food for hours and hours (even day[s]). Body fat is the safe, obvious play for excess because it can keep the brain alive in time of need without the drawbacks of zapping muscle tissue.

Body Composition, 13. Glycogen

Flinching and alternative currency is logical when paralleled to the financial world, as long as you have a lick of financial wherewithal. (I barely have a lick.) But what about inside the body? To frame your inner workings, we start with your body’s “bank accounts.” Remember, you’re using energy every second of every day. Money is being pulled from your accounts and stored within your accounts under your nose 24/7.

Your brain is kind of important. It needs energy. Despite only making up a sliver of your overall body mass, it accounts for about 20% of your daily energy use. It’s running 24/7. Fueling the brain is near the top of things to do on the “How to Survive 101” list.

Within normal Western circumstance, the brain gobbles up glycogen. Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrate. You eat carbohydrates, they get broken into glucose. If the glucose isn’t used, excess is stored as glycogen. And there are two places you store glycogen: (a) the liver, (b) the muscle.

The glycogen inside of your muscle is trapped. Locked away. Only to be used by the muscle. The brain can’t steal muscle glycogen. So the brain relies on liver glycogen.

Liver glycogen stores are finite. The precise number isn’t important right now. Just know that liver glycogen depletes much like fuel in a car. If you eat regular meals containing carbohydrates, you fill the tank when you eat. It’s like stopping at a gas station.

But assume you don’t eat. You’ll reach empty if you don’t eat. Luckily, when liver glycogen hits empty, your body uses it’s wizardry to fill the tank. You can create energy (glycogen) from materials hanging around inside of you. It’s like a car deciding that it can get by without some random hunk of metal underneath the hood, so it breaks the hunk of metal down and transforms it into the more immediate need (fuel). In more biological terms, something like muscle tissue is a viable option to get broken down in the name of replenishing liver glycogen for the brain.

But the brain has a second option. It can switch fuel sources. “Glycogen? Pshhh. I can run perfectly fine on ketones.” Ketones come from the breakdown of fat. And this breakdown begins running the brain show if you press the right buttons.

By avoiding certain types of carbohydrates (and avoiding an overly high protein diet, as some protein can also become glycogen) or by fasting (not eating) for long(ish) period of time (say, 24-hours), your body recognizes (a) the shortage of glycogen, and (b) the lack of incoming material with glycogen potential. Being a survival specialist, the brain begins to run on ketones. If your body is in this fat-break-down mode, you’re said to be in nutritional ketosis.

(Meaning, you’re inducing ketosis via nutritional means, which is much much different than something like ketoacidosis which typically only happens in people with type 1 diabetes. Nutritional ketosis = generally safe, no issue. Ketoacidosis = very dangerous. Most people confuse the two. The best differentiator I’ve heard comes from Peter Attia who said nutritional ketosis is like a fireplace, whereas ketoacidosis is like a house fire. Both are similar. But one is controlled and useful. The other is wild and dangerous.)

Your brain can run on ketones confidently because fat is an abundant resource inside your body. Especially compared to liver glycogen. Even the leanest mortals on earth (think 10% body fat) have enough fat inside of them to survive for days without food.

This glycogen-to-ketone shift doesn’t happen overnight. There’s an adaptive period. Most people going through the adaptive period feel lethargic and poopy (to use wonderful prose). But those that get through the adaptive days (a few days to a week, from what I know), tend to report feeling wonderful in the long run.

And now’s a good time to remind you: there are performance implications here. Those come later. The more immediate lesson I’m conveying is that your body can shift to survive on a much more plentiful fuel source in body fat if needed. Although the brain initially selects glycogen, there is a backup plan.

Terraform, 09. Fractal

Elements are diagnostic because, in some way, they are fractal. (This is my attempt to use a cool word in order to bolster my self-esteem and Internet image. Please, allow me to convince you I’m both smarter and more popular than I really am. How many Twitter followers do I have?) Or, at least, we want them to be fractal. When you play notes in isolation, they become integrated into a full song in the same manner of play.

A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. Fractals can also be nearly the same at different levels.

Wikipedia

The elements scale with complexity. In other words, if you do an element with a certain kind of firing sequence, you’re probably going to see that sequence show up in a similar (yet more complex) pattern. It’s not a guarantee, but the rules of motor learning err to it happening.

  • Unconscious Incompetent: you’re doing things wrong and you don’t know how or why.
  • Conscious Incompetent: you’re doing this wrong and you know how and why.
  • Conscious Competence: you’re doing things right but it requires a lot of thought.
  • Unconscious Competence: you’re doing things right out of automaticity.

So if your knees cave in during a squat, they’re probably going to cave during a vertical jump. If your elbows flare out during a push-up, they’re probably going to flare during a bench press. And they’re probably going to flare when you’re in a bar fight, pushing the creepy guy that wouldn’t stop staring at your girlfriend.

The faster you demand your body to react, the more you rely on instinct, and instinct comes from the wiring ingrained within your body.

It takes 0.2 seconds to do a vertical jump. You can’t think about much in 0.2 seconds. You shouldn’t be thinking during those 0.2 seconds. It’s often said that great athletes are hindbrain dominant, which means they’re in a state of flow or “in the zone.” They’re not actively thinking (unconscious competent). They’re relying on reflex and ingrained behaviors—a product of mounds of slow and conscious work accumulated during practice.

Competence unconsciously takes time. One doesn’t simply walk into Mordor. Your grandma knows how to sit in front of the TV and knit her brains off like a hindbrain Herculeus. But if you tried? You’d have holes in your fingers.

Your forebrain is responsible for doing all the hard decision making. Stuff that only humans (it seems) worry much about. (YOU ZEBRA FILLED WITH ULCERS, YOU.) Analyzing and thinking is important when learning a new skill. Part of learning is being in a place just beyond your comfort zone, which means you will make mistakes and you need to mentally take note and adjust.

Nevertheless, relying on your forebrain isn’t something you want to be doing as you inch closer to specific skill mastery and want to perform a skill at the highest levels. It takes a great deal of concentration and effort to Force move the X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp when you’re just a padawan. But it’s not long before you’re hurling parts of a spaceship at Darth Vader without effort or second thought.

If you don’t want to be thinking about much as a high class knitter, you certainly don’t want to be thinking about much when you only have 0.2 seconds at your disposal. When you call upon your body to do something that quickly, you’ll rely on your current wiring, no matter how big of a dysfunctional kluge it may be.

Next: coming soon…

Table of contents: Terraform