With roots in the semi-martial arts industry (I never took formal martial arts), I grew up admiring Bruce Lee and abiding by the following mentality: stay light, fleet of feet, and fast. Adding muscle is a terrible thing. I mean, look at Bruce! If you want any hope to have crackling kicks and furious fists, you need to keep your body weight down like Bruce did.
This usually leads to being afraid to gain any muscle, as muscle is associated with the bodybuilder connotation of being muscle bound and slow. If you dig even further, it enters a discussion of myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The latter being devastating to anyone with performance intentions, or so the story goes.
But does it have a rational backing?
Bruce Lee was a fan of the barbell
With respect to the man himself, Bruce didn’t botch the boat on this one. People that admire his physique and skills tell themselves a story about muscle and performance that goes something like this: strength should be obtained with as little body weight gain as possible. This is a fine idea…if it’s something you actually need. More often than not, it actually hinders performance. (More on this bit later.)
Those that tell themselves this story often forego physical training that can cause muscle gain all together. Perhaps they only do bodyweight exercises (which is another story, as bodyweight exercises can be a powerful muscle builder). But by all accounts of Bruce Lee’s training, he trained with barbells just like the rest of us.
This squashes the immediate fear-of-training bug, but it births the following idea: muscle, training, and strength is fine, as long as it’s the right kind. This is usually where the discussion of muscle fibers and functional muscle come into play (as if there’s such a thing as non-functional muscle).
What is functional muscle?
Bruce’s muscle was all go, no show…I mean, compare that to the inflated balloon muscles bodybuilders have. This, we soon learn, is what made Bruce so remarkable. It also explains the difference between myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the growth of the actual muscle fibers. This is the growth that leads to stronger muscle contractions.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the growth of the fluid elements. This is the growth that looks bloated.
When you’re looking to keep your bodyweight down and performance up, it makes sense to avoid sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. After all, it’s simply the fluid. Why add excess weight to something that contributes to more strength or power?
The two problems with myofibrillar hypertrophy
The difference between myofibrillar hypertrophy and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, in principle, lies within the type of training done. This is where comparisons between bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters come into play.
If there’s one thing you should know about the body: it adapts to what it needs.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy comes about when you tax the sarcoplasm. When you get a stronger muscle pump or stronger response (need) to hold some kind of fluid, your body responds by better handling the fluid increase on a regular basis.
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy comes about when you tax the muscles. When you make muscles stronger (increase their need to contract), your body responds by growing the muscle fibers.
We have two problems.
First, by all accounts of Bruce Lee’s routine, he trained with relatively higher repetitions (8 or more) compared to today’s recommendations for myofibrillar hypertrophy (less than 5). Second, our poster boy myofibrillar athletes probably aren’t all that anal about myofibrillar growth.
Let’s start with the first.
Higher repetition training and tone
The mass of mainstream fitness perusers would have you believe that higher repetition training tones muscles. As I talked about in Why Your 2 Pound Dumbbells Aren’t Doing Any Good, low-load higher repetition training doesn’t do anything of the sorts. The stimulus isn’t “dangerous” enough to convince the body to build muscle.
So, no, Bruce wasn’t “toning” his muscles. He was growing his muscles with strength training in a slightly higher repetition range. Quite a surprising thing to hear, I know.
Tone comes from two things: amount of muscle and subcutaneous body fat. The less body fat you have, the more pronounced your body shape will be.
- Low body fat, no muscle = no tone
- Low body fat, a little muscle = tone
Bruce had a low body fat with a smattering of muscle tissue (from his diligent strength training — not toning training).
With the zone Bruce trained in, he wasn’t training for preferential development of certain muscle fibers. He was just…training. You know, picking things up. Pressing them. Curling them. Probably in a decently challenging manner too.
Your myofibrillar examples are sunk
Those on the myofibrillar bandwagon will point to Olympic lifters (more so than powerlifters) to showcase the power of myofibrillar hypertrophy — you know, functional muscle.
Olympic weightlifters train for short term strength and power, they’ll say. They use lower reps and, as a result, they look denser and all around more functional than bodybuilders.
With the age of YouTube though, we get a glimpse of how some Olympic weightlifters really train. It’s not always with low repetitions. Some even use bodybuilding-esque isolation exercises.
Pretty wild, hunh? Here we have weight class athletes that aren’t afraid to add muscle mass.
Let’s take a look at why.
There’s no such thing as functional muscle: the best reason to not abide by the Bruce Lee story
Striving to always keep your body weight low handicaps you. Lee might have been smaller, but he still had muscle. His body grew to some extent.
If you’re DJ Qualls, there’s only so much you can do from a performance standpoint until you need to gain muscle. Muscle helps with a lot of things.
There’s a good chance everyone in a weight class sport is competing above their “natural” weight class because they gained muscle, which then improved their performance. If they didn’t, they’d be DJ Qualls, cruising into the lowest weight class their skin and bones allows…but they’d be getting mopped up by everyone in that weight class with extra muscle to back their performance.
There’s no such thing as useless muscle tissue. It all contracts the same.
And, as we see, the line between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy isn’t anything like you believe it is. Don’t forget: more blood (sarcoplasmic influx) means a higher delivery of nutrients to the area. More nutrients could then make it better for myofibrillar hypertrophy. Just a thought to chew on.
…And now for the haters
You will hit a point in which more muscle might not be justified. Being an Olympic weightlifter is different than being a martial artist. I’m not stew-stew-stew-stewpid, Happy.
But let’s look at the take home points:
If you have performance intentions, it might be better to train primarily in the myofibrillar zone. But I wouldn’t be deathly afraid higher repetition training. Your muscles will grow from needing to contract more and more forcefully over time. As long as you do that — even you train in a higher repetitions zone — your muscle fibers are gonna grow.
After all, you have some of the strongest and most powerful athletes training with higher reps, yet still with the dense muscle look, without much kickback.
Perhaps the best thing to conclude from all of this:
- If you need it, train for it. Don’t lift weights thinking it will magically make you kick like Bruce Lee. You still have to practice your kicks. Complex stuff, I know.
- Don’t think you’re going to permanently alter your skills overnight (ie: reach a place that’s “too bulky”) with strength training. Some quality strength training is probably the fastest way to improve your performance potential, provided your skill stays up to speed. (MMA fighters aren’t exactly small, and muscle certainly doesn’t impair them.)
And let’s not forget, just about every athlete under the big lights are using some kind of substance to help them out. Your gains will be even harder fought for. No one wakes up overnight too big. Your irrational fear about useless muscle is just that: irrational.