Why gravity and grandmas are the secret to building more muscle

Imagine rocketing a dog into the vacuum of Space towards inevitable doom. Awesome. Dogs are gross. Cats are better.

But we'll give Laika revenge now. Ghost Laika crams a human into a space shuttle and rockets it towards the Eagle Nebula.

I wouldn't mind going to the Pillars of Creation. I'm tempted to let Ghost Laika shove me into the rocket. But I'm not ready for the inevitable physical meltdown that happens when a human lives in zero gravity.

Ever see astronauts return from long Space mission? They need a wheel chair to move around. The zero gravity environment melts their body like fondue. Even if you're minimally active on earth, you don’t need no stinkin’ wheelchair. 

You’re a solid hunk of havarti (such a good cheese). Pair you with some 90% (or higher) dark chocolate and glass of merlot and I’ll never leave you, baby.

There's an enemy on earth that doesn't exist in Space: gravity.

Gravity is easy for us to ignore because it's a constant medium. I'd imagine it's like water to a fish, but I can't say for sure. My meeting with Princess Ruto inside of Jabu-Jabu's belly was cancelled. Haven't talked to any other fish since.

Let's make gravity less easy to ignore by giving it a face.

Imagine being a weird reverse marionette doll. Imagine drilling ropes into every one of your joints, and then having those ropes attach to the ground. Now imagine having your sadistic friends tug downward on those strings.

The downward tug = gravity.

There was a Criminal Minds episode where a wacko guy turned a girl into a marionette doll, drilling holes into her joints. Video games are making kids violent, I forgot.

Earth's gravity is relatively mild. Head to Jupiter and you'll be hit with seriously sadistic friends, pulling downward with a force 2.4 times greater than the weirdos on Earth.

Gravity is important, but your body can still become fondue on earth.

Ever broken a bone? Been in a cast? Or known someone in a cast? Then not only have you inhaled one of the worst smells known to the human race, the accumulation of humid dead rotting human skin, but you've also witnessed the terrifying obliteration of muscle mass that rides shotgun to inactivity.

The more inactive you become, the quicker the muscle melts.

  1. Want to lose leg muscle mass? Use crutches.
  2. Want to lose muscle mass faster? Use a wheelchair.
  3. Want to lose muscle mass fastest? Put your entire lower body in a cast so there’s absolutely no way it can be moved.

As Andy Stitzer, the character played by Steve Carell in The 40-Year Old Virgin, would ask: is it true that if you don't *use* it, you *lose* it?

Apparently so. Crazy. My parents have fine china they never used when I was growing up. But it's still there. Ah, the beauty of being a living, breathing, biological entity.

You need to oppose gravity. You need to push against the marionette strings. If the marionette strings staple you down without a fight, you're no better off than an astronaut in Space.

Resisting gravity is a physiological trigger. It tells your body, “Hey, uhh, see what I'm doing here? Me being able to move around is important. So if you can keep up with the mechanisms, gears, and levers allowing me to move, that'd be grrrreeeaattt. Also, I need those TPS reports on my desk by tomorrow.”


You need this trigger because keeping up with said mechanisms (especially muscle mass) isn't cheap, and your body is a frugal bitch accountant jerk face.

Without the trigger? Why would your body spend the money? Spin the wheel of optionality.

The flip side of optionality requires me to reach into my bag of shameful and offensive examples.

Look at prisoners of war during WWII. You won't see much muscle mass. But you will see a bunch of guys swinging around axes and shovels. They're certainly opposing gravity, yet they have little in the way of muscle mass.

I'm guessing you're using your eyeballs to read this. Your eyes are capable of seeing 500 shades of gray (not 50, EL James). They're capable of processing 36,000 pieces of information in an hour.

Take those eyeballs and use them to look down at your hand. Your hand is a structure made up of close to thirty bones and over one hundred ligaments controlled by nearly fifty electrical wires that can fire with choking violence or tickling tenderness.

It's easy to forget about the amazingly complex biomachinery underneath your skin. None of it works pro bono.

You need resources. If you aren't getting a lot of resources, your body prioritizes things that are more essential to survival. Beating your heart is more important than having big muscles.

You need to trigger the need for muscle mass. But you also need to have enough resources around so that your body feels comfortable justifying the expense of muscle tissue.

Building muscle is kind of like buying a boat. You need to be in a financially secure enough spot to know (a) you have enough money for the upfront investment, and (b) you have enough money for the continued investment. Because boats suck and always need maintenance work.

This is why people go on bulks to build muscle. They eat a ton of food to convince the body it has the resources it needs. But most people screw up their bulks.

And by “most people,” I mean, Anthony. Because I used to eat Kansas, build next to no muscle, and add a lot of body fat.  But let's just say delivering enough resources isn't the same as winning the lottery.

But that's a story for another day, alongside why people get confused when I say strength training is important even when cutting. Why strength train if you aren't going to have the raw materials around to build muscle? I'll let you think it over. We have to move on.

So now you're now probably wondering (and if you weren't, you are now): I'm a human. I move. I eat. Why don't I have a lot of muscle?

If you're skinny and lean like Toothpick Timmy, maybe you aren't eating enough. Common. But there's also my neck of the woods, which is where guys like Skinny-Fat Sal live.

If you have a decent amount of body fat, then you most certainly have been eating enough. Granted, you might not be enough of the right things, and too much of the wrong things. But what's more likely (and most likely for both Toothpick Timmy and Skinny-Fat Sal) is that your body doesn't feel like it needs more muscle.

You might not have a lot of muscle mass compared to the standard swirling in your head, but you probably have more than Gertrude withering away in hospice care.

Your body only builds the muscle it needs. Muscle is a risky investment and your body is frugal. So building excess muscle tissue without the need for excess muscle tissue is kind of like buying a six story house when you're quadriplegic.

The muscle mass you have helps you tolerate gravity, but the stress of gravity never scales upward. It's kind of like going from zero to one cups of coffee per day. You get a good buzz from the one cup. But your body adapts to the caffeine, at which point you need to have two cups.

But gravity is always “one cup.” It's always 9.8 meters per second squared. So you get all of the goodness that comes from adapting to one cup, but you can't bump up to two cups.

You can find ways to make things interesting within the one cup confines (like drinking it faster), but it's not quite the same as bumping up to two cups. The stress isn't the same.

“Stress” doesn’t mean “psychological distress,” which what most of us think when we hear “stress.” Stress is more than being stuck in traffic and gnawing on your steering wheel as blood floods down your face from your eye sockets.

In physics, stress means, “force per unit area applied to the material.” This definition doesn’t help us at all, but I sound smarter if I pretend to understand physics.

Your body strives to maintain stasis. Stress is strain on your level of stasis, which sounds bad. Strain parts of your car and they break down. Broken cars make you spend money, and spending money on cars is lame. High school kids tricking out Honda Civics are the perfect population for for eugenic experimentation.

But humans aren't mechanical like cars. Humans are biomechanical. We're able to maintain ourselves, fix ourselves, and upgrade ourselves. One of the ways we know what to maintain, fix, and upgrade is via stress.

You get new breaks on a car when the breaks are all stressed and worn out. Stress is biological information.

Climb on top of your car. Jump off and absorb the impact from the landing. Your body will be exposed to a stress much higher than gravity, but the information coded within that sort of stress rarely triggers for more muscle mass.

We foolishly reduce the complex phenomenon of movement into muscle because (a) it's the visible manifestation of something non-visible: a bunch of junk inside of you working together to allow you to accomplish a physical task, and because (b) we've been exposed to decades of bodybuilder split routine logic.

But muscle is just a middle man. Muscles funnel into tendons, which funnel into bones, which articulate with other bones, which are reinforced with ligaments, which are all at the mercy of the nervous system, which has ties with the endocrine system, which…

Your ability to move is a little more complex than what high school anatomy taught you. (Abstinence is the key, folks!)

Let's look, instead, from a movement perspective.

You can contract. You can relax. Those are your extremes. Any macromovement is a combination of the two. Total relaxation, you can't move. Total contraction, you can't move.

And, for some extraterrestrial reason, us humans have this musculoskeletal system thingy with elastic properties that allows us to move with some fluidity.

Think of a robot. It moves in segments. It's clunky. Still modulated by contraction and relaxation. But there's no grace.

Movements more machine-like are steeped in contraction, which are best described as sticky. Grindy. Friction. In order to be sticky, you have to contract.

Movements more fluid-like are steeped in relaxation, which are best described as springy. Bouncy. Ballistic. In order to be springy, you have to relax.

For reasons I can't explain (but will try to because I like sounding smarter than I am), muscle mass is more of a sticky stress adaptation. And most of the things you do aren't sticky from an absolute max effort standpoint.

Meaning you could walk up steps slowly like a robot, but you also could leap and bound up those same steps.

If you can spring with control and power, you have stickiness. Babies and kids spring all over the place, but don't have much control because they lack the stickiness.

But all of this might be easier to understand if we look at the upper body. We take our lower body for granted because it already carries us through the stress of earth's gravity.

But what if we started to use our hands as feet?

If you were able to get into a handstand, you probably wouldn't be able to do clapping handstand push-ups right away. You'd have to work through lots of sticky training (holding the handstand, handstand push-ups) before you'd be able to tap into your springs.

How wonderful to have elastic bits to help us save energy. But think about this for a second. Only able to tap into elastic and spring because we're comfortable from a stick standpoint.

So a good marker for whether or not the movement you're doing is going to trigger for more muscle mass is this: can you be springy or leave the surface of the earth during the movement in question?

If you can be ballistic or leave the surface of the earth to a great degree, chances are you aren’t going to build muscle doing whatever you’re doing. You probably have the pre-requisite stickiness, meaning you have an amount of muscle your body deems to be “enough.”

If you’re lifting a two pound dumbbell slowly, the motion might look sticky…but if you tried hard, you could throw the dumbbell across the room. So guess what? Not gonna’ build muscle.

So all of the high rep, low weight toning lure? I'll let you connect the dots on that one.

Scaling springiness isn't a good trigger for muscle probably because nature says big creatures don't handle shocks well. An elephant won't survive a fall of half it's height. An ant can survive a fall from the moon. The biggest cats are the most nimble cats. Cheetahs aren't yoked.

So it's kind of like having bad shocks on your car, taking it to a mechanic, and being told, “Yeah your shocks are ruined. But here's how we're going to handle this: we're going to build a bigger, heavier engine. Meaning the shocks will have to do even more work!”

There's a sweet spot between muscle mass and explosive-springy-elastic performances. You need enough sticky-muscle to support the springiness, but not so much that it becomes a hindrance.

So how do you build more muscle? Get in a supergravity environment that forces you to move with all sorts of stickiness.

You can walk up the steps sticky and slow right now, but you also could leap and bound up the steps. The stress to trigger for muscle mass needs to be an honest I couldn't move faster even if I tried stickiness.

There are ways many ways to apply this sort of stress. You can use bands. You can swim. You can use machines.

All valid options…if you want to end up skinny-fat. Or, at least, skinny.


→ Click here to read Part 2

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.