Muscle Mass: A Mental Model

I wanted to gain muscle.

My arms were string beans. My shoulders were deflated balloons. They looked like a pair of grandma titties sagging from my collar bone.

But I didn't know why the human body had muscle in the first place, let alone why the human body would (do something as absurd as) build EVEN MORE muscle.

I didn't care to know these things. I just wanted to stop feeling like a fragile piece of glass, not go all Lewis and Clark on human fucking biology.

Most muscular gym bros don't even know how many stars are on the American flag, let alone the physiological mechanisms of muscle contractions. But it doesn't matter. Because you don't need to know how the things inside of you work in order for them to work.

You don't need to know how your body digests food. You don't need to know how your body beats your heart. These things just happen. And you tend not to consciously think about them until they're on the verge of killing you.

I'LL EAT WHATEVER I WANT I'M ONLY GOING TO LIVE ONCE HOLY SHIT I'M DYING OF A HEART ATTACK INJECT KALE INTO MY VEINS I ONLY LIVE ONCE WHY DIDN'T I TAKE CARE OF MYSELF.

But there's a problem.

When you're self-taught, you're the mastermind. You have to make a bunch of decisions — what to focus on, what to ignore, how to train, what to eat. And if you have no model of muscle, no idea of causality, then you can't make confident decisions.

My lady-friend sometimes gets hungry for nothing. She's hungry, but she can't pinpoint her craving. It's fucking (First World) awful. We run through every palatable possibility, but she can't decide what to order (or cook).

This is what happens when you try to make decisions without a model. You have endless possibilities in front of you, but you don't know which choice will be “best.” So you become a golden retriever, running from one possibility to the next.

Or you just shut down and do nothing. The brain hates uncertainty; self-preservation prevails.

But I get it.

I don't want to read the scientific literature that explores the mechanism of muscle growth. Scientific literature is boring and hard read. I'd have better odds understanding the original Sumerian copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

This is my attempt to give you something I wish I had a long time ago: a mental model of muscle. I'm going to explain the who, what, when, where, why, and how of muscle mass from a practical (read: human) perspective.

But before I begin, there's something you should know:

This isn't law. The exact mechanism of muscle growth isn't known. This is simply a mental construct I've scotch taped together given my experiences and observations. Thinking about muscle this way helps me cope with the training decisions I make. But I can only speak for myself. This might end up being the dumbest thing you've ever read.

A Mental Model of Muscle Mass, Part 1: Scaling Load

Building an evolutionary biology backbone. Triggering need. Gravity and load. Weight and kinetic chains. Scaling load.

→ Click here to read Part 1

A Mental Model of Muscle Mass, Part 2: Human RPG

The human RPG. Stress. Leveling Up. Nonlinearity. Juan flew over the cuckoos nest. Who is Juan? I don't know. 1-UP mushrooms. Antifragility.

→ Click here to read Part 2

A Mental Model of Muscle Mass, Part 3:  Strength and Max Load

Semantics of strength. Max load. Astronauts and broken bones. Charles Atlas and voluntary contractions. Global stress. Bones.

→ Click here to read Part 3

A Mental Model of Muscle Mass, Part 4: Exercises, Patterns, and Stickiness

Movement. Patterns: squat, hump, push, pull. Macro. Micro. Haters can suck my. Honest stickiness. Elephants and shocks.

→ Click here to read Part 4

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.)

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