The Nature of Adapting: The Link Between Your Muscles and Your Mind - Pure Performance Training

THE NATURE OF ADAPTING: THE LINK BETWEEN YOUR MUSCLES AND YOUR MIND

Part of the nature of being a human being is the subconscious desire–emotionally, mentally, physically, and metabolically–to stay the same. What do I mean by that? Your cells have no desire to do extra work. To change. To grow. They’d like to keep puttering along as they are, and much of our existence orbits around this desire for homeostasis. That’s why it’s hard to form new habits, break cycles of emotions or behavior, lose weight, get accustomed to new foods, make new friends, get out of our comfort zones, and put on muscle. Even physical pain can be a loop of chemical reactions that become chronic because they’re known, expected, and predictable. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t, right? From our cell’s perspective, yes. 

This is one of the reasons why arguing with people is essentially fruitless. The part of the human brain that detects norm violations is the same part of the brain that can detect rotten food. And what do human brains like? To a degree, they like things to stay the same. Which is why someone declaring a statement opposite to our own beliefs can be so jarring. It makes our brains get defensive and even panic. Norm violations are threatening. To consider an alternative viewpoint is scary–it suggests that something we perceived was wrong, that we missed something, or that we didn’t know something. It means we’d need to change.

Willingness to Battle A Storm Determines Growth

This homeostatic defense plays out in countless organ systems. One of which that’s particularly profound is the human muscular system. The most effective metaphor for adaptation in this system is one presented by Dr. Pat Davidson in his article on muscle growth. He likens the body to a ship and the brain to its captain. He explains that the human body is a ship that goes out to sea and gets wrecked by a storm–with a broken mast, holes in the sidewall, and leaks allowing water to come pouring in. The captain and his crew must get the ship to clear skies and smooth waters to repair the damage with even more capable material, making the patched-up areas stronger than they’ve ever been. Yet, the next storm will be different, and new areas will be compromised. This again will require more robust repairs. This process can occur countless times, with new storms acting as the impetus for constructing a more powerful design. This is what the human body is built for. It’s designed to experience stress that forces potent reconstruction. It has the innate ability to adapt. 

In the wild, the humans that could adapt most efficiently had superior evolutionary fitness. They were suited to survive. Life in the wilderness would have caused damage daily–stimulating growth and repair frequently. This created bodies that could locomote through multiple planes of motion, generate greater and greater force, move more mass, utilize energy more efficiently, and construct larger muscles to cope with the demands of the environment. In modern life, this stimulus is essentially nonexistent. Work is performed in cubicles, in settings that require sitting for ten or more hours a day, with little sunlight, and certainly no muscle stimulation. We stare at screens, never feel the grass beneath our feet, and take so few steps per day that our metabolic regulatory pathways are compromised. The desire for homeostasis is now accommodated. We don’t even have to walk somewhere to get food–just call GrubHub.

What’s more is that the more deeply entrenched in this loop we are, the more challenging it will be to rewire it. What happens on a cellular level also occurs, in many respects, on an organismal level. If our cells want to minimize change–which requires generating more energy and doing extra work–then we, too, want to minimize change. We’re really, really good at maintaining homeostasis. Which means that the link between building bigger muscles, becoming more agile, developing a more robust body that can perform more work and feel less pain, lies in your brain. The decision to actively engage in a storm is yours. You’re going to need to send your ship out to sea at will and embrace the damage if you want to be a stronger human being.

The Proper Stimulus For Building Stronger Muscles

Appreciating the fact that you must enter a storm to build muscle is the first step towards becoming stronger. The second step is determining just how taxing the workload needs to be to stimulate growth. To that end, the process of hypertrophy must be considered. Hypertrophy is the enlargement of the muscle fiber cross-sectional area in response to a mechanical training stimulus. This means that if you want bigger muscles, you need to engage in hypertrophy.

Using muscle requires many steps and has many effects in the body–much of which is beyond the scope of this article. At the acknowledged risk of oversimplifying, let’s consider just two events from a 30,000-foot view. Two actions in particular that occur in response to strength training are (1) muscle recruitment by the nervous system and (2) mechanical loading of the muscle fibers. These two items are important factors in determining how a muscle will adapt. A common misconception is that muscle recruitment itself creates strength. It does not. It does indeed help a body move better by becoming more efficient at recruiting fibers. Yet, there are different types of fibers. The body will call upon low-threshold fibers to perform the work when it can, and will only call upon high-threshold muscle fibers if the stimulus is great enough. A higher degree of mechanical loading will force a body to recruit higher threshold motor units. 

“Muscle growth is not determined by the degree of motor unit recruitment, but by the mechanical loading experienced by each muscle fiber. To achieve the necessary level of mechanical loading, contraction velocity must be both maximal and slow, because only this combination leads to enough simultaneous cross-bridges forming in the muscle fibers controlled by high-threshold motor units. This state can be achieved by either (1) lifting heavy weights, or (2) lifting light weights to muscular failure. Recruiting high-threshold motor units does not work if the velocity is not slow (like when lifting light weights quickly, and not to failure), as the mechanical loading on each individual fiber is insufficient because the cross-bridges detach too quickly after forming.” -Dr. Chris Beardsley

Thus, if each muscle fiber, including the high-threshold motor units, experiences intense mechanical loading, muscle hypertrophy will occur. This hypertrophic stimulus causes many beneficial cascades in the body that promote growth and construction. The number of myofibrils within a muscle fiber will increase, as will the number of contractile and structural proteins. This increase in protein results in a greater diameter of the muscle itself and thus enlargement of the entire muscle group. It also leads to more intramuscular storage of the substrate needed to perform mechanical work. The storage of glycogen in the muscle cells also causes the enlargement of the muscle. The cascades caused by effective resistance training also have profound systemic effects on bone density, connective tissue adaptations, and neural alterations. This results in a larger and more powerful muscle, as well as more capable muscle groups, denser bones, stronger connective tissue, and increased neural ability that can exert more force across time and space.

The phenomena of recruiting high-threshold motor units at a slow velocity that maximizes mechanical loading are unequivocally best achieved by resistance training. The muscles must be forced to move a load enough times to damage the cells–initiating a response that tells the body “we weren’t strong enough to handle this and we must repair appropriately.” This is the storm. Adequate load, acidity, and heat will alert the muscle that synthesizing new protein to prepare for this experience in the future is necessary. This is why progressive overload is essential to building strength. A different workout every day that is not slowly increasing the weight lifted in the same lifts repeatedly will promote energy turnover, but not promote muscle growth.

Your Homework Is To Train and Get Stronger

Now that we’ve looked at the natural inclination of a human to resist change, a cell’s desire to maintain homeostasis, and the challenging training necessary to make a muscle grow, we can connect these plot points. The greatest factor holding people back from becoming stronger is being willing to face the necessary training stimulus. People convince themselves not to do it–to cancel the training session, to tell their trainer they can’t go up in weight, to tell themselves they don’t have another rep within them to complete the set. This is the link between your mind and your muscles. The desire to minimize work. To just go to yoga. To take a rest day. To only lift once a week. Simply put, it just won’t get the job done to reach the goal of building muscle. To get stronger you have to train–hard and frequently. You must willingly make your body experience stimuli that it never has before. Your brain won’t like it, at first. Your muscles will be sore. But then they will grow and adapt, and they’ll be ready for more. And so will your mind. You will eventually see results, and if you stay consistent you will come to love the storm. Because you will be expressing your humanity in your movement, growth, new muscles, and adaptive nature. 

The potent health-promoting effects of having more lean mass on your body are irrefutable. You will be a stronger and more capable human being–more resistant to pain, superior at utilizing energy (that means you get to eat more), better able to fall asleep (because your body did real work), and more capable of adapting. Your job now is to get to the gym and train under truly challenging conditions. Then recover adequately with nutritious food, sleep, and relaxation so that your body has time away from the stimulus to repair. And do that over and over again.

If this topic is of interest to you and gets you really excited about being a strong human, stay tuned for events featuring Dr. Pat Davidson at Pure Performance.

THE NATURE OF ADAPTING: THE LINK BETWEEN YOUR MUSCLES AND YOUR MIND

Part of the nature of being a human being is the subconscious desire–emotionally, mentally, physically, and metabolically–to stay the same. What do I mean by that? Your cells have no desire to do extra work. To change. To grow. They’d like to keep puttering along as they are, and much of our existence orbits around this desire for homeostasis. That’s why it’s hard to form new habits, break cycles of emotions or behavior, lose weight, get accustomed to new foods, make new friends, get out of our comfort zones, and put on muscle. Even physical pain can be a loop of chemical reactions that become chronic because they’re known, expected, and predictable. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t, right? From our cell’s perspective, yes. 

This is one of the reasons why arguing with people is essentially fruitless. The part of the human brain that detects norm violations is the same part of the brain that can detect rotten food. And what do human brains like? To a degree, they like things to stay the same. Which is why someone declaring a statement opposite to our own beliefs can be so jarring. It makes our brains get defensive and even panic. Norm violations are threatening. To consider an alternative viewpoint is scary–it suggests that something we perceived was wrong, that we missed something, or that we didn’t know something. It means we’d need to change.

Willingness to Battle A Storm Determines Growth

This homeostatic defense plays out in countless organ systems. One of which that’s particularly profound is the human muscular system. The most effective metaphor for adaptation in this system is one presented by Dr. Pat Davidson in his article on muscle growth. He likens the body to a ship and the brain to its captain. He explains that the human body is a ship that goes out to sea and gets wrecked by a storm–with a broken mast, holes in the sidewall, and leaks allowing water to come pouring in. The captain and his crew must get the ship to clear skies and smooth waters to repair the damage with even more capable material, making the patched-up areas stronger than they’ve ever been. Yet, the next storm will be different, and new areas will be compromised. This again will require more robust repairs. This process can occur countless times, with new storms acting as the impetus for constructing a more powerful design. This is what the human body is built for. It’s designed to experience stress that forces potent reconstruction. It has the innate ability to adapt. 

In the wild, the humans that could adapt most efficiently had superior evolutionary fitness. They were suited to survive. Life in the wilderness would have caused damage daily–stimulating growth and repair frequently. This created bodies that could locomote through multiple planes of motion, generate greater and greater force, move more mass, utilize energy more efficiently, and construct larger muscles to cope with the demands of the environment. In modern life, this stimulus is essentially nonexistent. Work is performed in cubicles, in settings that require sitting for ten or more hours a day, with little sunlight, and certainly no muscle stimulation. We stare at screens, never feel the grass beneath our feet, and take so few steps per day that our metabolic regulatory pathways are compromised. The desire for homeostasis is now accommodated. We don’t even have to walk somewhere to get food–just call GrubHub.

What’s more is that the more deeply entrenched in this loop we are, the more challenging it will be to rewire it. What happens on a cellular level also occurs, in many respects, on an organismal level. If our cells want to minimize change–which requires generating more energy and doing extra work–then we, too, want to minimize change. We’re really, really good at maintaining homeostasis. Which means that the link between building bigger muscles, becoming more agile, developing a more robust body that can perform more work and feel less pain, lies in your brain. The decision to actively engage in a storm is yours. You’re going to need to send your ship out to sea at will and embrace the damage if you want to be a stronger human being.

The Proper Stimulus For Building Stronger Muscles

Appreciating the fact that you must enter a storm to build muscle is the first step towards becoming stronger. The second step is determining just how taxing the workload needs to be to stimulate growth. To that end, the process of hypertrophy must be considered. Hypertrophy is the enlargement of the muscle fiber cross-sectional area in response to a mechanical training stimulus. This means that if you want bigger muscles, you need to engage in hypertrophy.

Using muscle requires many steps and has many effects in the body–much of which is beyond the scope of this article. At the acknowledged risk of oversimplifying, let’s consider just two events from a 30,000-foot view. Two actions in particular that occur in response to strength training are (1) muscle recruitment by the nervous system and (2) mechanical loading of the muscle fibers. These two items are important factors in determining how a muscle will adapt. A common misconception is that muscle recruitment itself creates strength. It does not. It does indeed help a body move better by becoming more efficient at recruiting fibers. Yet, there are different types of fibers. The body will call upon low-threshold fibers to perform the work when it can, and will only call upon high-threshold muscle fibers if the stimulus is great enough. A higher degree of mechanical loading will force a body to recruit higher threshold motor units. 

“Muscle growth is not determined by the degree of motor unit recruitment, but by the mechanical loading experienced by each muscle fiber. To achieve the necessary level of mechanical loading, contraction velocity must be both maximal and slow, because only this combination leads to enough simultaneous cross-bridges forming in the muscle fibers controlled by high-threshold motor units. This state can be achieved by either (1) lifting heavy weights, or (2) lifting light weights to muscular failure. Recruiting high-threshold motor units does not work if the velocity is not slow (like when lifting light weights quickly, and not to failure), as the mechanical loading on each individual fiber is insufficient because the cross-bridges detach too quickly after forming.” -Dr. Chris Beardsley

Thus, if each muscle fiber, including the high-threshold motor units, experiences intense mechanical loading, muscle hypertrophy will occur. This hypertrophic stimulus causes many beneficial cascades in the body that promote growth and construction. The number of myofibrils within a muscle fiber will increase, as will the number of contractile and structural proteins. This increase in protein results in a greater diameter of the muscle itself and thus enlargement of the entire muscle group. It also leads to more intramuscular storage of the substrate needed to perform mechanical work. The storage of glycogen in the muscle cells also causes the enlargement of the muscle. The cascades caused by effective resistance training also have profound systemic effects on bone density, connective tissue adaptations, and neural alterations. This results in a larger and more powerful muscle, as well as more capable muscle groups, denser bones, stronger connective tissue, and increased neural ability that can exert more force across time and space.

The phenomena of recruiting high-threshold motor units at a slow velocity that maximizes mechanical loading are unequivocally best achieved by resistance training. The muscles must be forced to move a load enough times to damage the cells–initiating a response that tells the body “we weren’t strong enough to handle this and we must repair appropriately.” This is the storm. Adequate load, acidity, and heat will alert the muscle that synthesizing new protein to prepare for this experience in the future is necessary. This is why progressive overload is essential to building strength. A different workout every day that is not slowly increasing the weight lifted in the same lifts repeatedly will promote energy turnover, but not promote muscle growth.

Your Homework Is To Train and Get Stronger

Now that we’ve looked at the natural inclination of a human to resist change, a cell’s desire to maintain homeostasis, and the challenging training necessary to make a muscle grow, we can connect these plot points. The greatest factor holding people back from becoming stronger is being willing to face the necessary training stimulus. People convince themselves not to do it–to cancel the training session, to tell their trainer they can’t go up in weight, to tell themselves they don’t have another rep within them to complete the set. This is the link between your mind and your muscles. The desire to minimize work. To just go to yoga. To take a rest day. To only lift once a week. Simply put, it just won’t get the job done to reach the goal of building muscle. To get stronger you have to train–hard and frequently. You must willingly make your body experience stimuli that it never has before. Your brain won’t like it, at first. Your muscles will be sore. But then they will grow and adapt, and they’ll be ready for more. And so will your mind. You will eventually see results, and if you stay consistent you will come to love the storm. Because you will be expressing your humanity in your movement, growth, new muscles, and adaptive nature. 

The potent health-promoting effects of having more lean mass on your body are irrefutable. You will be a stronger and more capable human being–more resistant to pain, superior at utilizing energy (that means you get to eat more), better able to fall asleep (because your body did real work), and more capable of adapting. Your job now is to get to the gym and train under truly challenging conditions. Then recover adequately with nutritious food, sleep, and relaxation so that your body has time away from the stimulus to repair. And do that over and over again.

If this topic is of interest to you and gets you really excited about being a strong human, stay tuned for events featuring Dr. Pat Davidson at Pure Performance.