Everywhere, Instagram stars are declaring 'strong is the new skinny' and 'muscles are in'. It might seem like a marketing ploy, but the truth is that there are many health benefits. In fact, if there's one thing you do for your physical fitness this year, it should be to build strong, balanced muscles. However, if you want to build muscle safely and efficiently, it's important to understand the theory behind it.
What Are Muscles?
Muscles are a soft tissue made up of two protein filaments. These slide along each other, causing the tissue to contract and relax.
Muscles are more than just superficial. We need muscles to maintain posture, hold organs and glands in the right place, keep the heart beating, digest food and move in any way.
The main type of muscle we mean when talking about 'building muscle' is skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscles are the muscles we can voluntary move. Their main purpose is to help to control the movement of the bones, with the aid of ligaments and tendons.
What Are the Benefits of Muscle Mass?
There are dozens of benefits of exercising and increasing muscle mass – many more than you might think. They include:
- Increased metabolism
- Lower risk of overweight and obesity
- Increased bone mass
- Lower risk of injury
- Lower risk of fracture
- Improved mood
- Lower risk of depression and anxiety
- Boosted immunity
- Steadier blood sugar levels
- Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Better quality sleep
This combination means that almost everyone can benefit from putting on some healthy muscle.
The Downsides of Insufficient Muscle
Insufficient muscle mass and poor strength, on the flip side, can be bad news for your health. They are associated with issues such as:
- Acute and chronic injuries
- Chronic fatigue
- Low bone mass
- Increased risk of fracture
- Low metabolism
- Higher levels of body fat
Although it can be a bit hard to tell which comes first, the health issue or low muscle mass, it becomes a spiral of poor health.
How Do You Build Them?
Muscles are not built just in the gym, despite what your trainer might try to tell you. In fact, there are many different exercise types that can build different muscles. What you choose depends on your preference and your goals.
On a cellular level, muscles are built up in response to stress on the muscle. This then prompts the body to increase the volume, or size, of the muscle cells.
One of the main theories of muscle building is micro-trauma. When you put sufficient stress onto the muscle in question, it causes micro-tears in the muscle. Basically, you push the muscle to the point of being uncomfortable. The body then uses special cells to repair the muscle by replacing the tissue. They then add extra tissue to protect the muscle from more damage.
However, this does not mean more pain means more gain. Too much strain can turn a micro-tear into a full tear injury, which requires weeks of rest to repair.
The majority of people attend a gym and follow a muscle-building, or hypertrophy, training program. However, if this isn't your cup of tea, it doesn't mean that you can't build healthy muscle mass.
Looking for a non-gym way to build muscles? Try some of the following ideas:
- Body-weight Exercises – Push-ups, lunges, squats and planks can all aid in building muscle from the comfort of your own home.
- Dancing – Dancing of any form can build muscles you didn't know existed! It's particularly good for building up postural muscles.
- Swimming – The resistance of the water works against your muscles as a stressor, while protecting any vulnerable joints.
- Yoga & Pilates – Even the gentler exercises can build muscles, if you focus on the strength-building poses.
- Hire a Personal Trainer – A PT can create a program to suit your lifestyle and goals, while motivating you and helping you conduct exercises safely.
Supporting Your Muscles
Building muscles is not just about exercise. There are two other vital pieces to the puzzle, which are nutrition and sleep.
- Sleep -Without sleep, muscles do not build. Despite what many think, the muscle 'building' does not occur during exercise. It happens during the rest and recovery process, which is usually as you sleep. Your body repairs the micro-tears in the muscle while resting.
This means that quality sleep is crucial to muscle building and recovery. We've already covered some tips on how to get a good night sleep. Following these will aid in the healing process. However, one bonus tip that aids with both sleep and muscle recovery is to drink tart cherry juice. Tart cherry juice relieves muscle soreness after exercise, as well as being a natural source of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
- Nutrition -Your body can't build new muscle without the right building blocks on hand. This is why many bodybuilders are focused on consuming large amounts of protein. You don't need to go overboard, but a serving with each meal will help provide your body with what it needs.
While you're building muscle and exercising, your body also has a greater demand for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. This is because exercising increases the amount of oxidative stress put on the systems of the body. Adding in plenty of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices will aid in recovery and keeping you well.
- Magnesium - Finally, including plenty of magnesium in your diet is essential while building muscles. Remember how muscles contract and relax? This is due to the balance of calcium and magnesium in the muscle itself. When there isn't enough magnesium in your system, your muscles will cramp up. Include legumes, nuts, seeds and a big bowl of leafy greens daily to get your magnesium fix in.
By building up strong, healthy muscles, you will be on your way to a longer, healthier life. Who wouldn't want that? So, get out there and move your body today.