Building Muscle: Nasty Tricks Your Body Plays on You

I was flipping channels when I came upon a show about “the world’s strongest toddler.” Whoa. A little boy has a condition that causes superior muscular development. He’s just 3 and already has bulging biceps and washboard abs. He demonstrates the physical abilities of children twice his age who are at the high end of development. Researchers are studying this little boy as carefully as they can while he’s still so young. It’s possible studying this extraordinarily rare condition could lead to drugs for treating muscle-wasting diseases. This superior ability for building muscle is caused by a defect in a gene that produces a hormone called myostatin. As you’d expect, researchers have expressed concern that drugs to regulate myostatin could be seriously abused by athletes.

The gene that produces myostatin was only discovered in 1997. Science continues to discover biological factors that contribute to how our bodies function and what determines our body composition. It’s safe to assume that we produce myostatin at varying levels. People whose bodies produce lower levels of myostatin will grow more muscle. It’s well known among bodybuilders that some people develop muscle more easily than others and for those unfortunate folks who struggle and never seem to gain any muscle definition, a high level of myostatin may be the culprit.

Building muscle is much more difficult than many people believe it is. I always feel bad for anyone who honestly thinks a disappointing rise in the number on the scale is attributed to added muscular bulk from their half-hearted exercise routine. Muscles develop when we stress them to the point of causing microscopic tears in the tissue fiber. The tears heal and add more tissue in the process; it’s similar to what’s happening when you develop a scar. But think of just how much lean tissue it takes to put on a whole pound! That’s a lot of microscopic cellular development! A healthy young man, working under ideal conditions, should be able to add a pound of muscle in a month, maybe a little better.

When I attempted a 12-week program created especially for me by a bodybuilding trainer, I estimate my muscle gain was about two pounds. I was 49 years old at the time and I followed the program to the letter. It was extremely difficult. By the end of that summer, I could bench about 125lbs. I did intense powerlifting training twice a week and trained myself twice a week. I did cardio every day and followed an extreme high protein diet. I experienced muscle soreness for nearly the full three months. The results were impressive but I found the program so stressful, I could not maintain it.

It’s true that a body with more muscle will burn more calories. That’s why men, on average, naturally burn more calories than women. But adding a little muscle will not dramatically alter your basal metabolic rate. Sure you’ll look and feel better if you add resistance training to your regular exercise routine but you’ll probably realize the greatest benefits from the overall improvement in your physical abilities.

Given the medical discoveries that have been made in the past couple of decades, I do believe we could see significant pharmaceutical introductions in the coming years. Currently in the development pipeline is Adipotide, a peptide that will destroy the blood supply to fat cells. A drug like this or one that regulates myostatin production to stimulate building muscle could be truly life-changing and they could also be seriously abused. Would you take them? I admit, I’d be interested in trying them.