Building muscle. A dirty secret

Before we start I wanted to make the thumbnail for this post creepy haha. Now I've addressed that, let's get started.

This subject of building muscle mass has had a bad rap within the performing sector for generations, and from my experience it has been due to the demands and beliefs being placed on performers from teachers, choreographers and directors with very specific looks they want from their dancers. It’s fair to say society has moved on a bit from those views on body shapes being the framework for beauty or elegance. Thankfully for me and my bias, this now allows us to build more robust, resilient performers without it hindering their careers. In fact, when they understand what a little more muscle mass in specific areas can do, then the buy-in is really strong and results speak for themselves in terms of performance measures.

 So why would you want to build some muscle? Before we start, a key point here is that no-one is talking about large amounts of muscle mass or turning performers into bodybuilders. Bodybuilders train for one goal with every conceivable variable is aimed at optimising that goal. We are talking more about building a bit more functional muscle mass that enhances your performance and can help keep you away from injury, and a significant by-product of larger muscles that is super useful for you.

We want to firstly address reduced muscle mass that may have occurred due to the way someone moves, habitual patterns and/or their previous injury history as they can all significantly reduce the cross-section area of individual muscles. With small muscle cross-sections, comes a reduced ability to generate force (via, in-part, our dirty secret). Addressing this can have profound impacts on movement and performance.

Figure 1 Compares controls vs TKA (Total Knee Arthoplasty) patients after two weeks of bed rest.

This increased cross-section will not only increases the size of the muscle tissue you have but also the, drum roll please....... connective tissue that envelopes each muscle, and connects them to your bones in the form of fascia and tendons. These are the tissues than transfer forces that you’re able to apply seamlessly to create movement and produce power for jumping, landing, and changing direction. Figure 1 is a bit of an extreme example of this, with the addition of a total knee replacement for the TKA group, which accelerates muscle atrophy. What I'm trying to highlight here is how muscle cross-section changes... Here with reduced loading or vast amounts of rest. In figure 1 they have been on two weeks of bed rest which in-fairness is extreme rest, however you'll notice that quickly the muscle tissue (dark parts) has gotten significantly smaller and the orientation of the muscle looks far less organised, which may be due to the connective tissue atrophy (the lighter lines between each muscle). With appropriate loading we can simply reverse this and increase the dark areas and sharpen those white lines, which all result in larger cross-section areas and increased force potential.

Figure 2 shows the different types of connective tissue Link to article here

By increasing the density of your connective tissues you will increases your ability to tolerate load, meaning you can put more force through the tissue (stronger, higher, faster) but also more volume (more frequent, longer, further). Raising the ceiling of their capacity which will  help to ensure that higher or more frequent force being applied does not exceed the tissues capacity which would potentially result in fatigue, pain or injury. Figure 2 nicely shows the different types of connective tissue found in the human body, and when we are considering this type of tissue and exercise we are considerably interested in superficial Fascia, intramuscular fascia, tendons, ligaments and aponeurosis' as these are all essential for force production and will significantly adapt to loading. This by-product of building muscle is never really spoken about but has huge implications for the performer, and knowing this can help positive decisions as to how specific modes of exercises, executed in specific ways might be useful to you.

If this has perked your interest (or helped re-frame muscle building for you somewhat) then you’ll be interested to know that it’s not only the exercise you choose that dictates whether or not you build muscle mass. The key variables to optimal hypertrophy (building muscle) are:

- Load being moved

- Reps completed

- Sets completes

- Tempo of the movement

- Rest periods taken

- Exercise selection

- Exercise order

The skilled part of exercise prescription is to gain the desired adaptation with the lowest possible dose of exercise, especially for those with physically demanding roles or jobs. So learning how these variables interact is a key way of understanding how to achieve your goal, whether it is building muscle mass or not, in the least stressful way.

Hopefully this has given you food for thought when it comes to what building muscle mass and connective tissue robustness means to you, and how a little bit of this in particular areas may be extremely useful. For more learnings and solutions regarding the building of functional muscle mass keep an eye out for Production Education.


Thanks for reading