Build your body with your brain, idiot!

Piotr Suwara (Uniwersytet Warszawski), suwara.pi on gmail



Human lifestyle has changed dramatically over last centuries, and even decades. Human body, which was designed to deal with quite a large amount of movement (walking, hunting etc.) suffers from all-day-long sitting, both during work and leisure time. In the talk I wanted to show that not only it is useful to keep it fit, but also that the way our body works is complex and suprising, and getting to understand it is an interesting and rewarding task.

What can you benefit developing your body?

You will surely achieve better performance in sports. This will lead to you enjoying the game more, and for some sports, it is actually hard to achieve a decend level, when playing becomes a pleasure rather than a pain, without being fit enough. Moreover, being strong, flexible and/or quick still happens to be practical in (not only everyday) life, and its not hard to find examples, e.g. dealing with heavy weights, catching the last bus, walking long stairs etc.

Your body also serves a very important function, which you usually don't even notice. It keeps your posture - either you are talking, taking photos, reading, writing - your muscles constanly work for you not to fall on the ground or your notes. Even when you sleep, they are kept by the central nervous system in constant state of partial contraction. This is calle muscle tone, and this is what makes you sleep well, for instance, and this is because partially contracted neck muscles do not allow your head to twist in any strange and uncomfortable way!

Very important role is played by the torso mucles, especially abdomen and lumbar ones, which support the spine and affects its shape. Many posture conditions like kyphosis or hyperlordosis are caused by imbalances and unproper development of these. Lack of exercise leads also to other pains and injuries. For example, more than 1/3 of the adult population suffer from shoulder problems at some point of their lives. Imbalances in knee or wrist joints lead to pains in these regions. Without exercising calves, ankles tend to become stiff and are more likely to get twisted.

How to develop one's body?

Tehre are various ways to do this, but I will concentrate on bodybuilding. Why? I think it gives a great control of body's development and shows many interesting facts about its work.

Okay, let's try a trivial question: what makes up one's strength? In fact, the size of the muscles is not the only thing, which matters. Strength is influenced by:

  • number of motor neurons used during muscle contraction,
  • strength of the motor impulse,
  • actual size of the muscles,
  • intramuscular coordination (coordination of motor impulses inside a particular muscle),
  • intermuscular coordination (the way muscles coordinate with each other in a movement).

Notice that four out of five factors depend on the peripheral and central nervous system, and the way our muscles work heavily depends on it! This has some immediate consequences. The nervous system learns and forgets things much quicker than muscle fibers grow or diminish, and therefore it is common for the beginners in bodybuilding or other sports to make quick progress when beginning some exercises, because it is mostly the nervous system which learns to work more efficiently. This also makes it hard to determine whether a training program is really good and affects all the mentioned factors: one may progress even if some of these are omitted. Moreover, after a break in exercise, if the muscles do not diminish, but just _forget_ the movements, one is able to regain strength rather quickly. And the most visible consequences are considerable fluctuations of strength within short time intervals. One day you may feel like you are going to hit any weight, but you won't because of a tired nervous system (by stress, lack of sleep etc.). Another day you will feel tired, but you might have slept very well last few days and your nervous system works brilliantly.

Now when you are aware of the importance of your neurons, let's go to more straightforward things like muscle enlargement. Well, to be sincere, this is also not trivial. The point is that you never grow muscles during exercise, but instead, you damage them in the effort. But what happens next, is your body repairs the muscle fibers, and does it with reinforcement by adding more actin and myosin filaments - it makes you ready for harder workout, longer series, bigger weights, because it expects hard work to come! But this process happens only if your muscles get enough rest time (yeah, you have to sleep well) and nutrition (something better than coffee, cola, nachos and pizzas).

Some tips

Now, you may either begin studying anatomy, or try bodybuilding by yourself. At the end, I will leave some tips for beginning with bodybuilding (even if you don't want to begin, I encourage you to read them - I have put there some interesting facts):

  1. Define your objectives. Do you want to develop your muscles, slim down, improve performance or maintain your health? Maybe a mixture of these?
  2. Quantify your objectives. Some reasonable aims would be: gain 4 kg muscle mass in 6 months; increase strength by 40% in 3 months; or lose 2 kg fat in a month.
  3. Are you already stuck and don't know, what to do? Don't worry! Ask a friend! Ask some experienced bodybuilder. Ask a gym trainer! Get a book! At the end of the page I list some useful ones.
  4. Develop the whole body. Do not train only the upper or lower part, do not leave your weaker parts unexercised, especially if you exercise the antagonistic ones (e.g. don't leave your triceps weak if you train your biceps; don't forget to work back if you exercise abdomen).
  5. Train regularly, leaving time for muscles to regenerate. Small ones like biceps need 2-3 days to regenerate, while large ones like quadriceps need 4-5 days. If you overtrain, you will destroy muscles or even injure them. On the other hand, if you train to ralery, e.g. less than two times a week, do not expect progress.
  6. Get a warm-up before each workout. Not only it will increase your performance, but its absence would make you vulnerable to injuries.
  7. Make sessions about 45-60 minutes long (after a warm-up). Later, your performance will decrease, and so the training effectiveness. Too short workout won't allow you to work your muscles hard.
  8. Differentiate exercises! Develop comprehensively, do not leave weak areas, and you also won't get bored. On the other hand, you should not change exercises too often - give yourself some time to learn new movements, make progress and see it, so that you stay motivated.
  9. Do not exhaust your arms before other exercises using them to work other parts like chest, shoulders or back. The same applies to calves, which should not be stressed before other leg exercises. Otherwise you will get lower performance and a possibility of failing an exercise.
  10. You, and nobody else, decide which weights you are using. Do not overestimate your abilities, but do not use too light ones either - work hard!
  11. Keep a good diet. You need something more than pizzas and burgers. And do not use steroids. They have too many side effects for you to risk, and your body doesn't expect you to take them.
  12. Differentiate between bilateral and unilateral training. Bilateral exercise is shorter in time and more intense, but when training unilaterally it happens that you have a greater strength and flexibility (try making bilateral biceps curls until you cannot do any one more; you will surely be able to make some more repetitions using one hand).
  13. So-called multijoint exercises, which many different mucles work, stimulate muscles more, teach them to cooperate better and allow to use heavy weights. On the other hand, they are hardest physically, do not always target the muscles they are supposed to (e.g. push-ups will train your chest only if your triceps doesn't fail earlier) and do not use the full range of motion of a muscle.
  14. Differentiate them with isolation exercises. They are less effective and are usually artificial movements, but they are easy (suitable for beginners), target a specific muscle well and use a greater range of motion.
  15. Accentuate negatives. Negative (or eccentric) refers to the phase of movement, when the muscles are loosened, not contracted. In fact, this phase is much more traumatic for your muscles and contribute more to the muscle mass and strength than the positive (contraction) and isometric (keeping weight still after contraction) phases!

Further reading

  1. Delavier F. Strength Training Anatomy - an atlas of exercises
  2. Delavier F., Gundill M. Strength Training Anatomy Workout I, II - part I is an introduction to strength training, includes exercises demanding little equipment (no machine exercises, thus); part II is about more serious bodybuilding
  3. Delavier F., Clemencau J.-P., Gundill M. Stretching Anatomy - a guide to stretching, which is good alone, but also a great complement to any other training
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