Muscle-bound? That's no excuse!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2009

If you need an excuse for not exercising, try this one: "I'm afraid of getting muscle-bound."

Nearly 100 years ago the term muscle bound referred to a loss of flexibility from overdevelopment of muscles that resulted from lifting weights. That myth vaporized long ago, as it did for me when I watched one of these mega-muscled men do several back-flips in a row.

The cover of any bodybuilding magazine is likely to display a guy whose arm muscles are so bulky that you'll wonder if he is able to comb his hair. Those bodies are sleek and shiny; bulging blood vessel patterns look like a street map of Boston. Their shoulder muscles resemble half-cantaloupes and their triangular chests make it a sure bet that these guys can't buy a suit off the rack.

In case you're worried about looking like this if you begin an exercise routine using dumbbells, barbells and weight machines, and that you won't be able to lift a fork to your mouth or bend over to tie your shoes, forget it. Those cover guys have some genetic characteristics that mere mortals lack. For starters, their muscles consist largely of the so-called fast-twitch fibers that enlarge quickly when they are stressed by lifting heavy weights. Their diets are fine-tuned to produce the maximum muscle mass from the many hours that they spend every week in the weight room at the gym. Although not all bodybuilders use special supplements in order to attain outstanding muscle size, many do.

Persons who exercise vigorously for one-half to one hour three or four times a week using standard resistance training (weight lifting) routines will not develop huge muscles but they will reap huge health benefits.

A key factor that will protect against injury and that will make the time spent exercising more productive is proper instruction. Consult a certified trainer for advice, not a friend or neighbor. It's also important to start slowly in order to minimize the pain that is common when previously dormant muscle fibers awaken. Exercise "damages" muscle fibers in a way that makes them get bigger and stronger in the repair process. Use very light weights (or no weight at all) in the first couple of weeks in order to avoid the pain and discomfort that most of us have experienced when we ignored this advice.

It doesn't take long hours or heavy lifting but new exercisers feel better and become aware of being stronger in as little as a couple of weeks. It only takes about two sessions per week to tone and strengthen muscles so some persons alternate workouts between the upper and lower body in a 4-times-per-week routine.

Aerobics (walking, biking, jogging and similar exercises) are as important as resistance exercise and neither replaces the other. The former are important for maintaining the heart and lungs, the latter for preserving muscle and bone strength.

Resistance training helps to preserve joint function, especially the knees. Balance also improves, not only because of the gains in strength but because regular exercise preserves specialized nerve endings that are important for balance control.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.