The word muscle usually brings to mind biceps, triceps, glutes and hamstrings, but this system is far more complex. “Everything we do in terms of locomotion is happening because of the muscles,” says Adelin Stoica, a personal trainer at Max & Aegle. “Almost all the crucial processes in the body — breathing, eating, talking — are happening with the support of the muscular system. If I mention that heart is an amazing muscle, I think everything becomes pretty clear.”
We have three types of muscle in our body: skeletal, smooth and cardiac. “The skeletal muscles are the ones [we think about] because they’re the ones we are able to control, and they can make a big difference regarding our health,” says Stoica. “I have to mention also the efficiency of cardiac and smooth muscles — which aid the functions of the stomach, intestines, circulatory and reproductive system — can be highly influenced by our lifestyle.”
The more than 650 skeletal muscles in our bodies are what allow us to move, jump, run or bear weights. “But there is a cost for that — energy expenditure,” explains Stoica. “If you make the connection with the metabolic rate, you understand that having more muscles allows you to burn more calories when you’re not doing anything.” However, sedentary modern lifestyles have reduced the purpose of skeletal muscles; we need to go out of our way to create one. “This is where gyms, running tracks and other sports infrastructure are becoming extremely important — they create the reason for the skeletal muscles to exist.”
"Everything we do in terms of locomotion is happening because of the muscles."
Age vs muscle
Muscle loss is one of the natural consequences of ageing. “Our DNA allows us to grow and fully develop until the age of 24 or 25. After that, the anabolic processes end and a light catabolic state begins, which gets more intense with age. One contributor to sarcopenia is hormones. When we age, there is natural decline of the testosterone secretion, the hormone that stimulates muscle growth.”
According to a Harvard Medical School report, most men will lose about 30 per cent of their muscle mass during their lifetime. But all need not be lost. “The speed of catabolic reactions in the skeletal muscles can be slowed down through physical exercises, a balanced nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.” He draws an automotive analogy by way of explanation: “[Compare] a 30- or 50-year-old car that was parked in garage all the time, driven smoothly on good roads and serviced properly, to another vehicle of the same age that was left in the sun, rain and snow, only serviced occasionally, given bad fuel and driven recklessly. The individuals with a better health and a higher fitness level will have better physical abilities because of muscle mass level and the experience they have gained during their life.”
We can’t talk about building or retaining muscle mass without mentioning nutrition, says Stoica. “There is no universal nutrition plan or a general workout routine. Each person is unique and it has to find the personal approach according to their goals, fitness level and energy expenditure.
“The quantity of each macronutrient is very important and we should be on top of our numbers. When we talk about muscles, we always talk about protein. Without neglecting the carbohydrates and the fats, proteins are crucial for building, repairing and maintaining a good muscle mass.”
While most nutritional organisations recommend consuming 1.8g to 2.2g per kilogram of bodyweight, Stoica considers this as a potentially low figure. “I link directly the high consumption of carbohydrates and bad fats, which automatically get higher if the protein intake is low, plus a sedentary [lifestyle] with the loss of the muscle mass.”
However, as a trainer with 15 years of experience, he’s reluctant to dole out nutritional advice and workout plans unless it is an individualised plan. “In general, I advise to start with the official numbers 1.8g-2.2g of proteins per kg of your body and to increase this amount gradually, correlated with increasing the training level and this way developing the ability of your body to process and actually use the bigger quantity.”
He warns that excessive protein can lead to health problems and therefore a varied healthy diet with sufficient protein, which correlates with regular workouts is a balanced approach. He also advises that people with any chronic issues seek proper medical advice and guidance before implementing a diet or workout plan.
“How we treat our bodies outside of the gym and the kind of food we eat, the amount of sleep we get, all these factors are important to build muscles. Otherwise, you will end up spending more money without getting the results you are expecting.”