Why Bigger Muscles Aren’t Better

Discover the potential health risks of bigger muscles, and what kind of muscle you should really be trying to build.

Ben Greenfield,
October 19, 2015
Episode #257

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You probably know that the way you train shapes your muscle size and also shapes your muscle function. For example, if you lift heavy weights, you can build strong, dense muscle, and if you lift very light weights, especially if you don’t lift to fatigue, you simply build muscular endurance and small, less dense musculature. If you choose exercises that involve multiple joints working all at the same time (such as a deadlift or a squat), you tend to build coordination and natural movement patterns, while if you choose single joint exercises (such as a bicep curl or leg extension), you tend to fatigue muscle and build lots of lactic acid in an area. But from a functional standpoint, you may not build quite as much coordination or athleticism. If any of that confusing to you, you may want to check out, “How To Build Muscle.”

But when it comes to your overall health, what kind of muscle training is best? You’re about to discover the answer in this episode, along with why you may actually not want to be training your muscles to simply “get bigger.”

How Your Muscles Respond to Different Types Of Training

A recent study entitled, “Single muscle fibre contractile properties differ between bodybuilders, power athletes and controls,” looked into the muscle fiber contractile properties of muscle biopsies taken from the quadriceps muscle (vastus lateralis) of bodybuilders who had been engaging in low- to moderate-intensity, high-volume resistance training and compared these muscle fibers to power athletes who had been engaging in high-intensity low-volume training.

What’s the training difference between the bodybuilders and the power athletes? Bodybuilders tend to perform lots of sets with a high number of repetitions, literally “blasting” a single muscle group, such as the chest, over and over again to beat it up, let it recover, and then maximize that muscle group’s size. Meanwhile, powerlifters simply lift as heavy as possible a weight as quickly and explosively as possible, using a relatively low number of sets and reps.

Because of this, bodybuilders tend to be big and bulky with lots of muscle mass, while powerlifters tend to be smaller and wiry, with not too much muscle (although the muscle that they do have is extremely powerful, explosive, and athletic).

The study that I mentioned didn’t seem too groundbreaking with regards to it’s findings: the researchers simply found that high-intensity, low-volume resistance training performed by powerlifters caused significantly different adaptations to training compared to the low- to moderate-intensity, high-volume training style of bodybuilders. Perhaps more interestingly, they also found that the adaptions to training went beyond simply changes in muscle fibers, and found that the differing styles of training caused changes in important markers of muscle health and recovery such as “myofibrillar density” (think of this as having “harder” muscles) and “post-translational modifications of contractile protein” (think of this as being able to use foods to help muscles recover faster).


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