Building Muscle – Think “Water Balloon” Not “Brick”

I get questions about building and losing muscle a lot and I think most people simply aren’t picturing a muscle as it truly is.

Arnold's Muscles are Unreal, but even he has an upper and lower limit.
Arnold's Muscles are Unreal, but even he has an upper and lower limit.

First of all there is a genetic predetermined amount of muscle you have that cannot be changed. This is set by the time you’re in your late teens. I’m referring to your somatotype (ectomorph, endomorph, or mesomorph).

You can’t change what kind of somatotype you are, but you can build up your muscle mass no matter where you are starting.

The only difference is the amount of muscle you will eventually gain is dependent on where you are starting.

Adding muscle isn’t like adding bricks to a house. Adding muscle is like filling up water balloons as full as you can get them.

The total number of muscles fibers you have on your body is fixed and cannot change. You can only take the muscle fibers you already have and make them bigger, you can’t actually create more muscle fibers. This is called Hypertrophy.

(adding new muscle fibers is called hyperplasia – this has never been shown to happen scientifically)

So picture it this way:

If you are starting with 100 muscle fibers, then all you can do is make those 100 fibers as big as possible, but you can’t make them into 110 muscle fibers.

On the other hand a guy who is naturally thicker and bigger than you might have 120 muscle fibers, so when he does the same workout as you he will appear to be adding more muscle because he is making his 120 fibers bigger than your 100 fibers.

So all things being equal this second dude will always look about 20% bigger than you because he is starting with 20% more muscle than you.

So the wrong way to look at muscle building is the brick analogy. We don’t build muscle by adding new bricks to the pile.

Muscles are NOT like bricks
Muscles are NOT like bricks

So the way to look at muscle building is like filling water balloons.

Muscles are much more like Water Balloons
Muscles are much more like Water Balloons

Your muscles are about 73% water, and the amount of water they are holding varies based on how you workout, and to a lesser degree on how you eat.

If you don’t workout and don’t eat much, you’re muscles will be less hydrated and hold less water and look smaller. If you workout and follow a sensible diet you’re muscles will be big full and hydrated.

That is the real difference with muscle building.

When you look at it this way the idea of ‘losing muscle’ doesn’t make any sense either.

You can’t really ‘lose’ muscle, they don’t disintegrate and disappear (even cadavers still have a substantial amount of muscles on them, so even after death muscles don’t disappear or disintegrate).

In reality muscles shrink or expand based on your workout intensity, and frequency.

Unless you are completely starving and never lift weights, you will never be in a position to worry about your muscles shrinking.

Even if you go through a traumatic event that causes a muscle to ‘shrink’ (think of the way a muscle shrinks when you break a bone and you have to wear a cast)…you can easily bring that muscle back up to full size once the cast is off and you can lift weights again.

The bottom line is you can’t “lose” muscle. It can only shrink or expand, but the same muscle is always there.