About a week ago I posted Part I of this series, talking about the myth behind lactic acid. If you didn’t check it out then, go now! And then come back here of course.
Today we’re tackling another myth, and it’s one that seriously blows my mind every time I hear it. It’s something that you hear come from the mouths of many people in the fitness world, and I’ve never understood why.
Check out any women’s magazine, a million articles online about how to build/maintain the “perfect” physique, and in the press of many, many celebrity trainers and you’ll see 3 words that make me cringe like no other:
Long, Lean Muscles.
What does that even mean? If you’ve seen that before and wondered weather you too could turn your short, stumpy, unattractive* muscles into long, lean and lovely ones…
I hate to break it to you, but it ain’t gonna happen. And you’re in the right place to set that thinking go, let it be free to fly away and never come back again.
If you have long a long, lean muscular frame, then congrats! You win at life.** But if you’re one of us who wasn’t born that way, I can tell you with 100% certainty that you’ll never, ever reach that goal.
No, I’m not here to trample all over your dreams like a mad woman, I’m just telling you the simple truth. Muscle length comes down to one thing: genetics, and if you don’t have it, you can’t create it with any workout plan. No matter how flashy the marketing or how charismatic the spokesperson, you cannot create long, lean muscles. It’s impossible.
Not with yoga, not with barre, not with pilates or yogalates or whatever you choose to do.. and certainly not with 2 lb pink dumbbells.
Let’s break it down to the science for a second.
Your muscles are attached to bones through tendons at each end. Some muscles have just one tendon at each end (origin and insertion), and others have multiple attachment points, such as your bicep which splits into a long head and short head, which attach within the same vicinity of your shoulder, but separate from each other to provide a more complex movement pattern for that particular muscle.
Each and every muscle has a muscle belly (the main part of the muscle), the musculotendinous junction (where the muscle fuses with tendon) and the tendon which then inserts into bone. These attachments form levers in your body, which is the reason we can move, jump, dance, wiggle, and any other type of movement your body desires. Without these insertions, our muscles would have no way to move our bones, thus, we would be left lying around like a bag of rocks.
Now let’s think about what people are implying by talking about forming “longer, leaner muscles”. They are, in essence, implying that through training, you can detach the tendon from one part of your bone, and re-attach it somewhere farther away. This is the only way you could form longer muscles (and I’m not sure where the leaner portion comes into this equation).
“The PiYo workout can in no way make your muscles longer, but through proper nutrition and exercise you could potentially become leaner!” There, fixed that for ya.
Sound ridiculous? Of course it does! Because it’s pure nonsense. Without changing the positioning of your muscles and tendons, it’s impossible to make them longer than they already are. I hate to break it to you, but the length of your quad muscle is determined by the length of your femur, not the way you train it. Want longer thigh muscles? Get new parents. Before you were even born, your DNA determined how long your bones would be, thus how long your muscles would be. There is no way to change this through training, no matter how much Tracie Anderson tries to get you to believe otherwise.
But what about stretching? Doesn’t that make my muscles longer?
Nope, sorry. We’re not changing muscle length here. We can change elasticity to some extent through manual therapy, proper warm ups, and possibly stretching, but these things will not alter the physiological length of your muscles. You can get all of the soft tissue work in the world, stretch for 30 minutes every morning, and your muscle will still originate and insert on exactly the same points of your bones, and unless you suffer a tendon rupture (trust me, this is NOT something you want to happen!), these attachment points will never change. You will never, ever create a longer, leaner physique.
Let me say that again: Never, ever, ever will you create longer muscles through training.
If you look at your legs in the mirror and see some short, stumpy muscles, I hate to break it to you but that won’t change. Embrace the shape that you have developed, and embrace the shape that you can someday reach through training. But the present you needs to understand the realistic boundaries of the future you. If you’re not Giselle and have legs for days, you’re never going to have legs for days. But so what? Giselle is Giselle and you are you. And unless your life’s dream is to join the Radio City Rockettes, those legs don’t mean a thing. Seriously!
But what about becoming leaner? I can do that, right?
Of course! Through the process of decreasing body fat, which will come from a combination of proper training and proper nutrition (mostly nutrition here), you can absolutely become leaner. The problem here is when this is combined with “longer” in the original phrase, and then it becomes unrealistic. Training (and eating) for leanness is a commitment and a challenge, but it has nothing to do with the length of your muscles. In addition, training with certain weight or rep schemes to make your muscles appear leaner, as some fitness pros would like you to believe, is also not possible. You can become leaner through one means, and that is decreasing body fat. You can not change the shape of your muscles to make them appear leaner, and you can not train in certain movement patterns to alter their shape or form.
Muscles are fairly unique from person to person, yes, but they are all built up of the same building blocks. We can not mold them into new shapes, we can only help them to become stronger, larger, smaller, or more defined, depending on your training and nutrition.
Next time a trainer or fitness personality tells you that they can help you change the shape and look of your muscles, stop and ask yourself if what they are proposing sounds like it is even remotely based in reality. And then ask yourself why you should be bothering with someone who wants to change who you are genetically, to change what it is that makes you really you? And then, last but not least, run away. Run far far away (whether that’s through internet clicks or through your gym door), and find someone who will train you for you. Someone who will train your strengths and help you reach your goals, not try to push some magical fairy dust on you just for a few bucks. You can do better, your body can do better.
Embrace your body for what it is, and train to reach your best potential every day. Forget the length of your muscles, and focus on the strength, the power, the ability to help you perform every day tasks with ease. That is what trainers should be pushing on you, because that, my friends, is real life.
*that’s what they want you to believe. Trust me, even if your muscles are short and stumpy, they are beautiful because they are yours!
**Also what they want you to believe. However, lovely as they are, it’s just the luck of the draw, folks. No winning here!