As readers of this blog already know, I’m on a bit of a hypertrophy/aesthetics kick lately, and have returned to working out in a more conventional setting using more conventional implements (while not abandoning my beloved kettlebells altogether). While much of my training takes place at the St. Petersburg Punch Kettlebell Gym, I’ve recently reactivated my membership at a local chain gym in order to have access to a full range of equipment when the trip to St. Petersburg isn’t possible.
One feature I took advantage of was a computer station that measures your blood pressure, heart rate, body weight, and body fat % (bioelectric impedence method). It files away all of these stats each time you use it, allowing you to track physical changes over time. I strapped myself in and noticed a sharp change from the last time I had used the machine in July of 2008 (roughly 1.5 years ago).
Before I go over the changes, lets review how my diet and training has changed in the last year:
- As of January of this year I switched over to eating Primal/Paleo
- As of late 2008 I began training primarily with kettlebells and bodyweight calisthenics
Now, for the before and after:
Blood Pressure: 111/72 (Jul ’08) to 101/69 (Dec ’09)
Bodyweight: 148 to 132 lbs
Bodyfat %: 14.46 to 7.5
First let me say that bioelectrical impedence is not the most accurate means of measuring BF%, but assuming we believe the numbers here we can see that in 1.5 years I’ve lost 16 lbs and roughly halved my bodyfat.
Crunching some numbers we can see I lost 11.5 lbs of fat and 4.5 lbs of lean mass, which I can only assume was muscle mass. However, I know from experience that I’m faster and stronger than I ever was previously in certain lifts, and at least equal in strength in other lifts. So I haven’t experienced any loss in performance due to the muscle loss. The goal now becomes: gain that muscle mass back while keeping the single digit BF%. Interestingly enough, my original planned goal was to gain about 5 lbs of lean mass, which is exactly what I appear to have lossed.
How Is It Possible To Lose Muscle Yet Gain Strength?
Strength isn’t as cut and dry as you might imagine. As I mentioned previously in this post, muscle mass can be primarily functional or nonfunctional, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. When you need to use a muscle, your brain signals the muscle to contract using the central nervous system. The central nervous system signals motor units in the muscle to contract, hopefully allowing you to successfully lift the required weight. The process in most untrained individuals, however, is extremely inefficient. Training with heavy weights at low reps primarily trains your central nervous system, teaching it to recruit more motor units when contracting, increasing force production. All this is possible with zero increase in muscle mass.
To use a popular automotive analogy, if strength were horsepower, CNS optimization would be akin to altering the computer software in your engine allowing it to produce more horsepower. Muscle hypertrophy would be akin to simply increasing the displacement. Both software changes and a bigger engine result in increased horsepower, and in certain cases there could be a better engineered engine with less displacement that produces more horsepower than a large engine.