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Post No.: 0675muscles


Furrywisepuppy says:


There’s training for outright strength, like a strength athlete; and then there’s training for outright aesthetic physique, like a bodybuilder.


Bodybuilders go through various phases in the run up to a competition. But on competition day, when they’re at their leanest in order to highlight their muscle definition and vascularity (veininess) – they’re actually at their weakest due to factors like dehydration and sub-optimal fat reserves. (The shiny bronze fake tan helps to highlight each muscle striation too.) But they’re not being asked to perform in any strength sense – just pose for their visual proportions, symmetry and definition.


Although looks are irrelevant for the latter, you can in many cases visually tell the difference between a bodybuilder and a strength athlete. So there’s a difference between what many people assume is how the ultimate strongperson would look like – as depicted by our cultural superheroes and idealised figures – and how the actual ultimate (natural) strongperson would look like. They’re both strong but, relatively speaking, one trains for show (the pump) and the other for go (the power)!


Most people will also assume that the person with the largest muscles must necessarily be the one with muscles that are most easily distinguishable via the surface rather than has more subcutaneous fat that obscures the definition of their muscles. It’s unhealthy to have too much fat, but it’s also unhealthy to have too little fat; although we can’t simply tell what a person’s body fat ratio is just by looking at them (and the visceral fat is more telling when it comes to one’s health risks too). There isn’t a perfect correlation between the size of a muscle and the strength of it anyway. Basically, the superficial judgements that we intuitively rely on aren’t completely reliable.


Strength isn’t determined just by hypertrophy (increases in muscle cell size) but by neurological adaptations and intrinsic muscle structure adaptations, which depend on how we train them. Thus size isn’t everything – and that’s why in strength competitions we can’t just save time by measuring people’s muscles with a tape measure and handing the title of world’s strongest man/woman to the largest man/woman in the world(!) In any other sporting event, or intellectual contest – we don’t go ‘yup, they’ve got the biggest legs, or biggest craniums, so they win’. Abilities are judged by performances.


Yet in everyday contexts, we believe we can save time and effort by judging others and ourselves according to the way everyone looks (e.g. in situations of sexual selection or when voting for politicians – frequently to our later disappointments!)


Just a slight digression to mention it’s weird when people think that bodybuilders have ‘no necks’ when they actually have thicker necks than average i.e. the opposite! It’s like how thin people appear taller than broader people of the same objective height unless they stand side-by-side. Well it’s related to how our eyes can deceive us again.


Ultra-ripped/shredded abs are typically a sign of skinniness and relative weakness rather than optimal fitness and health. For some who go quite far, they look gaunt and starved. Whenever we see actors get into shape for certain superhero movie roles, their on-screen physique is unsustainable unless they continue to eat a highly-restricted ‘no fun’ diet forever (e.g. some may be placed on low-carbohydrate diets with no sweets or alcohol whatsoever – under the supervision of a trainer or team). Indeed, that’s partly why professional bodybuilders have separate bulking up and cutting phases – they cannot healthily stay cut permanently. Even they only look how they look on stage during competition moments – not all year round. That’s why these actors usually quickly regress back to how they used to be again after the filming ends.


To get the ‘cut’ look, actors are often dehydrated for many hours before filming – they may look tough and mean on screen but in this state they’re severely tired and may suffer from headaches when recording the fight scenes (i.e. hardly hero material if it were real life without the ‘super’). At the very least, they’re constantly trying to keep their body in a ‘pumped-up’ state throughout the day’s shoot (e.g. by constantly curling some dumbbells or doing some press-ups off camera) in order to look at their maximum swole size whenever they’re on camera.


And of course without adequate rest, they’re weaker than they could be even though they may ‘look at their fittest’. Therefore no one naturally and healthily looks the way these characters look in the movies all of the time, even if they did all the underlying training. This is important to understand in case adolescents in particular feel a pressure to match those unrealistic body ideals as depicted routinely in the media. Individual genetics play some role (as could, conceivably, performance-enhancing drugs and ‘site enhancement oils’) but it’s mainly about using temporary tricks like dehydration, keeping pumped-up off-screen (you’d have to be ridiculously vain to constantly do that in real life!), strategic makeup, strategic costumes, dramatic lighting, CGI and photo editing.


So, ironically, to ‘look at your peak’ (in the eyes of this image-based society at least), you’re going to feel relatively weaker than your true peak. Movies, and people’s own selfies (usually in front of a bathroom mirror, sucking their stomachs in, with dramatic downward lighting to highlight the muscles too) only capture the ‘best looking’ moments rather than the strongest and metabolically fittest moments of a person. They don’t show the complete story. Any person can use a photo-editing app or filter nowadays too – so don’t automatically assume that any picture posted on social media or messaged to you is honest. Woof.


Many fitness social media influencers bank or store up photographs of themselves when they’re lean and cut, and spread the posting of these pictures over the year to give the impression that they look like that constantly. It’s not healthy to be so lean and dehydrated for so long (or really even for a moment), and if someone is, then they could be using drugs of one kind or another. Celebrities, in particular, may also have teams of stylists, makeup artists, photo editors and each shoot could take hours at a time – sometimes their own pictures end up not looking like themselves(!) You might not recognise a model if you saw them in real life if you’ve only seen them through pictures. Some will even admit that they don’t recognise themselves in their own pictures! So they hardly look like they do in their photos every day – many love having stress-free little/no-makeup days when they don’t have a shoot, and would themselves rather not live in a culture where they must barely eat, and hide every blemish on their face if they’re going to be seen in public.


The bottom line is that there isn’t a perfect one-to-one relationship between looking fit and being fit – indeed, what’s considered ‘fit looking’ is to a certain degree subjective and cultural anyway. We shouldn’t train to look like, or compare ourselves to, anyone else but rather train to be the best that we can individually be, in terms of our own true health.


This isn’t to say that – at the heaviest ends of the scale or when one’s body mass is pushing the limit of one’s skeletal frame and cardiovascular system at least – strength athletes are at a state that can be healthily sustained indefinitely either. Their mass (including fatty ‘power bellies’) puts a huge strain on their bodies. They also need to eat mountains of calories and protein daily. We might assume that being able to eat so much must be fantastic – but for many competitors at the largest weight categories who must go through this, it can actually be a grinding chore! They still have to eat the right balance of nutrients rather than whatever they like. And they must eat to a regimented schedule rather than whenever they like, which might affect their sleep. It’s an example of how when one is forced to do something that’s even otherwise pleasurable, it can suck that pleasure out and just become work.


You might wonder what their toilet excursions are like too?! (Some have even embarrassingly broken toilet seats because they’re too heavy to sit on them!)


We need energy for power (because Power = Energy / Time). Some athletes can be reasonably ripped during competition time and be optimal for those events because they’re quite certain about how much energy they’ll need to expend, they have carefully calorie-controlled diets that are managed by their dieticians, and they don’t want to carry any excess weight when competing (e.g. fixed-distance events like track sprinting).


Most of us don’t live with dieticians though, nor absolutely know how much energy we need to expend and no more or less (e.g. many Olympic athletes don’t have to do any unexpected major errands since they have helpers during competition days, unless their team lacks funding). It’s true, however, that most of us don’t have to be at strictly our most physically optimal to live normally and healthily! There are decently broad ranges we can be in and still be regarded as practically optimally healthy in terms of our body fat ratio, weight, heart rates, etc. because our bodily systems will naturally and nicely sort things out for us through homeostasis if we keep within these broad ranges for one’s age, gender and other fluffy factors.


And again, even athletes generally won’t be quite as lean outside of their competition months, including during their training months. All athletes go through different phases during the year, which are timed according to when their competition dates are. (Some bodybuilders and sportspeople also experience ‘post-competition blues’ after the competition season is over for the year.)


So ripped muscles aren’t necessarily a sign of optimal strength or health, and for most people living real-world lives, it’s far healthier to have an adequate fat energy reserve just in case. Female athletes in particular shouldn’t have body fat levels that are too low for prolonged durations because this will chronically disrupt their menstrual cycles.


There are ‘muscles for show’ and ‘muscles for go’. You’re only as strong as your weakest link too. For instance, solely building your large muscles through isolation exercises – especially when using certain machines – can lead to under-training your smaller, less showy, muscles that are needed for stabilising free weights in real-world strength situations. They may also lead to muscle imbalances if you don’t work the opposing muscle groups.


Some weight machines assist in the stabilisation and positioning of a weight (e.g. during Smith machine squats) thus making these moves easier when compared to doing them with free weights. Or they simulate moves that you really wouldn’t choose in real-world situations (e.g. barbell curls on a preacher curl bench) because you’d shift the weight in a different way if faced with such a weight to shift.


A strong lower back needs a muscularly chunky, not slim, waist. Most real-world moves use the legs to drive off and generate most of the power too, even for seemingly upper-body-only moves, like a shove – hence someone who mostly builds their showier torso and arms and not their legs and back may look strong but won’t really be. So learn to love leg day – quake in some quad damage! (Read also Post No.: 0171.)


The upshot is that we must remember that looks mean zero once actual performance can be measured. Looks are only used as a proxy judgement to infer potential strength (or stamina, etc.) absent of any more information than what’s superficial. But only performance tests can prove performance, and performance is what everything (that’s not merely skin-deep) is ultimately about.


Woof! Looks are like the hearsay, and performance is the evidence. And anyone who only trusts or relies on judging by looks isn’t only shallow and vacuous but easily suggestible. Rely on the stopwatch, odometers, rep counters and weights – not on the mirror.


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