What is muscle? How do they work? How do they get bigger?

Yes, everyone knows what a muscle is… in the sense that we all have them and we need them to move around…. BUT have you ever actually wondered what muscles actually are and how they work?

A lot of us probably take our muscles a little for granted. They are literally our ‘engine’. Our ideas and thoughts manifest in the brain but in order to convert those ideas into action we need muscles. Feel like smiling? For that you need all your facial muscles. Type a text message? You need the muscles in your fingers and arms. Want to dance around in your underwear? You need almost every muscle in your body to do that.

Clinically speaking ‘muscle’ is a bundle of fibrous tissue in a human (or animal) body that has the ability to contract, to produce movement within the body. Most people think biceps or triceps when they think of muscles, these are examples of ‘skeletal muscle’. Skeletal muscles are not the only types of muscles we have. In fact there are 3 types. Did you know that the heart is actually a muscle? Cardiac muscle is found only in the heart. The third type is smooth muscle which is found in our organs such as stomach, intestines and bladder.

For the purpose of this blog we are going to focus on SKELETAL muscle. That’s what we (as physios) treat, and also what many of us flog ourselves in the gym to tone & sculpt. Skeletal muscles attach to the skeleton (bones) and bring about movement of our limbs. Contraction of these muscles is almost always voluntary meaning that you think about using them. The exception is cramps or muscle spasm!

We have two types of skeletal muscle: Type I fibres or ‘slow twitch’ fibres: Known as red muscle, these muscles can contract for a long period of time but with little force. They carry more oxygen so are used for aerobic activity. Type II fibres of ‘fast twitch’ fibres: Known as white muscle, these fibres contract very rapidly & with greater force but fatigue quickly. They are used for short anaerobic bursts of activity.

To make our muscles move (or contract) we need electrical impulses which travel from the brain via our nervous system. There are a series of complicated processes involving ions & so on but I think that’s getting a little too technical.

Putting aside natural growth progressions our muscles get bigger as a result of stresses put through the body during exercise. When the amount of stress is greater than what your muscles are used too there will be an increase in muscle tension which in turn causes changes down at a biochemical level. This progressive stress also causes muscle ‘damage’ which is the reason why we get sore the day after a hard workout.
TheUpper Pecs_0 body then works to repair this ‘damage’ by forming new muscle strands. The increase in number and thickness of muscle fibres results in muscle hypertrophy or growth. It is important to note that this process of growth occurs during rest not while you are actually lifting weights!With this in mind it’s only goes to say that rest & nutrition are both vital to the recipe for building bigger muscles. Your muscles need protein for recovery & repair but also need carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores following a workout. Poor nutrition is one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to build muscle mass.

Finally there is the effect of hormones. Testosterone increases protein synthesis, inhibits protein breakdown & stimulates other anabolic hormones. Strength & resistance training releases testosterone into the body which can then increase levels of growth hormone both of which contribute to tissue growth.

Keep in mind there are certain factors such as genetics, age & gender than can impact on how much your muscles can grow, which is why females don’t have as much muscle mass as their male counterparts. Muscle growth takes time with visible changes taking at least 4 weeks to come about. To stimulate growth you need to place stresses on your body that it’s not adapted to through heavy weights & mixing up your exercise program. This induces muscle damage and will stimulate the ‘rebuilding’ process which contributes to overall muscle bulk.

As we age, our muscle mass naturally decreases (along with other things such as bone density etc) watch out for upcoming blogs on why it’s so important to maintain adequate levels of both these things!!

Have a great week!


Part 2: Bags & bloated bellies. Are our hormones to blame?

If you read (and took anything from) my last post we would all agree that SOMETIMES  it’s understandable that we blame our bad moods and breakouts on unhappy hormones.

What about our hunger? Digestion issues? Sleep? YES unfortunately hormones are responsible for controlling all of these essential functions too.111

Me personally there are two things that make me incredibly grumpy…. Lack of food & lack of sleep (first world problems right here) I’ve trained myself to run on about 6.5-7 hours sleep, any less than that and I’d probably put my underwear on backwards & leave the house without my left shoe.. Hunger… well everyone gets HANGRY once in a while. It’s totally natural!

MELATONIN: The sleep hormone

This little baby helps you go to sleep. We spoke earlier this week about the stress hormone, cortisol. Normally cortisol should peak in the morning for that natural ‘pick me up’ and as the sun goes down cortisol should begin to fall making way for melatonin which helps us drift off to sleep. Suffering from insomnia? Struggling to get to sleep? Tossing & turning all night? These are all sure signs your melatonin levels are too low.

What can be done? Relax and ‘de-wire’ before bed. Remove technology & activities that stimulate the brain. Avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee after 4pm in the afternoon ( FYI some green teas contain caffeine). Even if you have a late night your ‘wake up time’ needs to be pretty consistent to ensure you keep your body clock in check! Sunday morning lie in’s however are definitely acceptable & advised. Maybe you can stimulate some of the ‘love hormone’ at the same time ;).

LEPTIN & GHRELIN – The hungry hungry hormones

This little dynamic duo basically control when we eat & when we need to get out little paws out of the cookie jar. Leptin is produced by fat cells within the body. When you have eaten enough leptin is released indicating to your brain that you are satisfied. Ghrelin is made by the stomach and alerts us when we are hungry. Ever been sitting in a meeting and you stomach decides to make that dying whale sound…. Yep its awkward.. well that’s ghrelin screaming out for some food!

What disrupts the balance? SUGAR….. Processed sugars will block release of leptin, which causes your stomach to produce more ghrelin. Suddenly you are hungry ALL THE TIME even though you have eaten 5 cream buns, 2 donuts & ¾ of a packet of fantales.

Don’t skip meals.. your stomach will produce ghrelin every 20-30 minutes making you want to eat everything in site. High levels of ghrelin have been shown to be linked with poor food choices. Consume lean protein with each meal, this is a satiating food and will reduce hunger!


The ‘feel good’ hormone responsible for your mood & memory. Interestingly this hormone also helps with your ability to multitask… Boys maybe you need to produce a little more of this little fella?

How to keep it in check? Your body needs carbohydrates to produce serotonin. Don’t reach for a sugary snack it will give you a short term lift but the hormonal dip afterwards isn’t worth the trouble. The key (surprise surprise) is a balanced diet; lean protein, good fats (nuts, avocado) and don’t avoid carbs completely… Following a low carb diet?  eat foods such as sweet potato, quinoa & lots of green leafy vegetables!


Cholecystokinin is produced by the small intestine and is responsible for secreting digestive enzymes & controlling our appetite…I’d put $1000 on red that my levels of this baby are more than content… that’s why I feel the need to eat meals fit for a family of 4.

What can be done? My wise 98 year old grandfather once told me that you should chew each mouthful for 10-15 seconds…. I can’t do that. I’ve tried & 5-6 second is a push. I’m a little guzzler, but I’m trying to improve. So basically chew your food, get your digestive enzymes flowing. Your body is a pretty well functioning machine with an in tune programming system that tells you when to eat, so listen to it. Another little golden rule…. Don’t ever feel obliged to finish EVERYTHING on your plate. It’s by far the easiest way to overeat.

I am still amazed at how much of a role hormones play in controlling everything we do… I think the key take home message is that we need to create balance. My mother always told me ‘everything in moderation’ except for sex you can have as much of that as you want. If you apply this to most things I think she is spot on. Our bodies are quite sophisticated BUT like any machine given the right fuel & the right ‘track’ so to speak, you should be able to find a pretty happy cruising altitude.


Bad moods & breakouts. Are your hormones responsible?

Hormones are wonderful things…. Most of the time. They pretty much keep us ‘regular’. They regulate our menstrual cycle, control our thyroid function & regulate sleep. They dictate our sex drive, mood, what we look like, our digestion & our emotions. It would then make perfect sense that when we feel out of ‘sync’, hormones are the first thing we blame.

Can we really put our bad moods and breakouts down to the happiness of our hormones?

Unfortunately YES we can. I had a ‘hormone’ week this week. I was tired; apparently a little more irritable than usual which in hindsight is probably spot on; & I had what I call a’ best friend day’ where all I wanted was to do was call my girlfriend and cry.

When we are feeling at our best our hormone levels are pretty well balanced BUT beware the roller coaster of emotions when things are not quite right.


Everyone thinks it’s a girl thing…. when was the last time you heard a group of boys whinging about how they are feeling emotional because their hormones levels are out of whack?

How are hormones regulated? The production of hormones in the body is almost always regulated by a delicate set of feedback relationships. Most of them are negative feedback loops where the amount of a substance in a system regulates its own concentration. When concentration of a hormone rises to above desired levels, a series of steps is taken to lower the concentration. On the flip side if the concentration falls, steps will be taken to increase it.


Ah the seesaw of female reproductive hormones, and what an intricate relationship it must be. Oestrogen builds up the lining of the uterus during the initial 14 days of your cycle, progesterone then kicks in from days 14-28, & when progesterone begins to drop we get a period. When the balance is disrupted we say hello to reduced libido, severe PMS (the rise of the Grinch), issues with weight control, fatigue & a variety of reproductive issues.

What can be done? Maintain a balanced diet & control your weight. Excess body fat will store oestrogen while if you are too thin you won’t produce enough; both scenarios signal the body to hold onto extra kilos particularly around the waist, thighs & arms.


We need testosterone it to pump up our sexual desires, muscle & metabolism. Females only produce 10% of the testosterone of males BUT this small amount is critical! Too little and you will be a little on the disinterested side…. Too much and you may become prone to facial hair & acne.

What can be done? Ensure you get enough shut eye and have a little fun in the sun. Both of these have been linked to helping regulate testosterone levels.


The ‘stress hormone’. It raises your heartbeat & unleashes energy stores. All good things when experienced at the right time like for the morning rush to help us wake up and give us energy throughout the day. Problems arise when this system stays ramped up ALL THE TIME, you become constantly wired & you can begin to suffer sleep disturbances & feel generally worn down. Ladies high levels of cortisol also stimulates storage of unwanted kilos on your love handles… which is not where we want it right?

What can be done? CHILLLLLLLL out a little more. Take things in your stride and go with the flow. Learn to recognise when you are more stressed that usual & take positive steps to change it such as mediation, deep breathing exercises or regular physical activity. Stimulants such as caffeine may not be the drink of choice if you are a bit of a stress head.


Healthy skin, hair & nails? Apparently all we need to do is keep our thyroids happy. Chronic stress, nutritional deficiencies and inflammation can leave this hormone out of whack. Too much and you may notice weight loss, absent periods & mood swings. Too little and you may notice your hair becomes brittle & you begin to feel sluggish, tired & gain weight.

What can be done? If you smoke… quit. Be wary of some nasty chemicals that lurk in things like re-usable plastic coffee cups & high levels of heavy metals found in some farmed fish as these can both disrupt thyroid function. Ensure a balanced diet with lots & lots of vegetables. They are packed full of vitamins & minerals that your thyroid craves. You may consider taking a multivitamin supplement to increase your vitamin C, E & B complex vitamins.

5. OXYTOCIN- The LOVE hormone

Ever wonder why ‘hugging it out’ actually makes you feel instantly better.  Human ‘touch’ whether it be by a friend or a lover triggers the release of oxytocin. High levels of this amazing hormone will lower blood pressure, increase your sex drive & lower stress…. (Ummmm where can I get more of this…?!?!)

What can be done? MORE HUGS. Cuddle your partner every day! Hug it out with friends whenever you can. The best solution? Have regular sex… Oxytocin levels skyrocket after orgasm… well hey if it’s good for your health why not!

The scary part about all this is that I have only touched on the mere basics of just how much control hormones have over who we are & how we feel.

Hormones really are wonderful things when they work well…. But as we can see it’s a very delicate balance and with so many chemical reactions going on simultaneously it’s no wonder they occasionally slip up and we are left feeling down in the dumps, lethargic and reaching for an extra cream bun!

If you think your hormones all over the place, visit your medical practitioner whether it be your GP or naturopath. Have some tests done. Some people have no idea how good their bodies are designed to feel, but we all deserve to find out!

Want to know hormones control your hunger & your happiness? Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog next week!


Are you getting enough sleep?

The short answer here is probably no… I would estimate 80% of people reading this right now are under slept! As a working adult the recommended sleep requirement is around 8 hours. Can you actually remember the last time you got a solid 8 hours sleep? Because I certainly can’t! I average 6.5 – 7 hours of sleep a night and trust me I am feeling it by Friday afternoon!

The benefits of getting enough sleep stretch far beyond banishing the dark circles under your eyes… it is ESSENTIAL to your health; both mentally and physically. Pretty much 99.9% of us are grumpy individuals when we don’t have enough sleep, not to mention our attention span diminishes to that of a two year old; you become irritable, irrational and unproductive.

Why is sleep so important?

1. HELPS TO REDUCE STRESS: When you’re functioning on a lack of sleep your body can enter a chronic state of stress. Several of my previous blogs highlight how detrimental too much stress can be to our health and wellbeing. Too much stress releases cortisol (stress hormone) constantly which can contribute to chronic disease such as high blood pressure and coronary artery disease; curb weight loss results and leave you feeling generally run down and emotional. A good nights sleep allows your brain to switch off and lets your body recover and rejuvenate.
2.MAKES US MORE ACTIVE. There is nothing quite like waking from a good night’s sleep ready to seize the day ahead. A deep slumber will improve your energy levels and increase your mental awareness; you will be more productive at work and be better prepared to tackle tricky mental challenges that a tired un-rested mind would otherwise struggle with!
3. IMPROVES OUR MOOD: Two things tend to make me grumpy… being hungry and being tired! Lack of sleep can leave even the happiest of people feeling over emotional, irritable and unusually cranky. More and more research sleepis coming out about how lack of sleep can be linked to mood disorders including depression and anxiety.
4. IMPROVES MEMORY: Scientists are still not really sure why exactly we dream. Some people get their dreams analyzed but we all know deep down there is often no explanation for why we dream about certain things. What we do know is that sleep boosts what is referred to as memory consolidation. As we go about our days doing 100 and 1 things at once our brains are absorbing EVERYTHING that we do, see, think etc. When we sleep the brain continues to work away processing these emotions, thoughts and experiences. Ever heard the expression ‘sleep on it’ when you are facing a big decision in your life… this is where this comes from. Sleeping shapes our memories and thoughts allowing us to make better sense of it all in the morning.
5. AFFECTS OUR HEALTH: Lack of sleep has been linked to cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure and also associated with build up of chronic inflammation in the body which can play a role in chronic disease. Keep your ticker in check by getting AT LEAST 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
6. AFFECTS OUR WEIGHT: Have you ever had a restless or sleepless night and the following day nothing you ate satisfied you.. (some late Saturday nights spring to mind here!) Getting adequate shut eye helps to regulate several hormones within the body including Ghrelin and Leptin which are our hungry hormones..  Lack of sleep drives our leptin levels down meaning you won’t feel as satisfied after you eat. It also causes ghrelin levels to rise stimulating your appetite and making you more hungry. Sleep more, weigh less… I could deal with that!
These are just a few of the reasons why we spend almost a quarter of our lives asleep! Hit the hay a little earlier for a healthier, happier life!