For those of you who work out on a regular basis you’ve probably heard it before from fitness instructors. Or maybe you’ve seen it in ads for barre studios, or yoga, or Pilates. I’m sure you must have seen it in your Facebook newsfeed…some new exercise or fitness routine that promises that “lean, long body that everyone wants.” Now granted, not everyone is striving for that look. But for those of you who do, the promise of leaner, longer muscles can be quite an enticement, and maybe just the motivation you need, especially when you hear it from personal trainers and fitness instructors that you trust. But is it realistic?
Let’s go back to Physiology 101, and try to remember the lecture on muscles. We know that muscles are elastic–they contract and relax in order to move bones. Think of them kinda like stretchy rubber bands (with a lot more force!)…but technically, they have fixed lengths, meaning, you can’t change where a muscle begins and ends. So as Lady Gaga would say, “Baby you were Born This Way!” Which means that if you happen to have “short” calf muscles (compared to others), you could downward dog all day long but that won’t magically transform the length of your legs! Similarly, all the barre in the world won’t make you taller, although it will improve your posture, flexibility, and strength. I’m not trying to say that’s it’s not worth doing (it certainly has benefits as previously mentioned)–but what it does mean is that it won’t perform a miracle!
I know what you’re thinking…just what is the difference between a power lifter and a ballerina? The answer comes down to a combination of two things–diet and exercise (meaning, how they train and what they eat). So while you can’t control the actual length of muscles, you can control the way you develop muscles.
Think strong, not long
When you think of different types of muscle contractions, you often start with isometric contractions. This means you are tightening the muscle but it’s not actually moving (think Kegel exercises for pelvic floor strengthening, or quad sets (tightening the front of your thigh), hamstring sets (tightening the back of your thigh by digging your heel into the floor with a straight or bent knee), or glue sets (tightening your buttocks or “pinching your cheeks together”) as you would often start out doing post hip, knee, or back surgery. This will work muscles differently that performing an isotonic contraction (or, dynamic movement). In this type of contraction the muscle will stretch (elongate) and contract through a range of motion (think push-up). Then take into consideration that if you perform a high number of repetitions of smaller, controlled movements you’ll engage and strengthen a different set of muscle fibers (slow-twitch) than big, explosive-type movements, which will work fast-twitch muscle fibers.
It is possible to train muscles at different lengths by performing exercises that first stretch the muscle and then engage it. An example might be a sprinter who trains their hamstrings to be stronger when stretched by performing Romanian deadlifts. But keep in mind that this doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually see a huge difference. Now in reality, if you really want to appear “leaner and longer,” it’s going to happen in the kitchen and not in the gym!
The lowdown on body fat
If you truly want to see the changes from all your hard work, then you need a decrease in body fat. It’s really 80% nutrition and 20% strength and cardio training. And ladies, please don’t think that by strength training you’ll turn into a bodybuilder (unless that’s the look you’re going for!). Lifting weights will not make you big and bulky (that’s all a misconception). Women have less muscle tissue and less testosterone than men.
The empty promise here is seemingly a matter of semantics. Saying that you can build “lean, long muscles” is flawed thinking that capitalizes on the fear of getting “big and bulky.” You must get more specific about what you want–and what most individuals want is not length but definition and reduced body fat.
The take home message
So to answer the original question “is it possible to ‘build’ lean, long muscles?” No, you cannot alter the actual length of muscles but you can train and–more importantly–eat in a way that results in having leaner, more defined muscle tissue on your body. But saying that you can build “lean and long” muscles to market a workout or a method of training is just that–marketing! If you determine what works for you in terms of workouts coupled with healthy eating habits, then it won’t matter how you label your muscles.
Do you or someone you know have questions on how to get started with designing an individualized exercise program? Call my office at once at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at www.wildermanphysicaltherapy.com to schedule your FREE 30 minute consultation to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now!