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FAQ (8)

Muscle Memory, Fact or Fiction? 

A: A few days ago, I would’ve been forced to say that muscle memory as conceived by bodybuilders is mostly myth.

Scientific thinking is that muscle memory exists, but only in terms of movement patterns. Examples are riding a bicycle or swimming; once learned you never forget how. Exercise physiologists are dubious about the belief of bodybuilders that muscles remember size and strength and bounce back rapidly when training resumes. They generally believe that muscle memory atrophies along with unused fibers.  

That may be changing. An impressive new study from Norway found that muscles do remember, at least in mice.

Led by Kristian Gundersen, a physiologist at the University of Oslo, the study was reported online August 16, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Gundersen’s team found that memory is stored as DNA-containing nuclei, which multiply when a muscle is exercised. Contrary to previous thinking, those nuclei aren’t lost when muscles atrophy.

Nuclei is the plural of nucleus, the central controlling body within a living cell. It contains the genetic codes for maintaining life and issuing commands for growth and reproduction. If muscles have memory, it’s stored in the nuclei.

Gundersen explained to Science News (web edition) that more than one nucleus is needed to supply DNA guidelines for making the proteins that give a muscle fiber its mass and strength. Muscle cells generate additional nuclei to support growth. Researchers had previously believed that the extra nuclei die when muscle fibers atrophy, Gundersen said.

In the new study, Gundersen’s team used advanced imaging techniques to observe—day to day—nuclei production and durability in mice, during exercise and during periods of prolonged inactivity.

Using ingenious methods to overload a specific muscle in mice (you can read about it in the study), the team observed that the number of nuclei increased, starting on day six. Over the course of 21 days, the hard-working muscle increased the number of nuclei in each fiber cell by about 54 percent. Starting on day nine, the muscle cells also started to grow in size. This shows that the nuclei come first and muscle mass is added later. Like building a house, the blueprint comes first and the bricks and mortar follow.

In another set of experiments, the researchers worked the mice's muscle for two weeks, and then stopped (nerves were severed) to allow the fibers to atrophy. As the muscle atrophied, the cells deflated to about 40 percent of their working size—but the number of nuclei in the cells did not change.

The extra nuclei stick around for at least three months, Gundersen told Science News. That’s a long time for mice, which live a couple of years on average, he emphasized.

“I don’t know if it lasts forever,” Gundersen said, “but is seems to be very long-lasting.” Since extra nuclei don’t die, they could be poised to make muscle proteins again, providing a type of muscle memory, he concluded.

In addition, Science News asked two other experts to comment on Gundersen’s report. (They were not involved in the study.)

Feels Right

“That’s fascinating thinking, and there’s nice proof in this article to support it,” said Bengt Saltin, a muscle physiologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “It’s really novel and helps to explain descriptive findings that muscles are quick to respond upon further training.”

“It does fly in the face of a lot of peer-reviewed, published data,” said Lawrence Schwartz, a cell biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The conventional wisdom doesn’t make much sense from a cell and molecular perspective,” he added. Gundersen’s group has come up with an explanation that seems more plausible. “Their data just feels right.”

Stock Up Early

It appears that muscles remember peak condition for a very long time. “There is currently no compelling evidence that nuclei are ever lost from intact muscle fibers,” the Gundersen group wrote. “Our findings suggest that it may be beneficial to ‘fill up’ muscle fibers with nuclei by exercise before senescence.”  They suggest that individuals begin strength training at an early age, when they can stockpile the maximum number of muscle building nuclei.

Even better, start early—and never stop.

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Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail—What Works

Q: You never write about New Year’s resolutions. Why not?

A: I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. It’s common knowledge that they rarely succeed. What’s not well understood is why.

If a person is not willing to eat sensibly and exercise during the year, it’s unlikely they’ll do so when the new calendar goes up. A better plan is to start gradually and spread resolutions over the entire year. Jonah Lehrer explained the problem with New Year’s resolutions in terms of how the brain works (The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2009). His explanation provides the underpinning for the gradual approach.

Physiology, not character, is the problem, according to Mr. Lehrer. “Willpower,” he says, is an “extremely limited mental resource.” Most New Year’s resolutions, of course, rely on willpower. That’s why 88% of all resolutions fail, according to a survey of 3000 people conducted by a UK psychologist. Three main factors are involved.

First, the part of the brain responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, has responsibility for many other functions. These include mental focus, short-term memory, and abstract thinking. This helps to explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat too many slices of leftover pizza. “A tired brain,” Lehrer writes, “preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.”

An overloaded prefrontal cortex, in spite of best intentions, has limited capacity to following through on New Year’s resolutions.

Secondly, willpower is a high-energy activity. It requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex. That can be a problem when we’re dieting and exercising. Starving the brain of calories, even for a few hours, Lehrer explains, makes it significantly harder to stick to a weight-loss regimen. Waning blood sugar can torpedo even the best of plans.

An overeager dieter cutting calories a little too close is likely to have difficulty making wise choices. As happened in a study cited by Lehrer, he or she might be disposed to choose a snack of chocolate cake over a bowl of fruit.

The final willpower drain involves negative thinking. Resolving not to repeat bad habits doesn’t work well—because willpower is weak. “Gritting your teeth isn’t the best approach,” Lehrer writes. “Instead, find a way to look at something else.”

A simple example: Kids who are better at resisting the urge to eat a marshmallow—they are promised seconds if they can wait 20 minutes—are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. “In other words,” Lehrer explains, “they’re able to temporarily clear the temptation out of consciousness.”

Better yet, focus on positive action. Forget what not to do. Focus on what you can do.

Don’t waste precious willpower worrying about your bad habits. Focus on realistic positive steps on the way to achieving your goals.

What Works

Use limited willpower sparingly by making small changes and building on your successes. If you’ve been inactive, begin with a walking program; any time and pace that feels good is fine. The important thing is to walk regularly; three days a week is a good place to start. Work up to 30 minutes five or six days a week. When you feel ready, add a simple strength training program twice a week. The workout should take 30 minutes or less. As your stamina and strength improve—and they will—you can add more challenging endurance training. A good target would be two days of endurance challenge and two days of strength, between two and four hours a week total time.

Take your time; there’s no hurry. A reasonable timetable would be to allow a full year to progress from walking to a balanced program of strength and endurance. Walking alone will pay big dividends and put you far ahead of your sedentary peers.

On diet, the biggest mistake is rushing the fat loss process. Remember to keep your prefrontal cortex well fed. Don’t allow yourself to become hungry or dissatisfied. Keep blood sugar on an even keel by eating regular meals. DON’T skip breakfast.

The best plan is to eat a balanced diet of healthy foods; see Simple Diet Patterns for Health: http://www.cbass.com/SimpleDiet.htm

Don’t worry about calories. For most people, replacing fatty, sugary foods with a balanced diet of wholesome foods will put bodyweight on a sustainable downward path. (Exercise is an important factor in making this work.) Take your time and you’ll be amazed.

Don’t bite off more than you’re willing and able to chew. That’s very important—for diet and exercise. If you can’t realistically see yourself sticking to the plan, dial it back until you can.

The only diet and exercise regimen most people are willing to do regularly is one they enjoy. If you don’t enjoy your training and what you eat, something is wrong. Change it. Try something else. Don’t give up.

That’s a resolution that will work. It’s based on human nature—not willpower.

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You’ll find many more details in our books and DVDs; we offer 10 and 3, respectively. Here’s a brief synopsis of my diet and training philosophy: http://www.cbass.com/PHILOSOP.HTM  

If that interests you, a good place to start is our new book, TAKE CHARGE: Fitness at the Edge of Science: http://www.cbass.com/PROD08.htm

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Eggs: Cooked or Raw?

Q: Is there any problem eating eggs raw in a smoothie or, like Rocky Balboa, swallowing them whole?

A: Surprising as it may be to many bodybuilders (including me), eating eggs raw can get in the way of muscle growth. I can’t tell you how many raw eggs I’ve eaten over the years, but it’s a bunch. In my early years of lifting and right through law school, it was not unusual for me to plop six raw eggs in my breakfast malt. My doctor dad also swallowed eggs raw from time to time. We were not alone, of course. Steve Reeves famously ate raw eggs for breakfast every morning. Arnold mixed raw eggs with thick cream. Sly Stallone’s boxing hero Rocky Balboa downed eggs raw in the Rocky movies; my guess is that Stallone did/does as well. Vince Gironda probably tops the list by recommending up to 36 raw eggs a day.

It never hurt any of us as far as I know--there is some danger of food poisoning; see below--but recent studies described by Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham indicate that we were squandering much of the high-quality protein in eggs. That seems strange, because eggs require no chewing and their chemical composition is almost perfect. “The amino acids of chicken eggs come in about forty proteins in almost exactly the proportions human require,” Dr. Wrangham writes in his groundbreaking book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books 2009). “The match gives eggs a higher biological value—a measure of the rate at which the protein in food supports growth—than the protein of any other known food, even milk, meat, or soybeans.”

It’s no secret that eggs are at the top of the totem poll in protein quality. Few, however, know that ancient man and more recent hunter-gathers probably ate most of their eggs cooked. The details are in Wrangham’s book. They apparently sensed what we now know to be a scientific fact.

Wrangham explains that we now have research tools that assess the fate of egg protein as it passes through our digestive tract. Isotopic tracers are fed to hens that attach to the protein in their eggs, allowing scientists to monitor what happens to the protein when the eggs are eaten. Any protein that comes out of the body undigested is “metabolically useless to the person who ate it.” That’s a simple explanation of a complex process, but the logic is clear. 

Researchers fed healthy subjects raw or cooked eggs. “When the eggs were cooked, the proportion of protein digested averaged 91 percent to 94 percent," Wrangham reports. On the other hand, the digestibility of raw eggs was a meager 65 percent. “The results showed that 35 percent…of the ingested protein was leaving the small intestine undigested. Cooking increases the protein value of eggs by around 40 percent. (Emphasis mine)

For those who are interested, Wrangham provides a detailed explanation of how cooking improves the digestion of eggs.  

The bottom line is clear: Maximize the growth potential of the ideal protein in eggs. Cook them.

(The danger of food poisoning from eating raw eggs, even with the shell intact, is discussed in The Lean Advantage 2.  In a section called “Raw-Egg Danger,” I explained why I stopped eating raw eggs. http://www.cbass.com/PROD02.HTM )

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Coffee: Good or Bad? 

Q: Not long ago we were told that coffee was harmful, but now we’re bombarded with reports on the benefits. What’s your take?

A: Recent news on coffee has been good. Long-term studies have found associations between coffee drinking and lower rates of advanced prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and more. Keep in mind, however, that association means connection; it doesn't prove a cause and effect. The majority of the studies look for patterns of coffee drinking and health, which leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The same trends are often found for decaf and regular coffee. Coffee contains traces of hundreds of substances, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Any one or more of these ingredients could be responsible for the positive associations.

Some of the early studies which found an association between coffee and illness have been discredited. Once researchers started adjusting for smoking and other bad habits the risk associations were weakened or disappeared. Many people enjoy having a cigarette with their coffee. That's probably less true now it once was.

Unfortunately, randomized controlled trials are not feasible for the decades-long testing required to assess the effects coffee drinking. Observational studies may be the best we can do.

We do have evidence that coffee can be harmful for people with high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low bone density, insomnia, and pregnant women. 

The jury is still out on coffee, and that’s the way it’s likely to be for the foreseeable future. If you don’t drink coffee, there is probably no compelling reason to start now. On the other hand, coffee drinking in moderation is probably safe for most people.

Melinda Beck, a well regarded health reporter for The Wall Street Journal, concluded a comprehensive update on coffee (December 29, 2009) with this advice: “People who love coffee probably don’t need to worry that they are harming their health by drinking it—unless they already have high blood pressure or are pregnant or are having trouble sleeping, in which case it’s prudent to cut down.”

Sounds like good advice to me.

I drink about three cups of coffee a day—two in the morning and one in the afternoon. I'm careful not to have coffee after 3 pm, because it keeps me awake. As many know, I make my coffee with two-thirds skim milk, and a teaspoon of canola oil to slow absorption. I usually have my coffee with food, and never black. 

“Moderation in all things,” including coffee.

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