Monthly Archives: August 2017

7 Factors that Impact Muscle Strength and Size

Whether you’ve just started a strength program or have been at it for months, you may have wandered why your muscles aren’t growing as fast as you’d like or why your strength hasn’t made much improvement?  Or maybe it seems to take you longer than someone else to see results from your strength training program?

There are seven factors that impact the development of muscular strength and muscular size.  Most of these factors are influenced by genetics.

Hormone Levels:  Two hormones that are connected to tissue growth and development are growth hormone and testosterone.  Having higher levels of these hormones are beneficial for increasing the size and strength of muscles.  The level of growth hormones in the body are highest during youth and decreases as we age.  Testosterone also may decrease with age and women naturally have smaller amounts.  You can see why older adults have reduced muscle mass and strength, as these two hormones decrease with age.  People that naturally have higher levels of growth hormone and testosterone usually have greater ability for the development of muscle.

Male vs Female:  In terms of being able to produce strength, male and female muscle tissue is pretty much the same.  The difference is males have more muscle as a whole.  Men generally have greater muscle mass and overall muscular strength than women because of larger body size, higher lean weight percentage, and more testosterone.

Age:  As we get older, we tend to have less muscle mass and less strength partly due to lower levels of anabolic hormones.  There’s an “average strength loss of 10% per decade in adults between the ages 20-80″.  However, one study on adults between the ages of 20-80, concluded that after 10 weeks of strength training, all individuals added similar amounts of lean muscle.  So, people of all ages gain muscle at about the same rate during the initial training period.  It’s so important to continue to strength train or perform weight bearing exercises as we get older!

Muscle Fiber Type:  Muscles are made of two types of fibers; type I (slow-twitch) and type II (fast-twitch).  Type II are broken down even further into type IIa and type IIx fibers, but we won’t go into that.  Type I are smaller with more aerobic power and type II fibers are usually larger with more anaerobic capacity.  Both types of fibers are involved during resistance training with the slow-twitch fibers activated at lower force levels and the fast-twitch fibers activated at higher force levels.  However, type II (fast-twitch) fibers have greater size growth, therefore, these fibers play a larger role in muscle hypertrophy (size).  So people born with more type II muscle fibers may have a better chance for increasing their muscle size.

Muscle Length:  The most influential factor for getting larger muscles is muscle length in relation to bone length.  Muscles attach to bones by tendons.  Some people have short muscles with long tendon attachments and others may have long muscles with short tendon attachments.  Those with long muscles have a better chance for muscle development than those with short muscles.

Limb Length:  The length of your limbs does not have an impact on muscle size, but it does, in fact, affect strength performance.  Shorter limbs have leverage benefits over longer limbs.  Longer limbs require more muscle force to move a weight.  (you can look at it as a lever system) For example, if two people have the same bicep muscle strength, the person with the shorter forearm can curl a heavier dumbbell.

Tendon Insertion Point:  The place where the tendon inserts on the bone most definitely affects strength performance but does not influence muscle size.  As an example, you could perform a heavier bicep curl if your tendon insertion point is farther from the elbow joint versus closer to the elbow joint.

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As you can see, these factors are things we can’t change.  Genetics may play a role but in the end, your lifestyle will determine if you become fit and strong.

Resistance training has so many benefits, and can help make everyday activities easier to accomplish.  Anyone can improve their performance and strength by being consistent and sticking with a program regardless of these seven factors!


Electrolytes: What are they and how do I replace them?

While exercising in the heat and humidity, the importance of staying hydrated is well understood.  Water helps our body to maintain homeostasis (internal stability).  When endurance exercise last longer than 60-90 minutes, replacing electrolytes should be a priority.

Why are electrolytes important?  What specific electrolytes need to be replaced?  What are the options to replace them?  These are great questions.  Adequate hydration is critical during the hot summer months, but if our electrolytes are out of balance, we can encounter serious problems.

Electrolytes are macrominerals in the body that are very important for muscle contraction, maintaining fluid balance, and neural activity.  During exercise, electrolytes can be lost through sweating, so it’s critical to have a strategy to replace them.

Sodium and chloride are lost in high concentrations through sweat. Potassium, magnesium, and calcium are lost through sweat in low concentrations.  All electrolytes work together, so it’s important to be aware of them all and not fixate on one or two.

When we have an imbalance of electrolytes, we can experience dehydration (a state of decreased body fluid) or hyponatremia (low concentration of blood sodium).  Both of these conditions are serious and should be addressed right away.

Let’s take a look at each of these electrolytes, what their functions are, and food sources:

Sodium:  Maintains fluid volume outside of cells.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle cramps, loss of appetite, and dizziness.  Some food sources are table salt, dill pickles, and tomato juice or soup.  Many processed foods are loaded with sodium.

Chloride:  Along with sodium, maintains fluid volume outside of cells.  Chloride is lost in sweat usually with sodium.  Symptoms of deficiency are irregular heartbeat and changes in pH.   Food sources are table salt and some fruits and vegetables (olives, tomatoes, lettuce).

Potassium:  Maintains fluid inside and outside of cells and also reduces the rise of blood pressure in response to too much sodium.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle weakness, muscle paralysis, and mental confusion.  Food sources are potato with skin, plain yogurt, banana, and dried peas.

Magnesium:  Needed for appropriate muscle, nerve, and enzyme function.  It also helps the body use energy and is required to move other electrolytes (potassium & sodium) in and out of cells.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle cramps, nausea, and confusion.  Food sources are pumpkin seeds, spinach, nuts, halibut, and whole grains.

Calcium:  Most abundant electrolyte in the body.  Vital for muscle contraction, nerve signaling, blood clotting, and keeping normal heart function.  Symptoms of deficiency are muscle spasms, osteoporosis, and osteopenia (reduced bone mass).  Food sources are collard greens, spinach, kale, sardines, and dairy.

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Electrolytes have such an important role in our body.  Any active person who sweats heavily or performs endurance exercise in the heat should pay attention to replacing electrolytes.

If you experience muscle cramping due to electrolyte imbalance, it’s likely from the high amounts of sodium lost thru sweat.  I thought this was maybe due to loss of potassium, but apparently the amount of potassium in sweat is probably too low for this to be the offender.

How much sweat one loses is very individual with some people being “salty” sweaters.  The intensity and length of exercise contributes to sweat rate as well as environment, clothing, and body composition.  Also, being dehydrated can increase the concentration of sodium and potassium in your sweat.

A good approach is to never start a workout thirsty or dehydrated!  If you know you’re a salty sweater, it will help to eat something salty before your exercise session.  If your exercise session is going to last longer than 60-90 minutes, then it’s important to take in carbohydrates and electrolytes.  The sodium in a sports drink helps the body take in and maintain the fluid and use the carbohydrate effectively.

Today, there are lots of products available to replace lost electrolytes.  Sports drinks, gels, gu’s, and gummies.  There are ready to drink formulas available as well as powder or tablets to mix with water.  Here is a link to 10 Best Electrolytes & Hydration Tablets.

You can even make your own electrolyte or sports drink.  I haven’t tried making my own, but I’ve always had in interest in doing so.  Here are some recipes I found:

Natural Sports Electrolyte Drink Recipe from Wellness Mama

Healthy Homemade Sports Drinks from

Switchel: The Original Homemade Sports Drink from No Meat Athlete

Recently, my go to electrolyte tablet has been causing my stomach to hurt.  After my last few long runs, I tried Organic Coconut Water (not coconut milk!).  It was so refreshing and tasted really good.  Fresh coconut water is one of the “richest natural sources of electrolytes“.  But, compared to other sports drinks, it is lower in sodium and carbs so keep that in mind if you decide to try it.  I think I will stick to plain, unsweetened coconut water for now.

How do you replace lost electrolytes?

Have you ever made your own sports drink?

Do I Have to Eat Organic?

According to the Organic Trade Association, the average adult who does not eat organic is exposed to between 6 & 12 pesticides each day from food and beverages.

Organic foods have become very popular.  Sure there is a noticeable difference in price, but are organic foods healthier?  Are pesticides harmful?  How do I identify an organic food?

These are great questions.  Some that I wanted to find out.  There are certain items that I always buy organic, like strawberries, bell peppers, celery, apples, zucchini, and eggs.  But what about other items?  Is it worth getting the organic version?

Organic food is regulated by strict government standards.  These foods are grown without synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic hormones or genetic engineering (GMO).  Apparently, organic is the “most heavily regulated and closely monitored production system in the United States”. 

For a food to be labeled organic, the ingredients must be at least 95% organic.  Food with ingredients that are at least 70% organic can use the “made with organic ingredients” label.  Foods that have less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the organic seal or the word “organic” on the label.  One hundred percent organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are free of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics.  Fish isn’t controlled by the USDA, so look for “wild” caught rather than “farmed” to be safe.

So are organic foods healthier?  A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic crops had higher concentrations of antioxidants and other potentially beneficial compounds.  But organic produce did not consistently contain higher levels of vitamins.

Another study also found that organic meat and dairy have a higher percentage (about 50% more) of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional.  Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial and have many health improving benefits.

One of the main reasons I choose organic produce is to avoid pesticides, but organic farmers still use pesticides.  The only difference is that they are natural vs. synthetic.  Natural pesticides are believed to be less toxic.  Due to lots of years of exposure, most people have a build-up of pesticide chemicals in their body known as “body burden” that can lead to health issues.  Children and pregnant women are more vulnerable to pesticide exposure.  Lowering my family’s exposure to harmful pesticides is worth it in my opinion.

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Can I wash and peel away pesticides?  Rinsing lessens the residue but doesn’t remove it all.  Peeling is helpful, but a lot of beneficial nutrients are in the peel, so you’d be losing those important nutrients.

Have you heard of the “dirty dozen” and the “clean fifteen”?  There are foods, that when conventionally grown, have much higher levels of pesticides and should be avoided.  Then there are also foods that are relatively low in pesticides and are fine to buy non-organic.

Here are the Dirty Dozen:

*strawberries * spinach * nectarines * apples * peaches * pears * cherries* grapes* celery* tomatoes * sweet bell peppers* potatoes*

Here are the Clean Fifteen:

*sweet corn *avocados * pineapple * cabbage * onions * sweet peas frozen * papayas *asparagus * mangos * eggplant * honeydew melon * kiwi * cantaloupe * cauliflower * grapefruit*   (to avoid GMO’s buy organic sweet corn and papayas)

These lists, which are updated annually, can be found on the Environmental Working Group website.

When looking to purchase organic foods, look for the USDA Organic label.  Produce at the grocery store has a label with a number on it.  If it begins with the #9, it is organic.  There are still plenty of “junk” foods labeled organic, such as baked good, snacks, and desserts.  Just because a product is organic, doesn’t mean it’s a health food!  Read those labels carefully.

So, do I have to eat organic?  When it comes to overall health, what we eat is more important than if it’s organic or conventional.  Most Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of vegetables and fruits.  Any is better than none!

If you are wanting to reduce your pesticide exposure, buying the organic items on the dirty dozen list is a good place to start.  Farmer’s markets are a good option too.  Also, local farmers may be organic but do not have the money to make it “official”.  Just ask the farmer.  Buying in season helps with keeping cost down.  Shop around to get the best prices.  There are always budget friendly ways to buy organic.

Ultimately, it’s important to stay up to date and educated on organic foods to get the most value and nutrition for your money!

Are you concerned about pesticides?

Do you buy organic foods?