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How To Turn Fat Into Muscle...Or Not...? Physical Therapist Explains How To Build Muscle

When you dedicate your life to learning about the body, it's easy to forget that things that seem commonsensical may not be to the general public. That really hit me when I was having a conversation with a patient about muscle mass and how to lose fat. To give you some context, the patient mentioned turning fat into muscle.

I humored him because I always think it's interesting when people talk health and wellness to me. He's in my clinic to see me and have me fix his body after he hurt it. But he wanted to rant to me about how he knew more about fitness and body comp than I did. So I let him talk and ask him, "now how am I supposed to turn fat into muscle?" knowing very well that I was most likely about to refute any of his advice.

He responded with this: “Well most people don’t know, but muscle is created in layers.”

“Where did you get this information?” I asked.

“A bodybuilder at the gym.”

I smiled and then became the bad guy - delightedly thwarting his health misconceptions.

Fortunately, this patient went home with the correct information this time around.

At first, this seemed funny, but I then realized my patients are just microcosms of a more pervasive problem in society: people get poor information about health from unreliable sources that have little education in the field.

If you fall victim to this, it’s ok. With all those websites, news articles, meathead magazines, who can you really trust? Certainly not the Ghostbusters…

Please do me - and yourselves - a favor and seek the correct advice from Licensed Health Care Providers. That means we all took a national or state board of some sort to be able to practice.

So what exactly did I say to him to set the record straight?

I told him muscles aren’t built in layers or aren’t built by tearing other ones. Going back to physiology, muscles are made up of small fibers and those fibers are made of small cells. These cells actually undergo hypertrophy or swell in a sense to a point where new muscle cells are created by replicating themselves; you might remember a term from seventh-grade science, mitosis. Our bodies are no different.

The soreness after a “good” workout is BAD! \Our bodies tend to follow the General Adaptation Syndrome or (GAS). When introducing a new stressor, like an exercise, our body will become stimulated. The body will respond in two ways: if it meets the correct stimulation and threshold, your muscles will get stronger and bigger or become more “toned." However, if the stress is too much, it goes into the exhaustion phase and leads to breakdown.

Soreness is our body’s response that our muscles are breaking down and trying to recover. It also means you likely have an inflammatory process (much like a blunt injury) that creates a little or a lot of swelling in the area. Swelling has been shown to deactivate important muscles for the stabilization of moving joints. If it persists for a couple of days, it is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. In simple terms, if you don’t give yourself adequate rest and continue to break down too much of your muscle cells, this will eventually lead to injuries or the compensations of wrong muscle groups. If you are experiencing soreness, remember to ice several times a day, on and off for 20 minutes.

What’s that mean? If you trying to rehabilitate your shoulder with the mindset that you need to be sore in order to be working out correctly, you will likely see little or no progress.

So you actually can build muscle without being sore!

My response to his misconception of turning fat into muscle was simple. Fat cells are not muscle cells. They are two completely different cells. Fat cells lie amongst muscle cells and are the energy store for depleted or “hungry” muscle cells.

Basically, you get rid of fat two ways:

  1. By creating a small shortage of calories. Calories are a measurement of energy (you see them in all the food and drinks you consume, and, since we’re involved in CAN, that also means alcohol). By decreasing 200 calories per day of your resting metabolic rate, you could burn 1.5-2 lbs a week and still be healthy.

  2. The other way is to build lean muscle mass. It’s been said for every pound you make, you will burn 50 extra calories a week at rest. It doesn’t factor in that you may burn more by moving that extra lean muscle around.

Before you take any health advice from Mr. Bodybuilder, remember where you should be getting the real information.

Thanks and remember to live in the way of the warrior!


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