Muscle up !

Men’s Health.

Nutrition and Fitness.

Muscle mass and conditioning for Hiking.

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In this post i’m going to take a look muscle loss, muscle growth and conditioning all within the context of being a 60 plus year old male, a born again hiker and as recovering from a partial knee replacement.

Blog time : it’s mid August 2020 and the end of a week during which i went out on a training hike every day for an average of 2 hours straight through and while carrying a moderate load of 10 Kg.  In the same week i also did a couple of free weights and calisthenics sessions at home although i have to admit that i managed to ding my back on the last rep of the last set of a deadlift session , hey ho….it happens.

It’s just over 2 years ago last month that i had a partial knee replacement which, while a successful operation and technically a good result, got me back to work and walking again, but strangely increased significantly my back pain and left me with a lot of muscle loss on my operative leg : notably a very slack and weak quads and calf muscles that side.   Around 7 months ago i decided that i had no choice but to drastically reduce my weight , deal with some other health problems and try for some degree of fitness again.  The last time i was very fit (for my age) was in my 50’s when i learnt everything i could about resistance training, did lots of that and really benefited from doing so although what i failed on then was the nutrition side : this time around i’m actually trying to get both sides right.

When i trained in my 50’s it wasn’t with a specific goal or aim in mind , rather it was just a general fitness regime based on training with free weights, coupled with some running and a bit of swimming as the gym i trained at was the ‘posh’ one with a swimming pool. Today, that’s different again because i’m now training with specific goals in mind so lets take a quick look at those and how they influence what i actually do so….

  1. Training to recover muscle mass post knee replacement.
  2. Training to change my body composition from obese and very high fat back to athletic/normal.
  3. Specifically training for long distance hiking : carrying load over distance.
  4. Training as an anti-aging and general health promoting paradigm .

Recovering muscle mass.

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Two things really stand out in my experience of having a knee replacement ; first that i really did lose lots of muscle from my operative leg , and secondly that when i did get back to work that i had horribly increased back pain.   During the recovery period i did see the surgeon and i did have a few sessions with the physiotherapist and it’s worth saying that what both consider a success is a good range of movement in the joint and a reduction of joint related pain after surgery….that and a return to normal, functional mobility being the goal and not really anything more.

Worth saying also is that the surgeon said that the new knee is only good for about 10-12 years and after that it would need a more extensive revision, part of the reason for that being that younger patients like me tend to be a lot more active.

In my view i still had a slack and thin muscle mass in that leg about a year after surgery, certainly when compared to before surgery….as a hiker iv’e always tended towards a greater amount of slow twitch muscle (red)  fibres which are leaner and less bulky than the fast twitch (white) muscle fibres that give the exaggerated bulk that bodybuilders get.   I note that even though i was working again and spending lots of time on my feet that my muscle mass didn’t bulk up again that side.

In January of this year i started on a radical programme of dietary change towards the Low Carb/High Fat (LCHF) route coupled with a moderate increase in deliberate exercise : i was considerably overweight at the time and the LCHF/Keto route seemed to offer the best solution.   The most important thing to say about the LCHF/Keto dietary route is that it is said to help preserve muscle mass via the mechanism of increased Growth Hormone secretion (GH) as compared to high carb/low fat diets where muscle mass is definitely lost.

In my new exercise regime all i did at first was to deliberately increase my walking distance, painful and ‘heavy’ at first and then to add body-weight exercises at home : at first in the form of simple press-ups , 10 a day then 20, 40 and so on until i was doing 100 a day.  If you are wondering how that can influence muscle mass in my legs then it is by the route of compound exercises stimulating more muscle groups than just in arms and shoulders in the case of press-ups.  Think about a press-up and you will see how much it also affects core/abdominal strength and tension through leg muscles to maintain position.   As soon as i could though i added ‘air’ squats and then started working with a bare olympic bar and an improvised squat rack at home : mainly in the form of rear squats and also high steps to a step bench.

Quick summary here : regular walking with moderate weight to stimulate normal muscle function, low key free weights and bodyweight exercise coupled with LCHF diet to lose overall weight and preserve muscle mass.

Changing body composition.

There are 2 very different opinions extant for both the dietary approach and the type of fitness training that works best for changing actual body composition rather than just ‘losing weight’.  Any fool can just ‘lose weight’ at least for a short while but done badly and all that happens is a metabolic slow down and reduced muscle mass if the standard method ( calorie restriction) is used.

The claim that LCHF proponents make is that loss of body fat can happen very quickly but that muscle mass tends to be preserved.  In my case i lost actual weight at a consistent 1 Kg a week for the first 15 weeks or so although it’s hard to say how my lean mass altered because i wasn’t able to take the measurements to do that.  The best indication i had , aside from overall weight, is that my hip to waist ratio changed rapidly as well and that the only muscle measurement i took (calf circumference) indicated that i was increasing mass and bulk again….that went up more quickly as soon as i added harder exercise.

What i can say subjectively is that i felt a lot better as soon as i lost even the first few kilograms of weight, that made my walking regime a lot easier and i suspect that what happened at that time is that i got into a simple positive cycle where my weight loss enhanced my exercise….which in turn helped with the weight loss.

Now, some experts in the field state that low intensity exercise such as walking is best for body composition change because the exercise metabolic state is aerobic and therefore fat burning as long as blood sugar and blood insulin are both kept to low/normal with the LCHF/Ketogenic route.      At the opposite end many of the same experts also say that high intensity/short burst exercise is also desirable , even essential, in changing body composition by stimulating muscles in the ‘train to damage-recover to get stronger’ paradigm.   In that thinking , short sessions of high intensity exercise and specifically resistance exercise , with weights or similar, seem to offer the best overall outcome and of those exercises it seems that the heavy compound lifts have the best effect in stimulating global muscle development.

Quick summary : that the LCHF/Ketogenic diet could be the best dietary approach for rapid fat loss coupled with preservation of lean mass, and that a combination of low intensity exercise for metabolising fat, coupled with short sessions of high intensity exercise to stimulate muscle growth is the ideal combination for altering body composition.

Specific training for long distance hiking.

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In my case everything changed radically when i realised just how much i was enjoying walking again and i began to wonder about the feasibility of doing some much longer distance hikes in the mountains again.   Now, not only was i training most days but that i had an actual goal and purpose : a return to the High Sierra mountains of California and maybe even the Utah canyons.

I quickly defined the physical demands that kind of multi-day and load carrying hiking in terms of it’s key physical components : the ability to carry a given load over a certain distance per day and over a mountainous terrain.  The way that changed my training was that i realised straight away that i had to be consistently walking more distance every day, carrying progressively more weight and finding as much mountain-like terrain to train over….of course we don’t have that in east Cornwall although we do have some useful hills.     All of those things can be made progressive in terms of training and easily measurable, i even came up with a rough and ready formula to express total workload achieved and have since written a post about that : ( Numbers !)

In my past experience of the physical changes i have noticed after a period of long distance hiking i note that i have always come out leaner and equally always come home with bulkier/thicker calves and more defined quads.  During actual hiking, with load and over hard terrain i also note different apparent muscle loads and side effects…that on a hard push on steep terrain that i experience the lactate ‘burn’ : it’s not in fact the lactate production but the hydrogen ion (acid) that goes with it.  That small observation suggests things about my muscle conditioning, as opposed to crude strength and bulk…that for example that my muscle mitochondria can’t keep up with the energy requirement from lypolysis alone but are tipping into the much less efficient glycolytic metabolic pathway.  In turn that suggests that i need to stimulate the same effect in training and that leads me back full circle in trying to mimic the actual demands as closely as possible…and what that seems to need is more time spent under high load on steep slopes and that coupled with high lactate driving exercise at home.

Quick summary.  That training for long distance hiking breaks down into the 3 factors of training for distance, load carrying and moving over steep terrain , that the best way to train for those factors is to simply walk the distance, carry the load and hike over similar terrain….but also that the training can be enhanced with resistance training at home.

Training for general health and as an anti-aging principle.

I thought i would finish this piece with a more general observation about health or it’s opposite and from my viewpoint as a nurse.  We generally hold it as an axiom within nursing and medicine that the hospital population, reflecting the general population, is older, more obese  and more sick with more chronic health problems per person than we have ever seen before : certainly more ill health , more problems and higher levels of obesity than when i started as a student nurse some 40 years ago.

That people are generally living longer lives might be true but one stunning fact is that many of them are ‘living’ through some 15 years of chronic ill health problems before they die of chronically progressive diseases.  An example…..lets take the common example of our standard western diet plus the known high incidence of insulin resistance *, from that we get the hidden epidemic of metabolic syndrome, obesity, hypertension, NAFLD, then Type 2 Diabetes and so on.  That combination more than doubles the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.  Taken down a slightly different route and we have the increasing incidence of dementia….in one way easily thought of as ‘Type 3 Diabetes’ !.    These are all the common diseases that GP’s and hospital physicians see day upon day and usually regard as chronic , progressive diseases that can’t be reversed but only treated and managed with an increasing medicines load….this of course all supported and encouraged by a powerful medicines industry that has no interest in actually curing disease.

For 7 months now iv’e been thinking about this most days, watching video after video and reading scientific paper after scientific paper : then of course iv’e run my own one man experiment with a trifecta of ‘diet’ , intermittent fasting and the kind of exercise that i talk about in this piece.  That iv’e sorted out my weight and health problems is merely fact and observation, that it should be possible for others to do the same must be true and i note that one forward thinking GP has cured some 40% of the Type 2 diabetics in his practice with a similar approach.

Even now there is mounting evidence that some combination of non standard (LCHF) diet, plus or minus the practice of intermittent fasting, and some form of exercise does reduce and reverse many so called ‘modern’ diseases.  Then, there are even more radical claims that similar approaches can and will reduce the effects of aging : that we could possibly be living longer and healthier lives and to my thinking that we could be living longer , healthier and more active lives with less of those chronic diseases that most of medicine calls irreversible.

Anyway….it’s a hot day and i fancy an ice-cream….so there !

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