Heart: The Most Important Muscle

Posted on October 12, 2011. Filed under: Acupuncture Information, Aging, Chiropractic, Exercise, Healing, Pain | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

By Dr. Gregory Steiner~

When the votes are all counted, it’s not the pecs, showy that they are; the glutes, powerhouse they’re supposed to be; or even the low back, which helps hold the upper and lower body together. No, the most important muscle is actually the heart. What prompted this article is a question by a HG reader who was concerned about what his doctor called an enlarged heart. So, considering the importance of the heart to life itself, it deserves consideration. In other words, you can deal with injuries to the rotator cuff, pull a hamstring or strain your back, but the heart is not to be toyed with!

A rough estimate of the size of the heart is about that of your clenched fist, or perhaps a little bigger depending on your bone structure. If you look at any anatomy book, you will discover that rather then sitting well in the left part of the chest, it is actually located just a little left of center and partially behind the sternum (breast bone). In a word, the heart keeps you alive by controlling output of blood flow throughout the entire body. It performs this ever-so-necessary activity 24/7, perhaps tens of times each minute throughout the duration of life.

The heart can beat faster or slower. Children’s heart rates are faster – as are those of small persons. Women’s heart rates are usually slower than that of men. The resting heart rate is the typical measure of basic health – 70 beats/minute plus or minus 10 is a common range though in cases of athletes or sick individuals the scope can vary tremendously. As could be expected, the difference between resting heart rate and that of heavy exercise demonstrates the extremes of cardiac function. For example, an individual who has engaged in a period of heavy cardio training (whatever the exact method) can have a resting heart rate in the 40’s per minute, while a young, fit hard-training person pushing his endurance system could reach a figure of 200.

The Big Heart

This begins to give us some background with which we can look at the question of the enlarged heart.

Historically, before WW II athletes were sometimes diagnosed with a condition named after them – “athlete’s heart.” Far from a plaudit, the bigger heart of the athlete was sometimes perceived by medical professionals as an abnormal and potentially dangerous expansion of the cardiac structures. Apparently some doctors subscribed to a logically correct but substantially flawed argument that athlete’s with such a condition should immediately stop exercising and therefore reduce the heart size to the “normal” level of the untrained individual. There was a problem in this situation, and it wasn’t with the heart of the athletes.

There is in fact a malignant condition termed “cardiomegaly” in which the heart pathologically enlarges and can begin to function abnormally. This condition does not originate with exercise, however as the abnormal expansion does not originate from physiological demands such as from exercise, but from disease processes such or an intrinsic abnormality in the circulatory system.

What does every muscle do if it is exercised? Yes, it will have the tendency to grow, and the heart is no exception. While the heart is composed of a different, smoother fiber arrangement than the skeletal muscles that let you perform curls and squats, the same principles apply; namely, greater demands generate greater growth.

However, not all exercise affects the heart equally. Some research suggest that weight training will cause the heart walls which are largely made of muscle to thicken and become more dense, but without creating much of an increase in size. What this means is that were your doctor to x-ray you, the x-ray would read “normal.” Aerobic exercise has different effects, however – the great demands on the overall circulation demand very much more of the heart and consequently this sort of training will more likely encourage some growth of the heart itself. While I know of no formal research in the area, there may be something in this that assists the old, tried and true 20-rep breathing squat – pullover combination that purports to enlarge the chest cavity. Though the bones themselves would not grow after the mid-twenties, a good case could be made for the body to naturally alter it’s structural configuration to healthfully accommodate a bigger heart.

Every chiropractor learns in his or her first term in school about a fundamental process called homeostasis, which dictates that the body has an essential orientation towards healthful systemic balance. In other words, the body is smart. The body is also remarkably and intricately interconnected. It also communicates within itself intelligently. These processes collectively refer to homeostasis – the body cleverly balancing itself moment by moment, day by day for every year of a long and healthy life.

If we put weight training with cardio work and look at the effects through the lens of homeostasis, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a situation in which the greater effort of lifting weights strengthens the heart; the greater circulatory demands help the heart grow, and at just the right time and in the right amount the rib cage expands while the diaphragm, assisting respiratory and basic postural muscles strengthen. The end result – a bigger overall chest cavity that houses a strong and healthy heart.

At one time the big chest cavity was looked at as a fundamental sign of vitality. Strength was certainly implied, but the real suggestion was that a person with such a chest possessed unusual and superior energy and dynamism. The corollary was that such an chest outwardly signalled to the world a state of vibrant health, and created a certain aesthetic attractiveness strongly linked with actual health. Interestingly, certain researchers in evolutionary psychology believe that we are pre-wired to find certain signs of health intrinsically attention getting and attractive, signalling to the rest of the group that the person possessing the trait is fit, capable and reproductively desirable.

Having said all that, let’s look at some contrasts today. Can a chest really be too big? While probably a matter of proportion and preference, some of the biggest professional body builders (heavily drug-influenced, of course) have achieved tremendous chest/lat girths. But, how many have tremendous vitality outwith gym training sessions? There’s the rub then – I have known of dedicated body builders who lived lives largely reminiscent of barn animals – eat, exercise, sleep, repeat. Good for maximum growth, but where did the “vitality” factor go?

Mind, the point is not to criticise personally, though it probably sounds like it. The point is to suggest that choices need to be made – usable strength, cosmetic appeal and vibrant vitality in a supple body. And, in light of recent premature deaths in the lifting communities, part of the point is to exercise in ways that prolong life, not cut life expectancy in half!

Distribution System

Of course, it’s largely the heart that plays a very obvious role in keeping us alive and vital. In simple terms, it’s useful to conceptualise the heart as the driving force behind your body’s supply distribution system. It’s useful to also consider just what the heart works so hard to distribute. While any young child will know that the heart has something to do with pumping blood, fewer people know what blood actually consists of and it’s relationship to health – and growth. There are several factors then, that are important to know something about: what is being supplied; how they are supplied; and how efficiently the supply system works.

Back to blood. Most folks learn at some point that blood carries oxygen and have vague notion about nutrients. Fair enough, but in addition to these fundamental elements necessary for energy production, growth and repair there are the cells of the immune system as well as hormones, especially important for the person who trains with weights.

So, what is a hormone? Outside of being a complex molecules in an incredibly complex overall hormonal system, hormones act as messengers carrying crucial instructions to particular cells. These instructions are usually simple – “turn x off, turn y on” types of commands. Not to be underestimated, the hormonal (usually called the endocrine system) relationships are complex in the extreme, if one wishes to look at how the system works as a whole. What is better understood is how one individual hormone may be triggered, or turned off. And, the complexity increases when the major communication pathways and commands – the nervous system – are studied in conjunction with the endocrine.

In any event, the practical point is that while one can train in such a way to maximise the growth-creating hormones while minimising those that retard growth, what’s the point if they can’t be well delivered?

At my clinic I use a phrase from time to time to describe our mission – that phrase is “health and fitness, inside and out.” Healthy muscles inside, healthy muscles outside is part of what we mean when we say that. For sustained health and sustained training both are necessary.

To sum up the important points as to how having a strong heart affects training success, the answer lies in energy and vitality. If you are sufficiently fit in the stamina sense, you can recover better. If you recover better, your training will be more productive. If your training is better, you have hopefully made headway towards the goal of being bigger and stronger. And not to forget, towards enhancing your greater life outside the gym.

Of course, the question then becomes how to implement something useful from the available information towards helping the most important muscle become all the mightier. Training is part of the answer and arguably the most enjoyable. Other factors contribute and are amenable to ready control, while others one can do less about, such as having the right parents and grandparents! As is so often the case genetics tells – but it doesn’t tell all. Many if not most conditions labelled “genetic” disorders are really potentials for those conditions to become manifest, obesity being one example. Heart disease is another. What’s the take-away on this? Have a good look at your genealogy as far as you can – not so much to find rich relatives or horse thieves ( in my family there have been both) but rather who died when, and most importantly – of what.

Look for heart disease, cancer, metabolic problems, and if anyone can tell you – something about dispositions and posture. All can reveal something about the general state of health of a direct ancestor. No need to get compulsive, just through grandparents, aunts and uncles should be a useful start. What to do if you find something? No need to worry about it, but it is a good piece of detective evidence that should be given to a trusted doctor who should either investigate further or dismiss risks as remote.

I was strongly impacted by the death of one World’s Strongest Man competitors last year – his age was only 30. Very strong, very talented, very premature mortality. Could drugs have been involved? Judging by the size of his traps – the biggest I’ve ever seen, that could well be, yet could there have been a genetic or congenital defect lurking? Don’t let it be you.

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