In an Evolutionary Sense, Why Hypertrophy?

No passion so effectively robs the mind of all of its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

Edmund Burke

The question of “why should there be a hypertrophy response at all” has puzzled me for some time.  On the surface, inflated muscle mass does seem to be a grossly inefficient answer (in metabolic terms) as to how best to endure repeated-effort bouts of high intensity work.  A massive, power-sucking brain we can surely justify — a huge return on metabolic investment, in an evolutionary sense.  Hypertrophy, though, in my mind, is a bit harder to justify.  Why not more of a hedge, for example, toward improved CNS efficiency?  Or a different type/mix of fiber?  Or an overall shift toward a more power-leaning motor unit makeup.  Of course the various “how to’s” of hypertrophy are, in and of themselves, quite enough to keep the forums and blogosphere rife with speculation, hate-mongering and discontent.  All well and good with the lively, on-going debate on that front; we ought, though, to be asking the deeper questions of just why hypertrophy should be in the first place.  Once we know this, we can better hone-in on how to produce it

Evolution for me is a roadmap that helps answer all questions (save for origin), as to what is most efficient at propagating genes from one generation to the next.  Note that “efficient” does not necessarily imply “optimum”.  Keep in mind that in an evolutionary sense, optimum is not required — what is required is that an organism be more efficient than the competition at passing genes from one generation to the next.  Evolution truly adheres to the wise dictum of not letting perfection stand in the way of the good.  Good enough to git’er done better than the competition is good enough.  Optimum phenotyipical expression is another question entirely.  This is where thinkering, manipulation, and critical thought come into play.  Having a firm grasp on where one is, and where one wishes to be, on the health-performance continuum is critical.

My good friend Ken O’Neill has suggested that hypertrophy can be considered in the same light as the neuroplasticity phenomenon associated with the brain.  In other words (and this plays right into our species’ niche as being extremely adaptive, nimble, and opportunistic), the evolutionary beauty of this response might not lay in it’s uber efficiency, per se, but in it’s extreme adaptability.   A leopard retains its leopard-ness, more-or-less, no matter the environment; humans, on the other hand, morph accordingly.   We are nimble enough to both craft a spear, and powerful enough to then hurl the thing…with enough fine motor control, by the way, to land the spear on target.  Our muscle fiber make-up and CNS “wiring” scream of compromise.

Does this get us any closer to uncovering the “secrets” to hypertrophy?  Probably not.  But if we realize that muscle is both metabolic currency, and that it’s metabolically expensive as all hell to gain and maintain, we begin to see just how much absolute work is required to elicit a hypertrophic response; we begin to see the difference between training for “health” and forcing the body into an all-hands-on-deck, survival response.  We also begin to see why we have such wide-ranging genetic predispositions for certain phenotypical expressions of “fitness” or “performance”.  You can take the lanky kid outta the savanna, but you can only somewhat take the savanna outta the kid, so to speak.

If hypertrophy is our species’ evolutionary answer to surviving an extreme (and hopefully short-term, from the body’s point of view) environmental onslaught, it stands to reason that the onslaught better be pretty damn severe for the body to invest in such a risky metabolic fix.  That this “fix” can also be utilized as a ready fuel source should the onslaught subside is just pure evolutionary genius.

Time, tools, techniques, and tenacity; preach it, brother...

This also implies (in my mind, at least) that an optimized hypertrophy response requires a stimulus from all sections of the force-velocity curve; something Scott Abel has termed “surfing” the force-velocity curve.  In essence, we need to perform work throughout the force-velocity spectrum, from the upper-left absolute strength zone on down to the lower-right land of RFD; it all matters and it’s all essential.

cowabunga, dude...

This then implies that if maximized hypertrophy is what you seek (as opposed to mere superior health), then you’d do well to (1) have  access to a large and varied tool box so as to enable working on various movement patterns from the totality of the force-velocity curve, (2) become a master craftsman (technician) so as to manipulate these tools properly, (3) be possessed of the tenacity — the wherewithal — to soldier through the requisite hard work; reading/writing about this is easy, implementation, however, is a never-ending series of gut-checks, and (4) you better have some expendable time on your hands.  We can effectively trim a lot of excess fat from workouts, but the fact of the matter is that an exorbitant amount time under the bar is a necessary evil.

Pushing the performance/hypertrophy envelope is a Faustian bargain, no doubt — which is why so few choose to pursue this path.  Many more are quite content with superior “health” and/or various degrees of performance leading up to the all-out assault on optimizing one’s phenotype — conquering Mt. “Swole”, as it were.  But isn’t this true in all areas of life?  In all areas of maximized performance?  Why is it that we think human performance should follow rules outside the dictates of of nature?  That there must be some inherent “magic” involved?  Sure, the totality of human performance has always been, and will always be, a mixed bag of inheritable traits, epigenetic factors, and human will — all in varying degrees no less.  We are the opportunistic species; placicity is our evolutionary endowment.  For each athlete who’s made it via brutally hard work, I can show you another who was just “born” phenomenal.  Same with the musician, and with the mathematician.  But there is no one formula, one recipe, for success.  We would not have survived as a species if it were otherwise; each step toward singularity is a step toward extinction.


So the 21 Convention is now in the rear-view window, and the Ancestral Health Symposium lay ahead.  It’s been a whirlwind last few weeks.  What a great time I had with Anthony Johnson and the rest of the 21 Convention crew.  Fantastic speakers, enthusiastic attendees and an awesome atmosphere.  The unveiling of the ARX Omni was a highlight of the event for me, and I was able to both discuss this tool’s place within the greater toolbox, and allow some of the attendees to give ‘er a test drive.

I also got to spend quite a bit of time with Richard Nikoley, of Free the Animal fame.  We hit it off like long lost pals.  And why not?  We’re both ex navy men, with a hell-bent Paleo leaning.  I can tell you that Richard is just as “take no prisoners” in person as he is in “blog life”.  What a cool cat.  I look forward to spending more time with him out in LA next weekend.  So what’s the TTP pitch going to be in LA?  Well, Skyler and I intend to champion Physical Culture’s rightful place — the “new” Physical Culture, that is; Physical Culture 2.0, if you will — in fixing the damn healthcare quagmire we find ourselves in now.  Since we hail from the epicenter of this integrative holistic medicine/fitness movement — Austin, Texas — it seems fitting.  Stay tuned 😉

In health,


10 responses to “In an Evolutionary Sense, Why Hypertrophy?

  1. Another great post, Keith!
    Physical Culture 2.0 should be up on my blog toward the end of this week: it’s in draft with more to include in order to be a comphrensive contribution since absence of Physical Culture with influence from exercise physiology is a major shortcoming of the neo Paleo world. Was inspired with the title from reading Kurt Harris’ Paleo 2.0 just two weeks ago! Will make an announcement when it’s online.

  2. Scott’s adaptation of the force-velocity curve is indebted to JC Santana’s work, and in turn that of Joe Signorile. Signorile’s recent book Bending the Aging Curve (Human Kinetics, 2011) makes eloquent use of that curve in both analysis of how life long strength training profoundly offsets ‘normal’ aging in our culture due to muscle wasting, while also serving as a tool for diagnosing and prescribing client-centered, individualistic training programs to bend that aging curve back by fostering genomic expression.

    One sad side to the popular neo Paleo movement lies in selective choice of authorities whose position don’t upset complacency. Signorile and other exercise physiologists dealing with aging recognize the modern way of life is incompatible with our ancestral genomic expression: there’s a mismatch between our Stone Age biology and Space Age way of life. Rather than taking Stone Age in some romantic ‘back to the savanna’ framework, they instead herald practical solutions for contemporary persons.

    Surfing the strength curve boils down to living from genomic potential for its fullest expression. Ashby’s law of requisite variety (cf his book Cybernetics) applies here: in mechanical and biological systems, the element with most choices is in control. Control in biological systems may look random when it’s not. Applied to fitness, surfing the curve will vis-a-vis Physical Culture 2.0 mandate mastering sufficient health education to become your own coach. Our artifically imposed way of programming training within calendar weeks will go – a microcycle will become at least two weeks in length, following our primal calendar, the lunation cycle ironically enough.

    Surfing the curve is not congruent with the two popular, commercial theories of exercise who’ve made some inroads in colonization of the neo Paleo movement: HIT and CrossFit. Based on curve surfing and underlying metabolic conditioning, both are incomplete – as are most all other choices. Those two are mentioned simply due to their obvious presence. Surfing the curve of metabolic conditioning, including recovery conditioning, renders McGuff & Little’s work of little interest and less validity other than a theoretical piece forged from highly incomplete research seemingly done with unscientific yet passionate bias.

    A Physical Culture 2.0 microcycle of surfing the curve most essentially programs a schedule of varying rep ranges, cadences, rest cycles between sets, and methods. Brian Johnston’s J-Rep/Zone training and Dr Ron Laura’s Matrix Principles fit well with such training. Bottom line is Physical Culture liberates us from industrial training regimines, and accords with recognition that the more advanced your training years become, the more quickly adaptation occurs, hence the more often routines should be changed. In fact, longer term, Orderly Chaos training makes most sense – close to never repeating the same work out.

    Physical Culture 2.0 with roots in classical physical culture and exercise physiology also brings modification to generally accepted Paleo principles. Why? Because evolutionary medicine/Paleo were not formulated with reference to either physical culture or exercise physiology, hence the Paleo model is also incomplete.

    I’ll stop here to go finish Physical Culture 2.0 as an integrated model.

  3. There might be a huge flaw in my thinking here, but isn’t it possible that hypertrophy is as unnatural as modern obesity? We know that in nature, it is usually very hard if not impossible to develop useless fat that hinders health. It doesn’t exist in wild animals and is almost non-existant in humans that live traditional hunter gatherer lives. In the same sense, whenever I see pictures of typically fit aboriginal people, they are always rather wiry and lean, they look great, but they never really look huge or “swole”.

    Maybe hypertrophy of the type we are seeing today is merely humans pushing the envelope in the other direction, the other side of the spectrum where at one end is the 1,000 pound man and on the other is Jay Cutler. I mean, there is no way that a bodybuilder could survive out in the wild because its impossible to scavenge and hunt 6,000 to 10,000 calories a day, mainly from animal protein, on a regular basis, maintain 1-2 hours of hard work, and still have time to rest. Either this fictional Grok bodybuilder would starve, or he would lose muscle mass hunting 24/7.

    It seems to me that hypertrophy is no different than fat gain, it is a small scale adaptation to changing environmental factors, but with modern day humans it has been pushed completely off the grid of what you would “normally” see.

    • Today’s standard of normality has been dispelled in various publications. Normality qua sedentary looks like this: Physical Inactivity (Failure to maintain homeostatic signaling of gene expression at the Paleolithic level – genes requiring physical activity are also disease-susceptibility genes) è Inhibition of health promoting proteins/ACTIVATION of disease-promoting proteins è alteration of intracellular homeostasis è exceed threshold of physiological significance è manifestations of pathophysiologic state of overt clinic symptoms (hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, dyspnea, angina, exercise intolerance.

      Big name body builders don’t quite count due to huge annual investments in performance enhancing substances to the tune of $80,000 per annum.

      The popular standard Grok is purely fictional, not upheld by reading in depth anthropological reporting of time allocation effort. We’re grossly misled by those with theory driven commercial exercise theories,.

      Rolf Wirhed’s Athletic Ability: The Anatomy of Winning suggests considerable movement skills resulting in hypertrophy arise from pre-human ancestors passing on stable genotypes. Modern ‘normal’ humans are grossly deficient in genomic expression of those skills/development.

      Since our genes were formed 100,000-50,000 years ago, recourse to anthropological and even art history provides clues. Most intriguing is the Farnese Hercules, c. 2nd century BCE and with rich prototypes extending back a century earlier. I’ve seen pictures of that Hercules for more than 50 years. Only seven years ago did I meet up with a full scale replica, one cast and installed for Mark Henry’s marriage (Mark’s 6’3″ tall, 420 pounds, capable of more than a 300 pound one arm overhead press, more than a 1,000 lb squat, drug free, amazing) at Jan & Terry Todd’s former Double T ranch outside of Martindale, TX. At 5’9″ tall Hercules is estimated to have weighed in at 240 – just looking at that statue’s muscular density, it was obvious he’d swept today’s drug free competitions and likely done well in unregulated IFBB competition. An athlete, a warrior, most of all a heroic figure within his cultural mileau. Who was the model.? Even with prototypes, it’s obvious that exceptional, natural men occupied places on this earth. How did they achieve such exceptional condition? Manthropology suggests such size was not uncommon. In fact, Manthropology holds with early initiatied long life training, such flowering of genomic potential is within our grasp. Perhaps the epistemological challenge is our culturally established belief we’re less than who we are.

      It seems to me hypertrophy is a misnomer for flowering of innate potentials, those easily denied by a complacent sheep herd culture obsessed with rationalizations supporting laziness living in its comfort zone of self-indulgence. As Joe Campbell used to say, follow your bliss and the world opens up to you – he was a life long athlete. Without entering the path of self-mastery complacency rules. Science demonstrates complacent under-training, under-achieving to be the way of embracing disease and excuses for failure as a bona fide human.
      caveat lector

  4. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and my reaction is that hypertrophy is a “hard to fake signal”. If primal man were able to support any extra muscle mass then it would show that they were physically capable, well fed, and healthy. All of these are desirable traits for females to select for (and might explain why men in non-Westernized populations still wish they carried more lean mass). Other examples of “hard to fake signals” are emotions and facial expressions. I discussed it with a few of my lab mates and they agree that it’s plausible. What do you think?

    • Could very well be; though, It’s a mighty expensive (in metabolic terms) signal to produce and maintain. Much more so than, say, facial gestures, or coloration, etc. Maybe a multi-facetted phenomena? I’m thinking signaling might be a secondary consequence vs a primary function.

  5. While I don’t totally disagree with what has been said, I think I need to clarify my position. Basically I’m saying that extreme hypertrophy is in many ways like extreme obesity, it’s the exaggerated version of a normal biological process. If we accept that humans in their natural environment are generally fit and healthy, and argue that agriculture and industrialization is responsible for over-fatness and disease, why couldn’t there exist something on the other end of the spectrum, like extreme muscularity or the ability to live to be 120 years old?

    My basic view here is that what it means to be fit in a hunter-gatherer sense is probably a relatively lean individual, more Brad Pitt than Jay Cutler. In the same way that it’s hard to grow fat on natural foods, I would argue it’s equally hard to support extra-EXTRA muscle mass, especially since it requires a combination of unbelievable hard work *and* rest AND tons of food, a trinity that seems wholly unnatural. Man wouldn’t work beyond what he needs to survive in the first place, and that level of work would probably only be necessary in famine conditions.

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