How Your Dog's Muscles Really Get Stronger and Bigger

strength training Aug 16, 2021

Your dog is an athlete and you are your dog's coach and trainer. As such it is critical that you understand what happens to your dog’s body during a workout.  Just exactly how does exercise make your dog stronger? What is happening in your dog's body that results in a stronger dog?

Having a functional understanding of the process helps tremendously in designing and structuring your dog's workouts as well as the phases of training.

There are two physiologic processes through which your dog gets stronger:

  • improved neuromuscular efficiency
  • muscle fiber hypertrophy

The first process is through more efficient recruitment of the existing muscle fibers. The second process actually results in an increase in the cross-sectional size of the muscle fibers. Both processes occur in all dogs when properly stimulated to do so, but the first process- increased efficiency of the existing muscle fibers usually happens first. 

Physiologic response #1: increased recruitment in the neuromuscular system

The first physiologic response consists of the brain calling upon more motor units to participate in a movement. Each muscle has multiple motor units in it, although the exact number varies. The more motor units that are activated the stronger the muscle contraction is. 

How does this work? For every action and movement you or your dog performs, the central nervous system controls it. The  brain will decide which muscles to contract, how many muscle fibers to contract, with what intensity to contract at and how often to contract. Muscle fibers are activated via motor units. A motor unit is a single motor nerve and its associated muscle fibers. Each muscle is made up of many motor units.

In essence, the brain decides how many motor units in the muscles to activate in order to accomplish the task at hand. This is a learned response over time. If I am trying to lift a gallon jug of milk for example, my brain will determine whether the job will take x number or y number of motor units in my biceps muscle.  Ideally, the nervous system tries to recruit just enough to do the job without wasting energy by contracting too many muscle fibers. Most of the time the nervous system does an accurate job but sometimes we are tricked into thinking something is heavy when it is not or vice versa. (Have you ever thought something was heavy and put a lot of effort into moving it only to realize it was actually quite light and then you nearly flung it across the room?) But too little recruitment and we are not able to do the task.

When your dog first begins a formal strength training program, you will see improvements in strength within 2 weeks mainly because the brain is activating more muscle fibers to participate in the exercises. This is called increased neural recruitment. Eventually the nervous system doesn’t have any more motor units to recruit however and gains in strength will have to come from muscle cell hypertrophy, method two.

Physiologic response #2: muscle cell hypertrophy 

Additional strengthening past neural recruitment relies on muscle cell hypertrophy in which the muscle cells actually become larger. How does this happen?

It is a complicated process but it starts with a workout. The physiologic stress of resistance training causes micro damage to the contractile proteins in the muscle fibers. Satellite cells that are hanging out near the membranes of the muscle cells are called into action. These satellite cells multiply and fuse into new protein strands or repair the damaged protein strands. The nucleus in these satellite cells then becomes part of the muscle fiber and can now make additional muscle proteins (which are needed for muscle contraction). Production of more contractile proteins within the muscle cells enlarges the overall size of the cell and the increased ability to contract means more strength.  

Essentially, microtrauma is repaired and protein production is upregulated resulting in a bigger, stronger cell. Additionally, because of the stress of the workout, increased bloodflow to the muscles occurs. This happens by the body actually creating new capillaries to the tissue to support the bigger muscle cells’ needs.

Note that all this repair and rebuild occurs in the recovery phase AFTER the workout. Many factors affect the ability of an individual’s muscles to hypertrophy, including genetics, hormones, and nutrition. But the basic process is the same in everyone.

Muscle cell hypertrophy takes time.  It will typically take weeks to a few months to see and be able to measure this muscle enlargement. If your dog’s training program is appropriate your dog should experience both forms of strengthening.

And remember that being strong is the best way to reduce the risk of injury in sports.

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