When you think of increasing your strength, chances are that you’ll focus predominantly on muscular strength. And we all know how to go about developing this kind of power. Subject yourself to lifting heavy weights and this in turn will create tiny ‘microtears’ in the muscle fiber. Do this enough and the muscle comes back bigger and stronger.
But muscle is only one part of the equation. If you really want to be as strong as possible, then you also need to think about your bones. You can have the most powerful muscle in the world but if you trip over, then it’s your bones that are going to take the brunt of that impact and that are going to determine just how badly busted up you end up!
Strengthening bones is thus incredibly important for athletes and particularly for martial artists. If you want to be in peak condition, then your bones need to keep up with the rest of you.
But this is also important for everyone else – for everyone who wants to avoid injury and especially as they get older. Read on to learn more about how you can strengthen your bones and improve your health and safety at the same time.
Many of us assume that our bones remain the same throughout our lives once we reach a certain age. After all, our bones out-survive the rest of our bodies and are the only thing that remain long after we die!
Actually though, bone is a biologically active part of the body. That means that like the rest of us, it is constantly changing. More specifically, your bone is either getting weaker or it is getting stronger: you get to decide which.
This all occurs through something called ‘bone remodelling’. This in turn is a constant process through which bone gets ‘recycled’ by cells known as osteoclasts and osteoblasts (1). Osteoclasts are the cells that are responsible for taking up old bone matter and getting ready to re-use it. This process is called ‘resorption’. From here, the bone is mineralized using nutrients from our diet. During this time, the area where the new bone is going to get placed is covered in mononuclear cells (which is called ‘reversal’). Finally, the osteoblasts then begin laying down the new bone tissue as required to meet the mechanical and structural demands of the bone. This last step is known as ‘formation’.
And of course this makes sense: when you break your bones they are able to heal and this also applies to the small amounts of damage that your bones receive all the time. Your bone is not ‘invincible until broken’. Rather, it is constantly getting chipped, scratched and slightly bent.
The Honeycomb Structure of Bone
What’s very interesting though, is that bone is actually very absorbent. If you fall and land on your bone, it doesn’t remain rigidly in place but rather compresses in order to absorb that pressure without breaking. Bone can also bend further than you would probably expect.
This is due to the fact that bone is made with a ‘honeycomb’ structure. If you zoom in on it, it actually looks a lot like a sponge!
There are incredible stories of normally people falling out of airplanes and emerging completely unscathed. How? Because they usually pass out while falling which allows them to become much more supple and lets the bones contort and compress as they should.
Often our bones only break because we tense up, holding them in place and preventing them from flexing as they are designed to. If you ever do find yourself falling out of a plane – or about to crash in a vehicle – then try to relax as much as possible and even try to pass out!
How to Strengthen Bone
Bone is made from calcium and so one of the very best ways to strengthen it is simply to consume more calcium. Good sources of calcium include dairy, meats and vegetables like broccoli.
But your calcium won’t get you very far unless you are also getting enough vitamin D (which the body produces on its own when subjected to sunlight). Vitamin D aids with the absorption of calcium and magnesium is also particularly important for this role. If you’re concerned about your bone strength, then you might consider looking into a specially designed multivitamin.
Another thing that can make a very big difference is exercise. Partly, this is because exercise can help to encourage the production of specific hormones which we know are capable of encouraging further bone growth and remodelling. For example, growth hormone is well known to increase bone growth and this is produced in greater quantities if you work out. Likewise, testosterone also correlates positively with bone density and is likewise increased when you train (2, 3).
There are particular types of weight training that can help you to get the very most growth hormone and testosterone production. It is well known for instance that training using compound exercises – exercises that utilize a lot of muscle groups – can help to increase the anabolic response more than ‘isolation’ exercises.
As growth hormone and testosterone decrease as we get older, it’s actually particularly important for the elderly to ensure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D.
What’s more is that exercises that include a lot of ‘weight bearing’ might actually be able to increase bone density by both compressing the bone and incurring tiny micro-fractures.
How Martial Artists Increase Their Bone Strength
How can micro-fractures increase bone strength? It actually works in precisely the same way as the way that microtears increase muscle strength. When you cause tiny amounts of damage to your bones, this actually encourages your body to repair them using the bone remodelling process laid out above.
What’s more, is that this repair process makes the bone stronger than it was to begin with. The ‘scar tissue’ as it were, is actually stronger and more densely latticed than the bone that was there previously.
This is something that kickboxers and Muay Thai fighters know well and that they actually use in order to make their bones even stronger.
These fighters will often therefore kick their shins and forearms against trees, punch bags and bamboo sticks in order to cause that tiny damage and help it grow back stronger. Likewise, they also roll sticks up and down their shins and forearms to create more microdamage as well as to deaden the nerves in the area.
You probably don’t want to go that far but it certainly shows how much strengthening is at least possible in theory; some famous martial artists have even been known to chop down trees with their shins!