When you go to the gym, it can often feel like you’re putting in a whole lot of effort without seeing any results. However, after a few months, or a few years, it is undeniable that you have seen some gains. Your muscles have grown, you’re filling out your shirts well, and you’ve put on some healthy pounds. Going to the gym might occupy 4-5 hours of your week, so you’re using those particular muscles from your workouts for a pretty small amount of your time. Even so, you can see significant increases in just a few months.
When we talk about muscles, people immediately think of biceps, quads, pectorals and other common targets at the gym. However, our face is also covered in muscles, which are responsible for everything from blinking our eyes and changing our expression to chewing our food and whistling. Considering that we use our facial muscles throughout the day—every day—why don’t those muscles bulk up in the same way? Shouldn’t we all be walking around with “cut” faces after a lifetime of chewing up three meals a day?
Before we dig into that specific answer, however, we should take a quick review of the fundamentals of muscle growth.
When you go to the gym and begin working out, you are essentially putting stress on your muscles in order to increase their size and strength. When you put stress on one of your more than 600 skeletal muscles, made of myofibrils and sarcomeres, some of those muscle fibers get damaged, and must be repaired. When those muscle fibers are bound back together, they increase in size, a process called hypertrophy, commonly known as muscle growth. An important factor to consider, however, is that additional muscle mass comes from more muscle proteins being synthesized than those being broken down. If your body is better able to activate the satellite cells (i.e., stem cells for muscles) and encourage new myofibrils of muscle protein to form, then your muscles will grow following exposure to stress (typically in the form of increasing amounts of weight).
That being said, even if your body is highly receptive to exercise and you can easily put on muscle mass after only a few weeks of devoted gym time, everyone has a limit. There is no muscle in the human body that could grow indefinitely. The main reason for this is myostatin, an inhibitory compound that works as a control gauge for muscle growth in the body. It negatively regulates skeletal and cardiac muscle based on our muscle mass. In certain bodybuilding and physical fitness circles, it is believed that increasing your amino acid intake can somewhat mitigate the effects of myostatin, allowing for bigger gains, but the results of this approach have yet to be definitively proven.
In short, our physical activity and exercise regimen determine our muscle growth, along with the influence of hormones, such as testosterone and IGF-1 (Insulin Growth factor), and certain genetic factors, such as the body’s activation levels of satellite cells.
Bulking Up the Facial Muscles
Given what we now understand about facial muscles, one thing becomes immediately clear… we might use our facial muscles all the time, but we aren’t necessarily putting stress on them. When you go and pump iron in the gym to boost your biceps, the stress is caused by the added weight. There are very few practical ways to increase the “weight” being moved around by your facial muscles as you smile, chew, blink and frown. Without that added weight, there is no damage to the muscles, and therefore no muscle regrowth or release of satellite cells to the site of the muscles. Additionally, even if there were some contraption that could add weight to the normal functions of our facial muscles, the development of new muscle is a gradual process dependent on regularity and repetition. It is not only impractical, but also a bit ridiculous, to imagine consistently exercising your face in that way over any length of time.
There are some notable cases in which facial muscles can grow, resulting in a fuller or “larger” appearance of the face. You will often see this in competitive eaters, who use their jaws far more than the average individual. As a result, the muscles surrounding their jaws are larger and more bulked up, but these people represent a very small portion of the population. On the whole, our facial muscles can be toned or look more chiseled, but this is due to the lack of fat, not the presence of toned muscle. When we gain weight, our faces will also increase in size or roundness; thus, when we lose weight, some of that excess fat will leave our faces, revealing more of our bone structure and facial muscles.
While there is little evidence to suggest that you can bulk up your facial muscles, those muscles do have other similarities to larger body muscles. In recent years, facial massage and “facial gyms” have popped up in certain health circles around the world. Through manipulation of the facial muscles, it is possible to deliver a healthy glow and a relaxed feeling to the overworked muscles of our face. While going through the natural movements of our day, we may not notice areas of tension in our eyebrows, cheeks, neck or jaw. While the therapeutic value of these treatments is still debated amongst medical professionals, regular practitioners do claim that their muscles feel more relaxed and they are happier with their appearance!