In a viral video posted to the r/WTF subreddit on Sunday, German bodybuilder Jo Lindner’s pectoral muscles rippled across his chest like the seismic waves of a small earthquake. Lindner’s pecs are used to the publicity: He is a moderately famous bodybuilder, so his chest is arguably more recognizable than his face. But this video was a bit different from his usual public appearances, since his fluttering chest suggested he might have a rare genetic disorder.
What Lindner is experiencing looks a lot like the symptoms of rippling muscle disease, a rare genetic condition. He hasn’t confirmed that he has this disease, but commenters on Reddit drew parallels to the chest of a Las Vegas-based bodybuilder named Uzoma Obilor, who exhibits the exact same rippling symptoms and has publicly stated he has the condition. Obilor calls himself the “Alien Gains guy” and now has over half a million followers on Instagram. If they do have the disease, the medical explanation behind Lidner and Obilor’s “alien gains” actually has little do to with their training plans and everything to do with the amount of calcium in their muscle cells.
First, a refresher on what happens in your average non-alien-gains muscle cell every time you flex: An electrical signal travels along a motor neuron into one of your muscle cells, where it triggers the cell to release calcium ions. The muscle’s stockpile of calcium is partially maintained and regulated by proteins known as caveolin-3 proteins. Once released, the calcium ions change the configuration of certain muscle fibers, causing them to fit together and contract. In people with rippling muscle disease, however, this process can go awry.
Most people with rippling muscle disease have a mutation in their CAV3 gene, which tells the body how to make caveolin-3 proteins. As a result, these people have a shortage of caveolin-3, and some researchers think that shortages in the caveolin-3 protein create imbalances in the amount of calcium that gets released. This means that the cell might become flooded with too much calcium and overstimulated — or get too little calcium and become understimulated. Either of these possibilities can lead to “abnormal contractions,” which, according to a report the United States National Institutes of Health, manifests as the otherworldly effect we see on Linder and Obilor: “In most people with this condition, stretching the muscle causes visible ripples to spread across the muscle, lasting 5 to 20 seconds.”
The effects of this disease definitely appear alien, but the causes are most likely from our planet. However, this condition is little understood, and scientists have also found cases of people with these symptoms without any mutation to their CAV3 gene at all, the possibility of a more extraterrestrial explanation remains.