For many people, the concept of “muscle building” probably seems very mysterious – especially when looking at someone who has an incredible amount of muscle mass. But actually, it’s very similar to other things in which there is an “accumulation” process.
Whether it’s money or body fat – or muscle – it all boils down to the “rate” at which that thing is either being added to, or subtracted from.
For example, if we’re trying to save money, we must earn it faster than we spend it – in order for there to be an accumulation. We can also slow down the rate of spending (i.e., the rate of “loss”), so that it is slower than our rate of earning it – for us to end up with a surplus.
If we want to lose body fat, a similar process needs to occur – except in reverse. We need to increase the rate of calorie spending, and / or decrease the rate of calorie consumption, in order for there be a net loss of calories (in the form of body fat).
This is a similar process as that which leads to muscle growth. Our bodies often fluctuate between being in an anabolic state (i.e., growth), and a catabolic one (breaking down). These fluctuations plays a major role in how well (or how fast) we are able to “accumulate” (grow) muscle.
There are various metabolic processes which hold back muscle growth, break down existing muscle, or help build muscle. These processes are usually triggered, or at least influenced, by certain things we do. So, part of the trick in successful bodybuilding, is doing the things which slow down or prevent muscle breakdown, as well as doing those which assist in the muscle building process.
One of these metabolic factors is the production of “myostatin”. Myostatin is a type of protein that is produced by our bodies, and is designed to inhibit muscle growth. Apparently “Mother Nature” (God) figured that if our muscle’s did not have something which restricted muscle growth, they would get too large, and would thus require an inordinate amount of calories in order to survive. The human body is designed, first and foremost, for survival – not for winning bodybuilding contests.
For those of us who would like our muscles to grow, or to be less restricted from growing, one of our goals is to find a way to inhibit myostatin. There are some cases (mostly in animals) where a genetic mutation has resulted in a dog, or a cow, being inhibited from producing much (or any) myostatin. Those animals grow enormously large muscles, without doing anything unusual. So, if we could find a way to control how much myostatin we’re able to block, it would be ideal (….apparently, full blockage results in health problems). Unfortunately, scientists have not yet found a method for doing this, although there are some claims out there of people (nutrition supplement companies) who have “the secret formula” (for a price, of course). Don’t believe it. It might happen some day, but as yet, it does not seem to be available.
There have been some reports which suggest that the OTC nutrition supplement “phosphatidylserine” can reduce cortisol levels. However, empirically, it does not seem to make much of a noticeable difference, if at all. The recommended doses for this supplement, for the purpose of lowering cortisol levels, is very high. This translates into a significant economic investment, as well as potential side effects, all for a benefit that has not manifested itself in actual use, as it may have in the lab experiments.
Interestingly, weight training itself seems to cause a reduction of myostatin. Studies were done that demonstrated a significant difference between people who weight train and those who don’t – of as much as 30%. This makes sense, of course. As the body tries to repair muscle damage and adapt to anticipated future bouts of similar exercise, it reduces that which would interfere with muscle repair. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reduce myostatin nearly as much as we’d like.
Some say that Flex Wheeler (a well-known bodybuilder from the 80s and 90s with a phenomenal physique) was tested, and was confirmed as having a naturally suppressed production of myostatin. If true, that would help explain his mind-boggling muscle mass. Rumor has it that another bodybuilder of the 80s and 90s era – Paul Dillet – might also have been naturally myostatin suppressed. But these people would be exceptions to the rule. Most of us – unfortunately – have a “normal” production of myostatin. However, it seems to me that “normal” can vary greatly. While some bodybuilders might not be officially “myostatin suppressed”, I’m convinced there are some who simply produce less of it than the rest of us.
Cortisol is another factor which inhibits, or interferes with, muscle growth. It also breaks down existing muscle. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, produced by the adrenal glands. Its production is typically triggered by stress and by low blood sugar. Cortisol’s primary jobs are to increase blood sugar and to suppress an overactive immune system (which could result in inflammation and/or allergic reactions). It’s considered “catabolic” because it tends to break down muscle tissue. Too much cortisol production can also interfere with the formation of bone.
Unlike myostatin, cortisol is something which we can control to a greater degree. The key is avoiding that which causes its production – stress and low blood sugar.
Stress is not only something that happens when we’re overly worried about something. It also occurs when we don’t sleep enough. It is well-documented that sleep deprivation results in an increased production of cortisol, as well as a decreased production of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone). The body is stressed when it is sleep deprived. Thus, insufficient sleep can result in (both) interference with muscle growth AND inadequate production of the thyroid hormone (resulting in increased body fat).
Low blood sugar also leads to cortisol production. As mentioned above, one of cortisol’s primary functions is to increase blood sugar. It does this internally, when we’ve either spent too much glucose (i.e., super intense workouts), or haven’t eaten enough calories / macro nutrients to maintain our blood sugar level. Through a process called “gluconeogenesis”, cortisol takes amino acids from muscles, along with free fatty acids from our adipose tissue (body fat), and creates glucose – thereby pulling us out of a dangerously low “hypoglycemic” situation. Of course, it does this at the expense of our hard-earned muscle.
How do we prevent low blood sugar (and the subsequent production of cortisol)?
We make sure that we eat frequently enough, that we eat the right thing at the right time, and that our workouts aren’t too long.
The most common time for us to experience low blood sugar is during an intense workout (especially toward the end), and immediately afterwards. Intense weight training workouts spend an enormous amount of glucose, as well as glycogen (carbohydrates stored in the muscle). After an intense workout, it’s very likely that we’re hypoglycemic, and also in “glycogen debt”. It’s critically important for us to STOP the hypoglycemia as soon as possible (to prevent cortisol production). It’s also important for us to replace a some of the spent glycogen. The only way to do that – quickly – is by consuming carbs during the workout, and also immediately after the workout.
Drinking some diluted apple juice (50% water / 50% apple juice) during the workout is a good option. Personally, I use Labrada’s “Power Carb” drink mix (…and I also put in some Labrada’s BCAA, which very high in Leucine). I find it’s less “heavy” than apple juice, and also tastes better.
We all heard the advice about having a protein drink immediately after the workout, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. After the workout, we are in a glucose and glycogen debt – not a protein debt. We did not spend much, if any, protein during our workout. We have a glucose-related crisis….not a protein crisis. So, after the workout, I heat up a cup of water, and pour in about four tablespoons of honey (along with another scoop of Branched Chain Amino Acids – BCAA). That puts an immediate halt on the low blood sugar, as well as the accompanying production of cortisol. By doing this, you’ve essentially prevented the loss of hypoglycemia-induced muscle loss. In essence, the sugar in the honey is acting as an “anti-catabolic”. And, if you have any concern about this making you fat, rest assured, one cup of honey water will not even repay half of the glucose and glycogen debt. The body will always prioritize glucose and glycogen replacement, before it spills over to body fat.
There is another advantage in drinking a high carb drink immediately after the workout – insulin production. Most of us have heard that “insulin production is bad”, but that’s not an entirely true statement, across the board. It depends on the circumstances. Insulin production in the absence of intense workouts, can certainly make us fat. However, insulin production immediately after an intense bodybuilding workout, is good – because it helps push nutrients (carbs and amino acids) into the muscle. In fact, insulin production is an important factor in building muscle.
It’s certainly true that protein helps build muscle (…insufficient protein intake is another inhibitor of muscle growth), so eating enough protein throughout the day, and / or take a good quality protein supplement (like Labrada’s “Lean Body”) is important. But carbohydrates are often underestimated, as an important nutrient in muscle building. For bodybuilders, they’re essential for keeping muscle glycogen stores full, for maintaining blood sugar levels (especially after an intense workout), and the insulin they produce is valuable for its ability to help push protein into the muscle.
So, in summary, here are the things we have to do to ensure we are not losing muscle, and are doing everything possible to “accumulate” muscle:
1. Keep your workouts intense, but brief (no longer than 90 minutes, if possible).
2. Avoid exercises that spend energy unproductively (select exercises that have maximum benefit, and skip exercises that don’t produce much benefit for the energy invested). As one example, “Hanging Leg Raises” is one exercise that is very inefficient. It’s considered an Ab Exercise, but the abdominals don’t directly pull on the abs. So they’re involvement is incidental. Most of the work is being done by other muscles, and only about 10% of the benefit is going to the abs.
3. Drink a carb and amino acid drink during your workouts.
4. Drink a high carb beverage immediately after your weight training workout (it’s also not a bad idea to add some BCAA to that beverage, and also take a bit of L-Glutamine too. L-Glutamine helps build muscle, and helps support the immune system). Then eat a regular meal within 30 minutes after your workout.
5. Make sure to eat enough protein throughout the day, or supplement your food intake with a good quality protein drink.
6. Make sure you eat enough calories throughout the day, emphasizing protein and carbs, and de-emphasizing dietary fats.
7. Make sure you get enough sleep, and avoid stressful situations, if possible.
Following these guidelines will help you minimize muscle loss, and will assist in the “muscle accumulation” process. In time, you’ll notice that your “muscle savings account” has grown very large, indeed.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition.
Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe, Doug now has his sights set the World Championship of 2014.
He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book.
He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.