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August 25, 2022
The world is full of opposites: hot and cold, young and old, strong and weak. The idea of opposing forces, such as good and evil, is even at the root of everything from religion to blockbuster movies. Let's not forget opposites when it comes to the gym. And no, we're not talking about treadmill vs. elliptical here.
When reaching your fitness goals, you must understand the difference between anabolic and catabolic processes. These are the physiological yin and yang of muscle growth, and your understanding of them can result in failure or success.
This article will go over:
Let's dig in.
Anabolism and catabolism refer to the effect that different metabolic pathways have on complex and small molecules. In a nutshell, anabolism refers to building up, while catabolism refers to breaking down.
While most would assume that anabolism is good while catabolism is bad, it's not that simple. Both processes play a role in muscle hypertrophy, and these reactions happen constantly in the human body.
Anabolic and catabolic reactions are vastly different but when both processes are functioning well, work together in harmony. Anabolic processes require energy while catabolic processes release energy. Therefore, if you want your body to build muscle mass (anabolism), it must break down fat or glucose to fuel the process (burning calories).
This is a great example of a positive catabolic process.
Anabolism is the metabolic process of taking smaller muscles and building complex molecules or compounds. The most obvious example is the numerous anabolic processes of building muscle mass.
In reality, the sole purpose of why we train, sleep, and take supplements is to put us in an anabolic state and increase the anabolic activity within our muscle cells. This explains why you hear the term so much!
We know everyone's primary concern is the anabolic process that enables building muscle, but some of the other anabolic processes that don't build muscle include:
Catabolism refers to the metabolic process of breaking down complex molecules into smaller molecules. Unfortunately, our muscle fibers can experience catabolism just as easily as anabolism, perhaps even easier for fit individuals.
The catabolism of muscle mass is a primary reason it's highly advised not to enter too much of a calorie deficit when following a cutting workout. If you eat too few calories while training, your body will look elsewhere to hit its energy requirements. We don't want that.
Similar to anabolic reactions, catabolism occurs for more than just muscle tissue. Here are two examples of catabolic processes. One we hate, and one we love.
Let's do the bad one first: It happens to muscle, unfortunately. If needed, the body breaks down your existing muscle to free up amino acids for fuel. Once the muscle is catabolized and broken down into free-form amino acids, the body uses the anabolic process of gluconeogenesis to transform the amino acids into glucose.
Now, for the catabolism you love! We’re talking about the catabolism of your fat for fuel. See, catabolism isn’t all bad. You just need to learn more about it.
Anabolic hormones are responsible for building muscle, increasing bone growth, and metabolic processes like burning fat, among other things. That’s basically what we’re looking for when we train, and why our catabolic and anabolic reactions are so important. This is why you show up day in and day out, following your workout split like a gym boss.
However, each anabolic hormone has different functions, making it important to have a basic understanding of each and how they impact our metabolic reactions.
Testosterone is the male primary sex hormone responsible for masculine features such as body hair, low voice, and bigger bodies. Testosterone provides us with several benefits, including impressive muscle-building effects, increases to our bone density, and encouraging fat loss, especially when we're cutting vs. bulking.
Cholesterol-based (so eat your eggs!), the vast majority is produced in the testes. Here are four ways to increase your testosterone naturally.
Human growth hormone, or HGH, is a protein-based anabolic hormone that increases growth and cell growth rate in humans. It's synthesized in the pituitary gland and also released while you sleep.
Some functions of HGH include increasing lipolysis, muscle hypertrophy, and muscle protein synthesis, improving the immune system, and stimulating cell growth of organs.
HGH is obviously a very important anabolic compound and can majorly affect your muscle mass growth, body weight loss, and even body recomposition. Here are a few quick ways to increase your HGH level naturally.
Anabolic reactions involve insulin synthesis, which occurs in the pancreas and controls the metabolism of carbs, fats, and proteins. Part of this process is by controlling glucose secretion and blood sugar levels.
What many people don't realize is this is our main anabolic hormone. While it doesn't necessarily stimulate muscle growth, it allows our bodies to "suck up" the food we eat to ensure enough nutrients and provide more energy for us to not only function in daily life but give 100% to our intense HIIT workouts.
Still, insulin can play a role in preventing muscle breakdown and allowing us to maintain muscle mass. On the contrary, insulin resistance has been found to accelerate muscle breakdown⁷,⁸.
There are catabolic hormones as well. And again, catabolic doesn't necessarily mean bad. It's merely the term to describe the process of breaking down compounds.
Cortisol is also known as our "stress hormone," as this is a common trigger for its release. This is your worst enemy in terms of fitness, bodybuilding, and overall performance.
To be clear, nothing in our body is just bad. That wouldn't make sense. Cortisol does play some important roles, such as lowering inflammation, regulating our stress response, and controlling our sleep cycle, which is particularly important considering the importance of sleep to muscle recovery.
However, letting cortisol get out of control will severely mitigate your progress, and may even push you back. Some negative functions of cortisol include:
Remember, cortisol is good and vital for some functions. Unfortunately, we do things to throw it out of whack and increase cortisol levels higher than they need to be.
Here are three key ways to mitigate cortisol release.
There are other catabolic hormones, such as glucogen (which actually breaks down fat!) and adrenaline. However, cortisol is the one you have the most control over, and it's the most dangerous to muscle growth.
When people talk about anabolic steroids, they are referring to synthetic forms of our natural hormones. That’s why they work.
However, instead of resorting to anabolic steroids, we can use our training to naturally increase our hormone levels. You sometimes hear the term "anabolic training" or "anabolic workouts" thrown around. In reality, all strength training is anabolic.
Increasing physical activity, especially resistance training, will positively affect your anabolic hormones and cause you to be more anabolic. That said, we can choose to alter some training variables with our anabolic and catabolic exercises to improve our hormonal response.
Here are the best training methods for increasing your hormone levels.
You need to use our favorite main compound lifts! Your body does not respond the same to single-joint exercises.
Here are four other variables to consider to improve your response.
When it comes to increasing HGH, almost all the same variables as increasing testosterone still apply, except for one.
While the mechanisms aren't clear, rather than training in the 8-10 rep range, using heavier loads, around the 85% range, seems to generate higher levels of HGH10.
When increasing anabolic activity in your training, don't worry about increasing hormones for the first couple of exercises. You still need volume so only using short rest breaks won't work. Stick with free weights, running at least 1 or 2 exercises a session with 85% loads with 1 minute to 1 minute, 30 seconds of rest.
You also want to run at least 1 or 2 exercises a session with hypertrophy loads with 1 minute to 1 minute, 30 seconds of rest. Experiment with EMOM workouts, and use HIIT twice a week.
Utilize barbell clusters, which should only be used for compound exercises, like the barbell bent over row, 1 to 2 times a week, and keep your training duration short, less than 45 minutes. This forces you to use a high intensity.
When we talk about promoting an anabolic state within your body, we are talking about creating an environment in which your body can build more muscle. The main idea is to minimize the presence of a catabolic state while increasing anabolic processes. Here are a few key areas to focus on when promoting an anabolic state:
Try not to overdo it with sugary carbs, and spread your protein consumption throughout the day. Stay away from processed foods, and eat enough calories to fuel your training and lifestyle. Emphasize what to eat after a workout, following a carb to protein ratio of 2:1. And don't forget to focus on the best muscle-building foods.
We cannot stress the importance of sleep. Try to be asleep by 10 p.m. And that means actually be asleep, not just getting into bed at that time. Stay away from smoking and excessive alcohol, and try to find ways to cope and manage stressors in your life.
Unless you're an endurance athlete, stay away from catabolic exercises, such as prolonged endurance training. Catabolic exercise can include anything from swimming, running, cycling, or the elliptical if you're on it for longer than the 45-minute time frame we discussed. Train with intensity, but avoid overtraining. Four-day splits and five-day splits work well for most people
Even though your testosterone levels are highest in the morning, studies have shown a better training–induced testosterone response when performed in the afternoon¹.
One of the biggest myths in the fitness community is the phenomenon of the anabolic window that occurs after weight lifting. Or does it?
The anabolic window refers to a time after your training in which your body is in an elevated anabolic state. During this time, your body is primed for muscle protein synthesis and muscle repair, which ultimately leads to building muscle.
Theoretically, as long as you're eating more calories (you need to be in a surplus!), you should be able to see more muscle growth. While there's some truth to this, many people in the fitness industry have twisted it.
It is often claimed that if you don't eat within this anabolic time frame, you will completely lose all benefits. As in, you literally wasted all your time at the gym.
This is just silly. Don't get us wrong. We believe there are best times to drink a protein shake, and while your body is "primed" in an elevated anabolic state, this lasts longer than 30 minutes. While you should eat shortly after your workout, you likely have a good 2 hours. At the same time, if you are able to eat, do it.
Our basic recommendation is to eat as soon as you can, but there's no need to speed home if you forgot your post-workout shake packed with one of the best protein powders.
One of the best things you can do to optimize your catabolic and anabolic processes and increase hormones is to simply take care of your overall health. Stay away from junk, get outside, train hard, sleep, eat healthily and at the right times, keep your drinking to a minimum, and avoid smoking entirely.
Make healthy choices, and you should be able to find your best balance between your workout yin and yang.
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