(updated: 26 April 2012)
It is often heard that muscle is built while resting, not in the gym, but what does this really mean? In brief, this statement extrapolates from the fact that the regenerative response to exercise is initiated AFTER exercise has already taken place and requires some time to take full effect. Pounding the same muscle group again before this second phase of muscle regeneration has been able to play out sufficiently will only serve to put you into the realm of “No Gains”.
Muscle Growth - A Delicate Balance Between Training and Rest
Exercise causes muscle damage. The more intense the exercise, the more severe the trauma, and the greater the need for subsequent repair. The good news is that muscle damage stimulates muscle regeneration. And, in an analogous manner, the greater the muscle damage induced by exercise, the stronger the stimulus for them to regenerate. All seems clear, right? Pound your muscles to make them grow. Simple. Wrong… Life is rarely this straightforward. Greater muscle damage, though providing a stronger anabolic stimulus, requires more time to regenerate. Otherwise, the muscle will not be able to withstand the next bout of exercise. That is, not enough rest and you’ll end up destroying more muscle than you are able to rebuild. Welcome to Overtraining Syndrome - not good.
Damage Control - Allow Enough Time to Rebuild
Given sufficient recovery time and appropriate nutrition the amount of new muscle produced may exceed the previous level and your muscles will increase in overall size (hypertrophy). This is a process sports physiologists like to call “supercompensation”, the physiological basis for bodybuilding - that is, if all goes well. If, on the other hand, sufficient time is not allowed for muscles to fully recover, or if your diet does not supply adequate substrates to support new muscle synthesis, then the growth phase will be blunted, entirely absorbed, or possibly even reversed. Excessive exercise furthermore, will destroy already damaged muscle tissue before it has had a chance to rebuild; we then enter a state of negative muscle growth (net muscle loss), aka Overtraining Syndrome. In essence, building muscle is a tradeoff between resting too little, which destroys overexerted muscle, or resting too much, which does not force muscles to functionally adapt (increase in strength and size) to the heightened loads you are placing on them.
So, yes, exercise, but smartly. Learn to create a simple set of circumstances that promote muscle growth while mitigating muscle loss. These circumstances are completely under your control and are really not that difficult to establish. In fact, it all comes down to just three simple rules. Read on…
Overcoming/Offsetting Overtraining Syndrome (”O-OTS”)
Rule 1. Feed Your Hungry Muscles After Exercise
Muscles are most receptive to nutrient uptake (insulin release) following exercise (see Tweak Your Anabolic Hormones with Smart Nutrition and Exercise below). And as such, protein intake immediately after exercise is absolutely essential for full muscle recovery and subsequent growth. Moreover, the protein must be in a form that is quickly and easily available for muscles to assimilate and most importantly, must provide a COMPLETE source of amino acids; the deficit of just one essential amino acid in the mix and protein synthesis would come to a screeching halt. That is, taking a poor source of protein will compromise muscle growth, despite your best exercise efforts. With these two requirements met, however, the ingested protein will then be converted into new muscle tissue, especially when administered immediately after exercise. That is, taking a good quality protein source right after exercise would result in maximal muscle growth. New advances in nutritional science have led to the development of liquid protein formulations that are highly biologically available, stable and provide a complete source of protein. I recommend these premeasured and ready-to-drink protein shots that contain from 25 grams of high quality protein per shot (3-4 ounces). These convenient protein shots are perfectly formulated to provide a quick infusion of much needed protein to your hungry muscle’s following exercise and will put you well on your way to improved muscle gains. Taking your protein in this way will also enhance the ability of your muscles to absorb creatine, a double anabolic bonus. How to best combine these protein shots with creatine (and carbohydrates) after exercise for greatest muscle development is detailed here.
Rule 2. Rotate Muscle Groups for Optimal Recovery
Depending on the intensity of the exercise and physical condition of the athlete anywhere between three and seven days are required for muscles to fully recover. This isn’t to say, however, that one should work out only once per week – this would be nearly as ineffective as overtraining. Consequently, most athletes adopt exercise routines that rotate muscle groups every few days. In this manner an athlete can train daily, improving cardiovascular conditioning as well as the efficacy of neuronal communication with muscle, while working each individual muscle group at most twice per week.
Rule 3. Tweak Your Anabolic Hormones with Smart Nutrition and Exercise
Testosterone, Insulin and Growth Hormone are released by exercise and exert anabolic effects that are delayed at onset and protracted in time course. They thus play a major role in muscle rebuilding after exercise. 1. Testosterone is released by exercise and promotes both the production of new muscle proteins as well as slows the loss of existing proteins. 2. Insulin stimulates muscle cells to uptake nutrients from the blood stream such as glucose, amino acids and creatine, particularly after exercise when muscle is most metabolically responsive to its presence. In essence, exercise depletes muscle’s energy and biosynthetic (building) resources; they then respond by becoming hypersensitive to the stockpiling effects of insulin. Insulin hence provides muscle with the substrates with which to rebuild as well as to replenish their depleted energy reserves of creatine and glycogen, which will be important in getting the most from your next workout. 3. Growth hormone is a key player in our anabolic hormonal response to exercise. Growth hormone (GH) is released following exercise as well as during deep sleep. In fact, the bulk of our whole body tissue repair occurs while we sleep, because of the nocturnal release of GH. If you want to build muscle be sure to get plenty of sleep each night, particularly after training days. These three hormones act synergistically to provide building resources (amino acids), activate protein synthesis and reduce protein degradation. The anabolic effects of (Testosterone, Insulin and Growth Hormone) and IGF-1 can last up to a few days after the initiation of exercise. In theory, long enough to repair damaged muscle - if nutrition is optimized, stress minimized and rest made a priority.
- A page describing the anabolic attributes of growth hormone can be found here: Is Growth Hormone the Fountain of Youth?
Insulin-like growth factor type 1 (IGF-1) is arguably our most important growth promoter. For instance, the anabolic effects of Growth Hormone are largely mediated by IGF-1. IGF-1 accentuates the cell’s biosynthetic machinery as well as turns off the reading of those genes that provoke muscle atrophy, the so-called “atrogenes”. On the other hand, these same atrogenes are put into play by overtraining via the actions of cortisol, an anti-anabolic (catabolic) hormone released by several forms of stress. Insufficient rest, sleep deprivation, and daily stresses will hence also counteract the biosynthetic response to IGF-1 by releasing cortisol. IGF-1 is also intimately involved in both initiating muscle regeneration as well as bringing it to fruition. Exercise also directly stimulates muscle to produce IGF-1 independently of Growth Hormone.
- A novel nutritional intervention to reduce serum cortisol: Ginkgo biloba: Helping take the stress out of exercise
Importantly, creatine has been recently shown to directly stimulate IGF-1 production; that is, independently of exercise and Growth Hormone. However, to get the most from this intriguing and fundamentally very important anabolic effect of creatine you will need to supplement immediately after exercise when insulin is most effective at delivering creatine, carbohydrates and proteins to your muscles (see Feed Your Hungry Muscles After Exercise above). Hence, a post-exercise meal of accurately defined composition is important to implement and is imperative for muscle growth.
- How to supplement for the greatest anabolic effect is also explained in my creatine guide: Creatine: A practical guide
- More about the effects of creatine over IGF-1 production can be found here: Creatine and the Insulin-like Growth Factors
Recommended Creatine Source: Based on the quality of creatine and composition of the formulation I would recommend EAS Betagen. This product contains creatine monohydrate, carbohydrates, L-Glutamine and HMB; HMB has convincingly been shown to reduce muscle catabolism (break down) and will assist in muscle regeneration following exercise. L-Glutamine helps alleviate post-exercise stress, reduces susceptibility to infections, prevents protein breakdown as well as improves glycogen synthesis. Obviously, this product was designed with hard training in mind and contains only scientifically validated ingredients - a rare event in today’s supplement market. Here is a reliable vendor for this product.
- An article explaining the anabolic benefits of HMB can be found here: HMB: Where’s the beef?
OVERTRAINING SYNDROME - OTS
The importance of proper rest and nutrition for muscle growth extends from the fact that the muscle damage brought on by exercise (an obligatory stimulus for muscle adaptation) needs to be repaired and further fortified with the assistance of our major anabolic hormones that exhibit somewhat protracted actions - requiring adequate rest (recovery), building blocks (nutrition) and the activation of the cell’s biosynthetic machinery (by our anabolic hormones) for an noticable anabolic response. The full circle is revealed when it is realized that exercise, rest and nutrition all influence the efficacy with which our anabolic hormones perform their duty. Inadequate recovery from exercise and poor nutrition, on the other hand, hinders this process, potentially resulting in net muscle loss, a catabolic (muscle wasting) condition known as OverTraining Syndrome (OTS).
OVERCOMING/OFFSETTING OVERTRAINING SYNDROME - OOTS
Overtraining is a trap that many athletes inevitably fall into. Overtraining can put a stop to an athlete’s gains in strength and muscle mass and in severe cases even reverse existing gains. Overtraining causes the release of cortisol, a catabolic hormone that activates atrogenes (atrophy genes), thereby interfering with the body’s utilization of Testosterone, Insulin, Growth Hormone and IGF-1, our major anabolic hormones. If you are experiencing the symptoms of OTS (training plateaus, fatigue, chronic soreness, increased susceptibility to infections and depression) taking a break from training, while the wisest response, is one of the most difficult measures for an enthusiastic athlete to undertake. Clearly the smartest and ultimately easiest approach is to follow the three simple rules laid out in this post and let your muscle gains slowly and steadily continue to accrue for the foreseeable future. The choice is your’s, OTS or OOTS…
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