The life cycle of a forest involves both creation and destruction. From the ashes of a forest fire come new blooms, just as decaying fallen trees enrich the soil for future growth. Your body operates the same way on a molecular level: your muscles break down and rebuild all the time. Both of these processes are forms of metabolism, genesis, and digestion. To find out the difference between muscle anabolism and muscle catabolism, read on for definitive answers and an explanation of how they work together to keep you strong.
Metabolism in the simplest terms is defined as the chemical processes that take place inside living organisms in order to maintain life. Included under this umbrella are the processes of anabolism and catabolism, one that builds up and one that breaks down. These chemical changes are happening in your body simultaneously all the time.
- Anabolism: This form of metabolism involves the organization, building, and synthesizing of new complex molecules. During anabolism, smaller molecular compounds are linked together to form greater ones, as in the process of gluconeogenesis, which is the production of glucose derived from a non-carbohydrate source.
- Catabolism: This is also known as "destructive metabolism," the process by which molecules are broken down for use as energy, often leaving cell debris in its wake. An example of catabolism is glycolysis, the breakdown of glucose molecules in order to release their energy, a process that's almost the direct inverse of gluconeogenesis.
Between these two undertakings is the process by which we burn fat (adipose tissue) for fuel, and then build muscle with that energy. Understanding this balance will help you better utilize muscle protein anabolism during exercise and throughout the day and night, because your metabolism doesn't stop, even when you go to sleep.
The Balance Between Muscle Anabolism and Muscle Catabolism
Muscle catabolism is one of the dreaded concerns plaguing bodybuilders as they seek to bulk up their skeletal muscles (the muscles attached directly to our bones, as opposed to the muscles that pump our hearts and squeeze along our digestion). The goal in muscle building is to promote muscle protein synthesis and keep catabolism busy breaking down any other energy source that is not muscle: break down sugar for glucose energy, fat for ketone bodies, but please don't run out and come for the muscles.
What follows are explanations of the key players in muscle anabolism and how best to keep your catabolic processes from cannibalizing the muscles you seek to build.
Both anabolism and catabolism trade in hormones, though they each require different ones.
- Anabolic hormones: The hormones estrogen, testosterone, insulin, and certain growth factors all play a role in building new molecular structures, including muscle proteins.
- Catabolic hormones: In order to break down fuel sources, catabolism needs cortisol (the stress hormone), adrenaline, glucagon, and cytokines.
A disruption of your hormones could affect your muscle protein metabolism, particularly issues with the thyroid gland, as that is where our hormones are produced, stored, and dispatched to where they're needed in the body.
Muscle anabolism and muscle catabolism cannot be reasoned with: one knows its job is to build, the other knows its job is to supply. If you're hitting the gym hoping to build muscle, you need to be cognizant of your energy supplies to avoid a "one step forward, two steps back" conundrum between these two forms of metabolism.
For example, in 2010 researchers examined the anabolic-catabolic balance of male bodybuilders during competition training and found that the group who restricted their energy intake in an effort to burn body fat had a significant decrease in both their body fat and their muscle mass compared to the control group. The men exhibited decreases in their insulin levels, their growth hormone levels, and their testosterone levels too, leading researchers to conclude that their anabolic response pathways were compromised due to the lack of sufficient energy sources. They suggested other nutritional substances were needed beyond just high protein ingestion.
While catabolism is always at work somewhere, from a workout standpoint if you're in an anabolic state you're both building and (just as importantly) maintaining your muscle mass, whereas if you're in a catabolic state, you're losing muscle mass along with fat. How to balance the two? Nutrition.
The foods you eat pre- and post-exercise are the fuel sources that can keep catabolic processes working for you and not against you. Just as certain athletes will carbo-load before a big game or race to ensure they have complex molecules to supply longer durations of energy, the proper amount of muscle-building nutrients at the right times and concentrations helps optimize your resistance-training workout and the synthesis of new skeletal muscle protein.
You may have heard the phrase "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs," and that idea applies to the muscle protein turnover involved in bodybuilding. While you are creating new body mass, older muscle proteins that are no longer working at optimum levels will be recycled and replaced in a catabolic-anabolic cycle.
It's the balance between protein synthesis and breakdown that dictates whether you've got muscle growth or muscle wasting (an especial danger for older adults). Muscle protein breakdown needs to be met with the right kind of energy and protein intake to replace it, and that's where amino acid ingestion comes in.
Amino Acids for Muscle Anabolism
Under the expert guidance of amino-acid researcher Dr. Robert Wolfe, the Amino Co. has developed an amino acid supplementation formula to help build skeletal muscle mass with the correct balance of essential amino acids needed to synthesize new muscle growth in the first place.
As was seen in the above-linked study on bodybuilders, protein intake alone is not enough to prevent human muscle mass from being catabolized for energy, disrupting the body composition of even trained competitors.
While many bodybuilders supplement with whey protein, casein, or branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), The Amino Co.'s formula has clinically informed levels of amino acid concentration to ensure not only muscle protein balance but also the energy needs required for a whole-body protein revolution.
The performance-focused formula (which you can find here) includes:
- Aminos: Eight out of the nine essential amino acids are included (every one but tryptophan, which isn't needed for muscle building), including phenylalanine and the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
- Energy: Creatine, citrulline, and caffeine are added to help cover the energy needs throughout resistance exercises.
- Balance: The potassium and sodium content work to help post-workout recovery along with electrolyte and fluid balance.
The effects of leucine supplementation are particularly powerful when it comes to muscle anabolism, as free leucine is absorbed immediately after ingestion (postprandial). In a post-workout recovery drink it's been shown to increase skeletal muscle hypertrophy and strength and may be useful in promoting human skeletal muscle growth safely in elderly individuals who are at risk of sarcopenia, the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass.
Break Down and Build Up
The response of muscle protein to the proper amount of amino acid nutrition and fitness is to grow and strengthen. Muscle mass maintenance is dictated by the give-and-take between anabolic and catabolic processes: the anabolic building that requires energy, and the catabolic breakdown that supplies it. Together they work to prune, repair, and replace spent cells with newer, stronger ones, and move your body's composition to its optimal spot on the body mass index.