You’re familiar with scales - many of us stand on one in our bathrooms every morning and grimace because the needle hasn’t moved up (or down). And we weigh our food to make sure that we’re taking in the precise macronutrients we need each day. In simple terms, scales measure the weight of objects. In scientific terminology, weight is the gravitational force on an object as well as a synonym for mass. Scientists use a balance scale to measure the mass of an object. You’ve seen these before, no doubt — there’s a weight pan on each side, and each pan is suspended by a beam. Objects are measured by putting them on one side of the scale while weights are added to the other side until both pans are balanced. Equilibrium is reached.
This is all very interesting, you say, but what the hell does it have to do with anything? Well, if you’re looking to add mass, muscle growth requires a delicate balance — or equilibrium, if you will — of muscle buildup and muscle breakdown.
Muscle buildup is technically known as muscle protein synthesis. This involves the assembling of amino acids into the proteins that make up muscle fibres. Muscle breakdown involves the removal of amino acids from these proteins.
Most bodybuilders make the mistake of focusing only on muscle buildup (synthesis) by using supplements that primarily boost protein synthesis. Yet impeding muscle breakdown, technically known as catabolism, is just as important as increasing muscle protein synthesis. That’s because muscle growth occurs only when muscle protein buildup increases at a greater rate than muscle protein breakdown. To mix our metaphors a bit, a good analogy is a brick wall, where the bricks symbolize amino acids. If you add three bricks to the wall (protein synthesis) but five bricks fall off (catabolism), the wall gets smaller.
If you add five bricks and only three bricks fall off, the wall gets bigger.
Supplements that increase protein synthesis act like a mason adding bricks to a wall — they help to add more bricks (amino acids) to your muscles and build them up. Supplements that prevent muscle breakdown act like mortar that’s added to the wall to keep bricks from falling off. So by preventing amino acids from being taken away from your muscles, these supplements help your muscles grow by allowing synthesis (buildup) to prevail and muscle growth to occur.
To maximize your muscle growth, you need to know which ones increase protein synthesis, which supplements decrease muscle breakdown and which supplements do both. Here is your definitive guide to maintaining this delicate balance so you stay in positive muscle-growth mode.
Boosting Protein Synthesis
Muscle growth comes down to whether muscle protein synthesis occurs at the cellular level. These two supplements boost this crucial process at the microscopic level so you can grow optimally.
Whey is the best-selling protein powder on the market today because research shows it best accelerates protein synthesis due to its rapid rate of digestion and absorption by the digestive tract. This means it has the ability to rapidly flood the body with amino acids, thus pushing protein synthesis.
Additionally, of all protein powders, whey has the highest amount of the amino acid leucine, which has been found to stimulate protein synthesis on its own through a separate mechanism. Whey protein can also boost insulin levels, meaning it stimulates protein synthesis through a whopping three separate mechanisms, which can result in a dramatically accumulative effect on muscle growth.
There are three times when consuming whey protein is critical for boosting protein synthesis. The first is immediately upon waking: Your body is in a catabolic state due to your fasting during sleep, when your body breaks down muscle protein to fuel itself. If you don’t radically boost protein synthesis at this time, catabolism wins and you lose muscle. Drink 20–40 grams of whey protein ASAP when you wake every morning.
The next time you should take whey is immediately before your workouts. Training literally breaks down muscle protein, and research shows that rapidly delivering amino acids to the muscles (which whey does) right before workouts compensates by maximizing muscle protein synthesis. Drink 20 grams of whey protein within 30 minutes of your workout.
The last (but not least) critical time to take whey protein is immediately after workouts, because research shows that doing so significantly boosts protein synthesis well beyond protein breakdown so that muscle growth wins out. Go with 20–30 grams of whey protein right after the final rep of your final set.
Blunting Protein Breakdown
Taking supplements that reduce protein breakdown along with supplements that boost protein synthesis is the perfect recipe for guaranteeing muscle growth. Try Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA).
Depending on how long you’ve been working out, you may or may not remember the touted super supplement HMB. Basically, it had a few good years on the scene but then suddenly died. Research showed it was very effective in novice lifters but not in seasoned trainees, mainly because it wasn’t being taken in high enough doses or during periods of highly intensive training.
HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine. It helps prevent muscle breakdown during periods of training that the muscle is unaccustomed to. This means it works great for beginners or those who are lifting with allout intensity. Training studies don’t typically use high enough intensity to show the effectiveness of HMB in trained lifters. But it does prevent muscle breakdown and therefore aids muscle growth, if you take enough and train hard enough. Take 3–6 grams 2–3 times per day with meals.
Some supplements actually work on both ends of the muscle-building spectrum - increasing muscle protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown. Try Whey Casein blends such as Optimum Health Ultimate Milk.
While whey is known for its ability to stimulate protein synthesis, thanks to its rapid digestion and leucine content, casein is known for its ability to blunt muscle breakdown. This is mainly due to its very slow digestion time.
Casein protein is digested slowly because it forms a gel in the stomach, which leaves less surface area for the digestive enzymes to break down the protein. This allows casein to deliver its amino acids to the muscles at a slow and steady rate, preventing the body from using muscle protein for fuel by providing a long-lasting source of aminos the body can use instead. The amino acids that aren’t used for fuel can go to the muscle, where they’re used to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
A 1997 study found that at rest, casein wasn’t as effective at stimulating protein synthesis as whey protein, but a more recent study from the University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston) discovered that casein may be as effective as whey at stimulating protein synthesis after workouts. In support of this, Baylor University (Waco, Texas) researchers reported that men who took casein protein along with whey after workouts gained significantly more muscle mass than men who took whey protein without casein.
Take 10–20 grams of casein added to 20–30 grams of whey immediately after workouts. Take another 30–40 grams of casein protein, particularly micellar casein, right before bed.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
The BCAAs are a group of three amino acids that include leucine, isoleucine and valine. Although they work best together, leucine appears to be the most critical of the three. Scientists have discovered that leucine acts like a key that turns on protein synthesis on its own. In addition, this amino acid stimulates the release of insulin. Therefore, the BCAAs have always been known for their ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Yet the most recent research on BCAAs states that they not only help boost protein synthesis but can put a halt to muscle breakdown as well. One study that was presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in Las Vegas reported that athletes who took BCAAs over the course of a 24-hour mountain biking event experienced cortisol levels that were 45% lower than athletes who took a placebo. You should go with 5–10 grams of BCAAs before and after workouts to boost muscle protein synthesis and blunt muscle breakdown.