Gaining muscle mass can be an incredibly tricky proposition, one that often becomes harder the longer we persist. Remember when you first began bodybuilding and your skyrocketing progress kept you in the gym training harder, for longer? It seemed that all you needed to do was touch a weight and another inch would ‘magically’ appear on your biceps. Back then, overtraining was for most of us a foreign concept because despite our overly-enthusiastic approach to hitting the iron, the gains kept on coming. But all good things must come to an end and the rapid progress we grew to savor slowly began to diminish. And it is at this stage (usually a year or two into the training process) that many of us quit our efforts outright, not content with simply maintaining when we had grown accustomed to consistently gaining.
Although diminishing returns will continue to plague the most committed lifters, continued results can, and do, occur for those willing to address all aspects of their training regimes. Beginning bodybuilders might make great gains, at least initially, but those who persist over the long term often hold an advantage that can only be secured with the passage of time: knowledge. Smart bodybuilders will always seek a training edge. Those who do not must be content with maintaining only a certain degree of size as steady gains are unlikely to come without a willingness to explore the most effective ways to stay anabolic.
To stay anabolic (whereby our muscles are continually forced to compensate and grow via an anabolic environment conducive to complete recovery and a heightened state of protein synthesis) we must not only train our muscles accordingly, but feed them properly. Though whole food nutrition has served many bodybuilders well as they have layered their physiques in muscle, a growing contingent of lifters has come to realize the importance of targeted supplementation for priming their muscles for long-term gains. At the forefront of these athletes’ training successes are products designed to maximize recovery while maintaining a high level of nitrogen retention (proteins are 16% nitrogen; the extent to which we retain nitrogen indicates the extent to which our muscles hold protein) and muscle protein synthesis and fuelling ongoing mass building.
The most important anabolic supplements include various amino acids and protein formulations. In the following article I will outline which of these will ensure you stay anabolic so that your muscle gains continue despite the ravages of time.
Even the most novice iron warrior knows just how important protein is in terms of the muscle rebuilding process. The “at-least-one-gram-per-pound-of-bodyweight” rule for protein consumption is strictly enforced by trainers and in articles the world over. Without enough protein, muscle tissue development, not to mention many of our biological processes, is severely curtailed. While many bodybuilders have for years subsisted on protein-heavy diets, the smart ones have strategically employed a full spectrum of protein powders, each designed to maximize recovery and turbo-charge the muscle protein synthesis process.
With few, if any, impurities and a perfect ratio of muscle building amino acids and pure proteins, protein products are used by almost all athletes wanting a winning edge. To facilitate anabolism we need enough protein, but to get enough quality proteins through whole foods alone can be futile. With protein supplementation we can supply our muscles with a hefty dose (30g or more) of rapidly absorbed protein before, during and after training and at times when eating whole foods may not be convenient or desirable. The best protein products keep the muscle building process ticking over at all times. Below are the two best sources.
With a biological value (BV: a measure of a food protein’s ability to be absorbed into the proteins within our body) of 104 compared to cow’s milk’s 91, whey protein concentrate, compared to all other protein sources, is shown to be more rapidly utilized and assimilated. In fact, the benefits we receive by consuming a whey protein shake directly following training cannot be duplicated by any other food product; this is one reason why it has become near universal for all bodybuilders to follow their workouts with whey.
Containing a full spectrum balance of branched-chain amino acids and all other essential and non essential muscle-building aminos, whey (whether concentrate, isolate, or hydrolyzed) is now recognized as the best bet for rapid bodybuilding results. However, many people are divided on which is best: concentrate, isolate, or hydrolyze. While all whey is worthwhile, isolate and hydrolyze (purer and purest, respectively) have had all lactose and fats removed through an extensive filtration process that renders them higher in protein and more easily absorbed (whereas concentrate contains up to 5% lactose and is 70-85% protein, isolate contains 90-94% protein and no lactose).
It has been shown that ingesting protein and carbohydrate together can raise growth hormone and insulin levels to a greater extent than consuming carbohydrate alone. Thus, incorporating a protein and carbohydrate-based product (a whey/waxy maize combo works well) prior to training is thought to be an excellent anti-catabolic nutritional strategy. Further, by taking this same combo immediately following a workout a greater anabolic hormone profile and faster glycogen re-synthesis will be established and optimal recovery from intensive training can be commenced. Therefore, waxy maize (and other superior forms of supplemental carbohydrate) can also be added to our list of anabolic supplements.
When to take whey: 30g first thing in the morning, one hour before training, and immediately after training.
To stay anabolic we must consume at least 30g of quality protein every 2-3 hours. With whole foods there is no guarantee that all of the protein we take in is properly assimilated, so to achieve the desired 30g may, at best, be hit or miss. This is especially so in the hours before bed when high protein foods (with their natural fat content) are expressly forbidden. Enter casein (particularly in its micellar form). As casein reacts with gastric juices in our stomach it forms a bolus which adopts a unique structure which is resistant to rapid absorption; thus, its anabolic benefits are sustained for longer periods compared to whey (which is rapidly absorbed for immediate uptake by the muscles).
Though casein can be incorporated at any time to promote the prolonged elevation of amino acids in our bloodstream (for longer lasting muscle-building results) it is best taken just before bed to ensure our muscles remain in an anti-catabolic state while we sleep. An added benefit of micellar casein consumption arises from the actions exerted upon it by specific stomach and upper intestine enzymes which fit specific molecular structures within the casein micelles to produce bioactive peptides with desirable properties (three such peptides include casomorphins, which have a calming effect on the brain and cause food to linger longer for maximal absorption, glycomacropeptides, which suppress appetite and enhance the absorption of calcium and zinc, and casein-phospho-peptide, which helps us to build stronger bones).
When to take: 30g immediately before bedtime, and at any other time where a long-lasting protein source is needed (for example, if working for a sustained period without any breaks).
As the building blocks of proteins, amino acids (of which there are nine essential, which must be provided through food or supplementation, and 12 non essential, which the body naturally manufactures) are responsible for synthesizing structural proteins, enzymes and some hormones and neurotransmitters. As such, without them we would fail to exist. For muscle building purposes the aminos are critical. We obtain a ready supply of amino acids whenever we consume any protein-based food (food proteins are broken down into aminos, which are subsequently reconstructed into various proteins once assimilated). However, due to the poor quality nutrients many of our foods supply (not to mention their oftentimes toxic nature) we may not receive a favorable return on our nutritional investment. For the bodybuilder who is continually breaking down muscle fibers and depleting his or her reservoir of aminos, nutritional quality, and volume, becomes doubly important. Thus amino acid supplementation is essential for the ongoing rebuilding of new muscle proteins.
After the initial 1-2 year period during which great muscle-building gains flow like water, we inevitably find it increasingly harder to pile on the mass. Even with regular training modifications and a greater focus on whole food nutrition our muscles find overcompensation in the wake of training adaptation difficult. Though training harder and smarter may help, proper supplementation will certainly provide the edge we need to bridge the gap between recovery and further muscle building results. And this is where amino acids play such a critical role. The following is an outline of amino acids that can be obtained in supplement form and which are of particular importance for facilitating the anabolic environment needed for constant muscle-building progress.
All amino acids are anabolic to some extent (they help us to build larger and stronger muscles) yet there are certain aminos known for stimulating growth hormone (GH), insulin and glucocorticoids, thus promoting various anabolic processes. In particular, the non essential aminos ornithine and arginine have been used clinically to boost GH release and, for this very purpose, have been incorporated into many bodybuilding supplements. Arginine and the essential amino leucine have also been shown to stimulate insulin release; taking these with a protein supplement may help drive more protein into hungry muscle cells.
When to take: take one serving (of either outlined combo) on an empty stomach immediately before training or bedtime.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
As peerless muscle-building aminos, the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) foster an anabolic environment in several ways. First, rather than being broken down by the liver to fuel biological processes, as many other aminos are, they are shunted through the liver and directly to muscle tissue where they help to commence the rebuilding process. Not only are the BCAAs used to build mass, they can also be used as a muscle fuel source to boost workout intensity through enhanced oxidative metabolism (this is one reason why they are often included with superior pre-workout products).
During the muscle protein synthesis process various amino acids, including the BCAAs, are formed into a sequence (much like a pearl necklace), but the BCAAs, particularly leucine, go further by actually stimulating muscle protein synthesis (key-in-lock fashion). The BCAAs have also been shown to drive down the catabolic stress-hormone cortisol while helping to delay muscle fatigue and increasing the anabolic hormones insulin and growth hormone. As you can see, with sufficient BCAAs swirling around in our systems we become more anabolic.
When to take: one serving 30 minutes before training; one serving 30 minutes after training.
An important fuel for white bloods cells, glutamine plays a critical role in facilitating immune system integrity. Thus supplementing with glutamine can help us to recovery faster between workouts and may also offset the likelihood of overtraining following intensive workouts. The most abundant amino acid in our bodies, glutamine, considered conditionally essential (our body manufactures enough of it under normal circumstances but it is needed whenever we encounter unusual stress such as training-induced muscle damage), is produced primarily by muscle tissue (up to 70%).
Assisting a host of functions (BCAA metabolism, glucose formation, immune function, gut barrier formation, water transport and neurotransmission to mention a few), glutamine is, of particular importance for bodybuilders, a key player in muscle protein synthesis. Should the combined usage of glutamine by all of the biological processes it helps to support outweigh its manufacture, we may experience diminished immune function, muscle wastage, and depleted energy levels. Therefore, supplementing with glutamine is an important means to restore glutamine balance among those who not only train hard but live otherwise busy lives. For bodybuilders, glutamine supplementation has become an effective and essential means to enhance anabolism.
When to take: 5g immediately before and after training (resistance or cardio)
Not a building block of protein, creatine (naturally occurring and derived from the amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine) is nevertheless a profoundly important amino acid for short-term energy production. Heavily researched and, of all supplements, possessing the greatest ergogenic potential for athletes involved in intense training, creatine not only allows us to work harder (to target more muscle fibers) but can also stimulate the activity of satellite cells (a reserve population of cells that proliferate in response to muscle micro trauma) to make greater muscle hypertrophy possible.
When to take: after a loading phase (if you choose to do this), consume a maintenance dose of 5-10g per day, with 5g taken immediately after training.
Staying anabolic is no easy task. Just ask the thousands of bodybuilders who, despite their arduous gym sessions and consistency at the dinner table, fail to add appreciable size to their physiques. Yet why is it that while the many experience much pain with little in the way of gain, there are those people who appear to grow by the day, seemingly oblivious to the lack of progress their smaller-sized gym brethren experience? With the obvious exception of performance enhancing drug takers, lifters who gain tend to possess a nutritional edge brought about through the consistent adherence to a quality targeted supplementation plan. To achieve supplement-like results with whole foods is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. For example, a pound of beef contains 2g of valuable muscle-building creatine, yet a single teaspoon of supplemental creatine provides a full 5g; a large chicken breast provides 30g of lower-BV protein with a fair amount of fat while a small whey protein shake can supply up to 50g of the highest BV proteins available. The choice is yours.
By including the supplements featured in this article you, too, can experience an anabolic awakening of sorts, where muscular progress has no choice but to occur. By saturating your system with pharmaceutical grade products designed to facilitate rapid muscle protein synthesis and optimal growth, a new physique will soon be yours.
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