It could be argued that the “average” bodybuilder has never been as knowledgeable as he/she is today. The bodybuilding industry has made clever use of the media as a means of communicating with its’ enthusiastic customers. Specialist advice on training and diet, not to mention sports supplementation is only a trip to the newsagents away. So it should come as no surprise that we all have at least a rough idea on how best to create an anabolic environment (putting our bodies into a state of growth). However it may come as a big surprise the amount of bodybuilders both young and old that remain in a predominantly catabolic environment. Catabolism can be broadly defined as being in a state of muscular wasting. Symptoms can include drossiness, lethargy, lack of interest in training, lack of motivation, a drop in sex drive, progress in the gym coming to a stand-still and finally muscle loss; and these are just a few. I appreciate that this sounds quite serious but believe me it is, especially when considering how common it is for us to be in a catabolic state. Some of us may be even experiencing the effects of catabolism right now!
So how can we avoid this state of being and keep catabolism to a minimum? First it is necessary to acknowledge what can actually constitute as being a risk factor. It would be fair to say that there is a strong link between catabolism and over-training. It is important to take a holistic approach (consider the wider picture) when attempting to make any decision on your training. To begin with you need to look at how regularly you train. Each body part for example should only be directly stressed once a week. Any more than this is and your body is going to struggle to repair all the damage that you have done. Remember that when you are training efficiently you are in fact over-loading the muscle and therefore breaking it down. Too much stress is likely to deny your muscles the opportunity to grow. You should also reason that the body is a system and that everything is inter-linked. For example the biceps are significantly involved in most back exercises, as are the triceps in chest exercises. It is a little impractical and unrealistic to train the biceps/triceps 2-3 times a week and expect optimum development of the back and chest.
Training each muscle group once a week is usually the norm for most bodybuilders, but what exactly constitutes as a workout can differ considerably. This can be directly related to the level of experience in which you have reached and the time of year (if competing). However, there are a few general guidelines in which you can follow to avoid over-training. Firstly, train each large muscle group (chest, back, thighs, shoulders etc.) for between 10-14 working sets (excludes warm-ups) using 3-4 separate exercises. Smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps, calves etc.) need to be trained for approximately 6-10 working sets using 2-3 different movements. For some people this might not sound a lot, but if done correctly and intensely significant gains can be potentially made. If after training your chest for example for 14 sets you feel as if you could struggle on for another two more think whether or not you can afford to, chances are you cannot. Sessions should also aim to be short and sharp lasting around (45-55mins) with adequate intensity in order to shock the muscle and achieve the desired pump. As with working sets the amount of reps that you choose to do is likely to depend on experience and time of year. Pyramid training (raising weight whilst lowering reps) over 4-5 sets per exercise is a popular choice with most bodybuilders.
Over-training is definitely a contributory factor to us catabolising, but it would be naive for us to assume that it is the only thorn in our sides. Our diet for example also has a huge bearing on our attempts to build/maintain muscle mass. An inadequate diet can act as a catalyst to catobolism. By this I mean that a diet lacking in the essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats as well as vitamins and minerals will speed up this catabolic process. To start with lets look at protein and carbohydrates, as they are arguably the most potent anti-catabolics available to us. Do not under-estimate the importance of proteins as they make up part of the structure of every cell in the body. Approximately 75% of the dry weight of human muscle is protein. Proteins are absolutely essential to the reparation of muscle tissue that has been broken down during your workout. Intense training actually puts you in a catabolic state as severe demands are put on your body to recover as fast as possible. This is when quality complete (full spectrum of amino acids) proteins make a big difference as they help significantly in the creating of an anabolic environment. This in turn prepares the muscles for their next training session. Your protein consumption should be relative to your own bodyweight, with the general consensus being 1gm (complete protein) per pound of bodyweight. With at least 1gm per kilo of bodyweight to be consumed post workout. Finally it is important to include a serving of protein in your pre-workout meal to be eaten 1hr-1hr 30min before training. This helps minimize catabolism as it offers the muscle a steady flow of amino acids.
It could also be argued that carbohydrate consumption influences our chances of creating/maintaining anabolism. Though not as directly as proteins carbohydrates play an important role in preventing catabolism. Carbohydrates are the bodies preferred source of energy with our total caloric output being roughly 80% carbohydrates, 10% protein and 10% fat. This is all fair and well, the problems start however when the body’s carbohydrate stores (up to 450g) significantly drop. The ratio of caloric output then changes considerably to approximately 10% carbohydrates, 45% proteins, 45% fats. This places huge demands on the body’s very limited protein stores, which can be fully spent in as little as 1 hour. Your body then has to locate the next source of protein, which is the muscle itself; this is of course what we are trying to prevent so consider increasing your carbohydrate intake. This increased consumption also helps create anabolism as it has strong relationship with the anabolic hormone insulin. For a slow, sustained energy release aim for 2gm of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. Spread this consumption over 4-5 meals whilst slowly decreasing the size of the servings as the day goes on. In general select complex, slow burning carbohydrates such as rice’s, potatoes, wholemeal bread, and pastas. These will help avoid energy slumps and prevent excess fat storage caused by sudden insulin releases. Also choose a variety of carbohydrate sources so that you can consume a variety of dietary fibres but eat simple carbohydrates sparingly, perhaps a piece of fruit with your breakfast or some electrolytes immediately after training to replenish glycogen stores.
Fats, vitamins and minerals on the other hand are areas of lesser concern, although are possible contributory factors of catobolism nonetheless. Fats, especially saturates are lowered pretty much straight away when embarking on a fat loss diet. As previously mentioned your body works as a system, so you can expect all the disadvantages of having large demands on your protein stores when you drop your fat intake to a minimum. Try to bear this in mind as you should be creating a deficit of no more than 1000 cal per day when dieting. Vitamins and minerals also play a role to a certain extent. The main one being the enhancing effect they can have upon the immune system. Vitamin C is especially good at buffering your immunity, which is arguably central to achieving an anabolic state. When you are unfortunate enough to fall ill, which in my opinion is a disaster for any bodybuilder your entire body is swamped with catabolic activity. You can no longer train (anabolic in long-term) and you can no longer eat the required quality of calories that your body needs to be in a state of growth. Therefore it is of great importance to think about how your immunity works and what vitamins and minerals you can take to strengthen it.
It is also well worth considering taking quality supplements to minimise the chances of catabolising. The supplement industry today has never been as big with a massive range of potent anti-catabolics. There are lots of anti-catabolics on the market today I am very briefly going to mention the most potent ones. The most obvious anti-catabolic is to supplement with a source of protein. Meeting the required levels of protein (1gm per lb of bodyweight) can be very demanding on your time and your money. Supplements are a more practical option, as they take no time to prepare and can be taken easily when on the move. You could write a whole dissertation on the many different proteins and how they are absorbed and released in to the bloodstream by the body but these issues are well documented in magazines, books, and often lead to widespread debate on the gym floor. The important things to remember are the anabolic/anti-catabolic benefits to be gained from increased levels of protein.
Protein is broken down into 20 amino acids, 8 of which are essential as the body has no way of producing these from the other 12. It is essential to include these at regular intervals throughout the day. Failure to include these in your diet at all will ultimately result in protein production grinding to a halt. The essential amino acids are Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, and finally Valine. All good weight gaining, protein and meal replacement drinks will contain adequate amounts of all 8 which is worth bearing in mind. Glutamine which is a non-essential amino acid is well worth supplementing with, as it is renowned for its anti- catabolic activities. Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid found in the muscle tissue and incidentally is the one that is depleted most during intense exercise. It is advisable to take two 5 gm servings with water daily, one 15 min before exercise and the other immediately after exercise. This you will find makes a significant difference, as glutamine also has cell-volumising properties. The final supplement that I am going to which acts as a direct anti-catabolic is GABA (gamma amino butyric acid). This supplement crosses over the blood-brain barrier and stimulates the pituitary gland which then releases more GH (growth hormone). Growth hormone is the most anabolic hormone in the body and can be raised by up to 600% by the use of GABA alone. Simply mix 3 gm into warm water and drink either 20 min before a workout or just as you drop into bed (no more than 6gm daily).
Another area of concern is lack of rest and the effects that under-sleeping can have on our levels of growth. This probably represents the most neglected part of most bodybuilders’ lifestyles. Sleep is absolutely essential for the reparation and growth of all our muscles. Sleeping gives our bodies the chance to solely concentrate on rejuvenating all our bodily systems. The first 45min-1hr of our sleep is where the body is at it’s most active, so much so that significant levels of GH are released to aid in the reparation and growth process. You really cannot sleep enough, aim for around 8 hrs of quality sleep per night. In an ideal world there would no use for alarm clocks as nothing should come between you and quality sleep. However, unfortunately for some people this raises certain practical issues, such as work commitments, family commitments etc. So if it is possible try and take a 1hr nap in the afternoon, while your metabolic rate is slowing down. Even an extra 45min sleep can leave you feeling refreshed and full of energy. Failure to get sufficient sleep will cause a build up of muscular fatigue, this will in-turn result in the emergence of all the other symptoms one can associate with catobolism.
The final major factor of putting us into a catabolic state that warrants a mention is that of stress. Stress is an absolute massive area within the field of mental illness, it is also one of the most ambiguous. There seems to be no clear-cut definition into what exactly qualifies as being “stressed.” However, we are all familiar with the subject and have all experienced it at some time or another. When under times of stress adrenaline is secreted by our adrenal glands. It has been said that for one molecule of adrenaline released there follows a thousand molecules of cortisol. Cortisol release is perfectly normal and serves very important roles in the body. However if levels rise too high for too long then it becomes extremely catabolic, as cortisol is responsible for breaking down muscle tissue. This has a significant effect as a large supplement company has invested thousands into developing a cortisol depressor. So try to save your “fight or flight” mechanisms for real life and death situations. I have read that the strongest anti-catabolic of all is to keep a healthy mind and not to let everyday stressors get you down or be blown out of all proportion. A lot has to be said for this outlook, as many other people in our life would benefit from us being a little more relaxed and approachable.
To conclude this article it is beneficial for us to recognise the symptoms of catobolism as early as possible and to take immediate action to prevent this from ruining our progress. Although I hope this article has revealed just how complex this process can be. As previously mentioned it is vital for us to take a holistic approach to our bodybuilding, leaving as little as possible to chance. This means we have to concern ourselves with being bodybuilders 24 hrs a day and not just the 50min or so that you put in the gym. You should also recognise that bodybuilding is ever evolving and is best viewed as a never-ending circle. First you should concentrate on your training, so that it is effective in serving the purpose that you want. Then you should move on and analyse your eating habits, striving to make sure sufficient quality calories are consumed from the correct sources for whatever it is your after. Then there is the task of working out a clever supplement regime that will be central to you achieving your goals. After all this is in place it is time to concentrate on your sleeping patterns and rest intervals to ensure optimum progress can be made. Finally you need to then try to simplify your life as much as possible without allowing stress to scupper all your efforts in the other respective areas. As can be imagined all this takes considerable time and effort and once you feel as if you have “cracked” it you may need to go full-circle and improve your training again and so on. I appreaciate that this can be a little hard to digest at first, but nobody ever said that building and maintaing a predominantly anabolic/anti-catabolic environment was easy.