There is a plethora of shady marketing, poorly regulated supplements, and late-night television commercials – all of which try to sell you one thing: more muscle growth. The idea of increased anabolism (the synthesis of more complex substances from simpler ones) has been a supplement maker’s and pyramid-scheme creator’s ideal target for many years now. And it won’t be going away anytime soon – as we continue to get increasingly fatter and less healthy. Anabolism can mean different things, but the context in which we are referring to here, refers to muscle growth. Entire bodybuilding websites, books, videos and supplements prey on the naivety of the average consumer – and they rake in millions of dollars by doing so. But the truth behind maximizing muscle growth is far simpler, and doesn’t cost you anything. Sound too good to be true? It’s not.
Simple science and research can lead the normal consumer down the right path, and though the actual things that maximize anabolism are simple – incorporating them into one’s routine on a daily basis may not be. There are indeed some things that these shady, predatory sources do get right – albeit usually in the fine print or barely mentioned at all. And that is the simple fact that protein will help increase anabolism – especially if your diet is low in protein to begin with (which is now the norm). Testosterone supplementation does have some support in the scientific literature as well – but growth hormone does not fair as well. However, we are missing the obvious – what are the day in and day out steps which are far more important to maximizing anabolism?
For starters, how is your diet? Not so great? Maybe a lot of processed food, few vegetables, and poor quality sources of protein – which are incomplete and/or not bio-available? That’s what I thought. Diet has a huge impact on anabolism, and may be the single most important factor in growing muscle – or tearing it down. That’s right, you can spend $300 a month on supplements – and have them be doing almost nothing for you. Have I got your attention yet? Remember that any bodybuilding website you may visit for advice, is knee-deep in selling you products – almost none of which you truly need.
Of course exercise, specifically weight and/or resistance training, is thought to increase anabolism. But this must be secondary to protein and diet quality. Daily, regular intake of vegetables, healthy fats and quality, complete sources of protein is what will put you in the sweet spot – and your hormonal balance is one of the key secrets to maximizing muscle growth. Of course this approach requires discipline, regularity and time – but buying a supplement is much easier. Therein lies the crux of the problem – human laziness.
And marketers prey on this heavily. Even those who show a modicum of intuition and do a little bit of work – such as reading the title of a study which is cited by marketers – can still easily be fooled. A common industry practice is to use rat or mice studies – which are not at all translatable to humans. Yes, in some, small, select cases, findings may be able to translate over – but this is the exception, not the rule. One supplement maker may claim that science shows that “arginine helps to increase testosterone and anabolism” – but they likely cite a mouse study, if you read the fine print. One would need to then find relevant human trials, which are controlled and randomized, in order to attempt to make the conclusion to try the supplement. Unless, that is, you enjoy throwing your money away. In which case – keep buying your supplements!
So now that we’ve debunked the notion that supplements are doing much of anything for anabolism, we must determine what actually works. The aforementioned elements of exercise and a healthy diet are by far two of your best bets – which again won’t cost you anything. But perhaps the most neglected, and some may even say “secret” element to muscle-building – sleep. That’s right, getting a good night’s sleep is probably the most anabolic thing you can do, and yet almost no one sleeps enough. The irony of trying so hard to exercise so much and buying so many supplements – while neglecting sleep – is not lost on this writer. And yet this is what almost everyone does.
As has been proven in the scientific literature for many years, testosterone levels peak during sleep, and sleep leads to a host of metabolic and biological shifts – all of which help to build muscle. Is this a somewhat mind-blowing revelation? In our “go, go, go!” world, many of us are becoming vastly unhealthy because we simply are not getting enough sleep. And yes, it has been proven that sleep loss correlates with muscle loss. Sleep loss also messes severely with your hormonal balance – which is again critical for maximal muscle growth.
So what are the actionable steps here? If you change nothing else, start focusing intensely on getting lots of sleep (8-9 hours per night) and eating a nutritious diet. You may even want to read this book. Otherwise, save your money this month, and stop buying supplements. Instead, focus on high quality foods, some smart exercise, and some high quality sleep. Your muscles will thank you for it.