Understanding the body’s natural reactions to nutrition and exercise is essential to mastering the art of bodybuilding. Metabolic function is comprised of two complimentary forces: anabolic reactions that break down an energy source to build mass, and catabolic reactions that use an energy source to break down reactants (burning calories, for example).
An ideal workout incorporates both fat burning and muscle building phases, and the catabolic/anabolic cycles work separately to support both. Cardiovascular exercise releases hormones that fuel the catabolic response, including cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, whereas strength training produces the anabolic hormones insulin, growth hormone, and testosterone, which work to promote muscle growth.
According to researchers at the University of Michigan, “healthy cells maintain a balance between the “building” phase, or anabolism, and "taking apart" or burning phase, called catabolism. But in disorders like obesity, the body’s balance is tipped toward an anabolic state. Increasing catabolism—burning more energy—is one possible way to restore the balance.” In other words, increasing catabolism has its advantages for those who want to shed pounds. If the goal is to lose weight, aim for activity that promotes the catabolic response. Adding or increasing cardiovascular exercises such as running and swimming and lowering your daily caloric intake can aid in promoting catabolism.
Because the catabolic reaction expends far more energy to burn then an anabolic reaction does to build, catabolism can often lead to burnout. The body’s energy reserves are used up during catabolism, so a dip in motivation and an overall feeling of tiredness are likely side effects for builders. Even more harmful, however, is catabolism’s potential to “waste” muscle. While catabolism is a naturally occurring, inevitable half of the metabolic cycle, when the body is pushed too far, a catabolic response can increase the risk of losing the muscle you’ve worked so hard to gain. Plus, when muscle wastes, the metabolism slows, ultimately lowering the number of calories you can burn outside of the gym. Lack of hydration can also increase the intensity of the body’s catabolic response.
According to a study published by the American Journal of Physiology, “hypohydration (decreased total body water) exacerbates the catabolic hormonal response to endurance exercise.” Keep a bottle of water next to those weights as a reminder to hydrate regularly.
HOW TO AVOID MUSCLE WASTING
Maintaining appropriate ratios between cardiovascular exercise, resistance training, and caloric intake can help to minimize the chance of wasting. As far as diet, ensure that you are getting enough protein to support muscle regeneration, and don’t neglect carbohydrates or healthy fats (such as oils, avocado, nuts, and fish). Adding an amino acid supplement to your diet may also help to prevent unwanted muscle loss by replenishing the amino acid products depleted by catabolism.
Whether your immediate goal is to burn fat, build mass, or both, the metabolism can be a helpful tool when properly understood. Catabolism is a normal part of the body’s hormonal reaction to working out and can be manipulated through diet and exercise to suit your needs. Just make sure you are consuming enough calories, getting plenty of rest, and staying hydrated to avoid muscle wasting.
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