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Protein synthesis and muscle formation

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Protein biosynthesis and anabolism are a basic prerequisite for muscle formation, but have you ever wondered what these terms really mean and how they can be influenced by training and nutrition? Biomedical scientist Sarah Schunter has the answers.

Metabolism, anabolism, catabolism

Metabolism refers to the overall chemical processes of converting chemical substances or substrates (e.g. food and oxygen) into intermediate products (metabolites) and end products (such as water and carbon dioxide) in living beings. These processes are life-sustaining as they promote the build-up, breakdown and replacement or preservation of body mass. Furthermore, they are essential for the generation of energy in order to maintain our body’s functions.

Depending on whether compounds are being built up or broken down, we speak of anabolism or catabolism, respectively. Simply put, anabolism usually consumes energy, while catabolism releases energy.

Understanding protein metabolism

When we apply this knowledge to protein metabolism, we learn that the breakdown of proteins into amino acids is a catabolic pathway that provides energy. As muscles are high in protein, energy can be supplied via the degradation of muscle mass. Clearly, this is something athletes want to avoid; instead they’d strive for protein anabolism in order to maintain or increase their muscle mass.

It might not be something you want to hear, but under physiological conditions, protein anabolism and catabolism will continuously run in parallel. This means muscle mass will be more or less maintained unless you power the system towards anabolism. There are two key factors that trigger anabolism: exercise and nutrition.

Exercise: regular and periodized

When it comes to strength training, protein biosynthesis is highest around six hours after exercising and actual build up of muscle mainly occurs within the first two days after a training session.

You don’t have to train for hypertrophy to gain muscle. The body benefits from any training method, as long as the volume and intensity are periodized regularly. This means that, ideally, you should alternate your focus between strength endurance, hypertrophy and maximum strength training several times a year. These different stimuli will have overall positive effects on muscle formation.

Nutrition: balanced and complete

A balanced diet rich in protein and carbohydrates is essential to support protein biosynthesis and muscle formation. Your daily protein intake should fall somewhere between 1.5-2 g per kilogram of body weight and should be rich in essential amino acids, especially leucine, as this is a major factor for the stimulation of protein biosynthesis.

Carbohydrates should also not be neglected. These are a major source of energy for an effective, intense workout and intensity is crucial for optimal muscle stimulation. Contradictory as it might seem, carbs = gains!
Both protein and carbohydrates should be consumed soon after finishing the workout (anything up to two hours ensures maximum uptake). Carbohydrates replenish the glycogen storage, accelerating regeneration. Protein synthesis is fueled by these carbohydrates.

What else?

Recovery is just as important a part of training as exercise and nutrition. Muscle doesn’t form during the actual workout, but rather when your body is at rest. You should therefore allow yourself days of no or very low intensity steady state training (LISS). Make sure to rest for at least 7 hours a night; most muscle gain and regeneration processes actually take place as we sleep.

Let’s recap

There are essentially two ways to stimulate muscle formation via the actions of anabolism and protein biosynthesis: training and nutrition. Both factors must be combined in order to build up muscles effectively in the long term. Ideally this should be complemented by considered regeneration and body mindfulness.

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