Ask any bodybuilder. They would probably tell you that if they could provide the perfect environment in which their bodies could grow, their bodybuilding troubles would disappear. Indeed, creating the appropriate environment (an anabolic environment) is the key to great gains.
From here, the obvious question is: just how is an anabolic environment created? With "anabolic" pertaining to the stimulation of muscle growth, it follows that one should focus on, and prioritize, all facets of muscle growth facilitation, to achieve an anabolic environment.
As a prerequisite to an anabolism, an anabolic drive, which is defined as a precise synergy of nutritional, hormonal, and metabolic activities that completely control growth, needs to be in place before complete growth can be achieved. However, an anabolic environment encompasses a more comprehensive set of targets.
Of course, nutrition, hormonal control and metabolism are key factors but it is also very important to ensure that mental attitude, training intensity and appropriate recovery strategies are considered when aiming to grow at a fast rate.
When we consider environment in the context of continual gains in muscle size, we need to look at both the inner and outer environments to ensure all factors conducive to muscle growth are taken into account.
The inner environment encompasses the anabolic processes that govern muscle growth, such as protein synthesis, glucose metabolism, insulin drive, and hormone balance. The outer environmental factors can include, various stressors, training stimulus and methods, pollution, and recovery, all of which enhance the crucial inner anabolic processes.
I feel it is important to consider all of these factors if building muscle is the aim. In reality though, the lives we live often preclude this possibility. If one were to devote their lives solely and exclusively to bodybuilding, and cost and time were not an option, the ultimate dream physique could conceivably be obtained.
I have not mentioned anabolic steroids (and other substances considered to be drugs) in this article, but have, instead, chosen to look at building the ultimate physique from a natural perspective, as this is probably more attainable for the average person.
Creating An Anabolic Environment
An anabolic environment can be created by adhering to the following guidelines:
1. Ensure An Adequate Nutritional Base:
This sub-heading could simply had said, "eat well". This, however, would be a very simplistic view and nutrition for bodybuilding purposes is anything but simplistic. To build muscle, all components of nutrition need to be addressed. Any deficiency could spell disaster in terms of results.
In fact, one of the best strategies one could adopt would be to include a full spectrum of vitamins, minerals and other natural anabolism facilitators such as ginseng, omega-3 fish oil, boron, and Echinacea. A good, mega-pack will help considerably. Universal are probably the best in this department. These nutritional factors will fill any nutritional gaps left by an inadequate diet.
If ones diet is adequate, adding, and experimenting with, various supplements, will only enhance ones nutritional status, and ultimately their muscle size. Of course, proteins, fats and carbohydrates should be emphasized and eaten in the correct ratio. For mass gains, 30% protein, 50% carbohydrates and 20% fats tends to be the desirable ratio.
Protein is of special significance to the bodybuilder with muscle tissue being composed of this substance, and its further growth reliant upon it. Of all the protein sources, whey isolate is ranked superior, and can be taken in supplemental form.
The golden rule as far as nutrition goes, states that one should never miss a meal. Missing a meal is tantamount to bodybuilding suicide when we consider the fact that progress effectively stops when the required amino acids and other nutrients are not delivered at the right times (usually every 2-3 hours) in the precise amounts.
Furthermore, training progress regresses when energy levels plunge, due to low muscle glycogen. The bottom line? Never miss a meal and eat the required ratio of quality foods.
The stimulation of insulin-like-growth-factor, which travels to the muscle cells and causes them to grow, can be controlled through attention to specific dietary aspects also. Insulin release is the key in this respect. Insulin also acts directly on muscle to drive amino acids into muscle cells for protein synthesis.
To ensure an adequate supply of insulin, it is important to eat six meals per day with each meal containing 2-4 grams of ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate. A positive nitrogen balance should also be maintained to optimize the insulin drive. Whey protein is ideal in this instance (25% of total daily protein is recommended).
2. Get Adequate Sleep:
To place the body into an anabolic state, adequate sleep is essential. During the sleeping process (of which there is four stages), protein metabolism occurs at a more proficient rate as does the general restoration of mind and body.
A lack of sleep can contribute to feelings of lethargy and a lack of motivation, both of which halt training progress and promote a catabolic state (the opposite to anabolic; muscle is broken down during this state). Think of an 8-10 hour sleep as money in the bank; a valuable resource to be used when it is needed - in the gym. Studies show that sleep deprivation negatively alters brain activity, slowing reaction time in certain cellular and chemical activities.
For example, during sleep, hormones help repair tissues, preparing them for a new day of movement; sleep deprivation can leave you prone to injury. A sleep debt also interrupts the brain's electrical patterns, producing feelings of tiredness upon waking.
3. Optimize Hormone Balance:
The release of growth hormone and sex-hormone testosterone is instrumental in creating an anabolic environment. Released from the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland, growth hormone is important to bodybuilders for the following reasons: muscle-mass gain, fat loss, improvements in sleep and stamina and increases in kidney function.
The best way to increase growth hormone naturally is to supplement with arginine, ornithine (over five grams a day of each) and gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA) (As little as two grams of GABA taken immediately before bed should promote the development of lean tissue while decreasing body fat, through growth hormone release). Vigorous, intense, weight-training has also been shown to increase growth hormone.
Testosterone is a hormone that has a unique effect on the male body. It is produced in the testes and in the adrenal glands and helps to build protein and governs normal sexual behavior.
It also affects many metabolic activities such as the production of blood cells in the bone marrow, bone formation, lipid metabolism, carbohydrate metabolism, liver function and prostate gland growth.
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It is held that a high testosterone level will significantly enhance muscle growth and is therefore of importance to bodybuilders. Testosterone release can be stimulated through relatively short, intense, training-sessions, coupled with attention to certain aspects of diet.
Dietary factors which enhance testosterone release include, higher-fat meals (both saturated and essential; use common sense here and do not consume fats to the point of becoming obese), and an adequate supply of zinc, boron, vitamin-C and branch-chain amino-acid status.
4. Minimize Exposure To Pollutants:
Pollutants can be many and varied. Many, however, are completely avoidable (cigarette smoking and some smoggy environments for example), while some are not (the air we breath is usually polluted to some extent, as is much of the water we drink). Any type of pollutant will have an adverse health effect.
The aim is to minimize exposure to pollutants if an anabolic state is to be achieved. Walking in an area where there is heavy traffic will restrict oxygen supply to the muscles due to the carbon-monoxide content of the exhaust fumes which saturate the immediate environment.
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Carbon monoxide has a higher affinity to haemoglobin than does oxygen, and this will deleteriously impact the oxygen carrying capacity of haemoglobin. This equates to a lack of oxygen, and nutrients, to the muscles which will ultimately restrict muscle growth.
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5. Minimize Negative Stress:
Over-reacting to stressful events is not in ones best interests if they wish to grow either mentally or physically. When we encounter stress, we can chose to cope with it in a number of ways. Yelling, screaming or becoming agitated will only serve to raise ones blood pressure and promote cortisol release. When cortisol (regarded as a stress hormone) is released, muscle is literally eaten away and body-fat is likely to accumulate.
Furthermore, becoming stressed in a negative way (there is a positive form of stress called eustress which is pleasant, curative and non-avoidable) can consume quite a large number of calories if this becomes a common way of dealing with stressful events. It is better to concentrate on what is important: ones health and well-being, rather than give into some comparatively minor inconvenience.
The most successful athletes tend to be the ones who can best manage their day to day inconveniences. Ways to deal with stress include, aerobic exercise or weight-training, deep breath taking, and concentrating on a way forward, rather than dwelling on ones current "stressful" situation.
6. Ensure Sufficient Recovery:
Sufficient recovery is arguably the most important component of any bodybuilding program. It is becoming quite a tired expression but we really do grow out of the gym, not in it. Intense weight training causes a tremendous amount of muscular damage. Indeed, if one were to train without adequate recovery they would probably regress to the point of injury.
A good rule for a natural trainer is to train one-day-on-one-day-off, with plenty of good quality rest in between. A variation on the Mike Mentzer Heavy Duty training system whereby one-set-per-exercise per body-part is the requirement, can be two sets per exercise per body-part.
Again, rest and correspondingly superior increases muscle growth are the idea behind this strategy. Also, try to maintain a positive outlook on life as this can be exceedingly restful. A negative mind-set can physically and mentally drain a person like nothing else. Make being positive part of your training strategy.
7. Training Stimulus & Methods:
Finally, what I consider to be the most important step toward anabolism - correct training. As mentioned, short intense weight-training sessions will enhance the release of both testosterone and growth hormone. These significantly increase muscle gaining potential.
Also, the micro-cellular damage incurred through intense training is crucial in terms of how the muscles will respond and subsequently grow. If weights are increased, and exercises are changed on a regular basis, the muscles will continue to grow to meet the needs of a changed environment. If ones routine stays the same, the body will simply fail to adapt.
Also, it is important to stick with the basic, multi-joint, exercises. Squats, bench presses and bent barbell rowing should be foundational exercises for any program. Triceps press-downs, barbell curls, shoulder-press and calf-raises can be used, but preferably following the aforementioned basics.
Stretch before, during, and after training to aid lactic acid removal (lactic acid is waste formed as a by-product of anaerobic metabolism), enhance recovery and prevent injury.
The are many techniques that can be used to increase intensity. These include rest-pause, super-slow, super-sets and drop-sets and should be structured into ones program to ensure the muscles are constantly subjected to a "new" stimulus.
In summery, the key to ensuring a high-quality training experience is quite simple: train as intensely as possible, stick to the proven basic exercises, incorporate intensity techniques and stretch often.
Priming the anabolic environment is absolutely vital when seeking to add size. Without sufficient attention to nutrition, sleep, hormone levels, stress management, pollutant minimization, adequate recovery, and training, minimal gains will be achieved at best.
It is true that ensuring all of these things are optimally prioritized is an extremely hard task. However, through educating ourselves on all aspects of the bodybuilding lifestyle, and making a concerted effort to improve, this task is not insurmountable.
- Colgan, M.(1993). Optimum Sports Nutrition. Advance Research Press: New York.