Catabolic vs Anabolic State: the Difference and How it Affects Muscle Growth

While the terms “anabolic state” and “catabolic” are common in the fitness world, they’re often misused. Do you know what these terms truly mean? And do you know in which state your body is in?

If not, this article provides the answer. We’ll take a close look at both anabolism and catabolism, and we’ll discuss how they influence your figure and muscle growth.

Let’s dive right in.

What is Anabolism and Catabolism?

Anabolism and catabolism are two types of biochemical reactions that make up metabolism.

  • Anabolism refers to constructive processes. It causes the synthesis of complex molecules from simpler ones. An example is what happens when your body builds muscle − it turns amino acids and other compounds into muscle tissue.
  • Catabolism refers to the breakdown of large, complex molecules in the body into smaller, simple ones. An example is when your body breaks down body fat to burn it as energy.

Anabolism and catabolism are essential for every cell of your body. That’s because these processes ensure that your cells get energy and remove waste products.

But if you’re reading this article, it’s most likely because you want to build muscle. That’s why we’ll focus throughout the rest of the content on how anabolism and catabolism influence muscle growth.

How Anabolism and Catabolism Influence Muscle Growth

While the mechanisms of muscle growth are complicated, it eventually comes down to one thing: protein turnover rate.(1) That works as follows:

  • If protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown, you gain muscle.
  • If protein breakdown exceeds protein synthesis, you lose muscle.

If you don’t fully understand what that means, then think of a muscle as a wall, and each brick as a protein. If you wanted to make that wall bigger and stronger, you would add extra bricks to it, correct?

Exactly. And the same thing applies to your muscles. To grow and strengthen them, your body must add bricks (proteins) to your muscles. In other words, anabolism has to take place.

The things with muscles, however, is that while you add bricks to them, bricks also get broken down. (Catabolism). That happens at all times within your muscles to generate energy and remove bad bricks (dysfunctional muscle fibers).

Now, the reason I mention this is that muscle growth is all about the balance between how many bricks your body adds and how many it breaks down.

If your body removes more bricks than it adds, the wall shrinks (muscle loss). But if your body adds more bricks than it removes, the wall expands (muscle growth).

In other words, a muscle must be in a predominantly anabolic state in order to grow. That way the body adds more bricks than it removes. How you can ensure such a state is what we’ll cover in the next sections.

The Five Main Factors that Influence Anabolic State

Your body is a complex system, and countless factors influence whether your body is in a predominantly anabolic state or not. What follows are five main factors, which – if you enhance them – will help you build more muscle and gain more strength.

NOTE: this section is a bit technical. If you don’t understand a particular piece, don’t worry − you can build muscle without this data, and you’ll learn how at the end of this article.

Also, please note that these influencers don’t work in isolation. Instead, they’re connected. If one of these influencers gets stimulated or increases, others usually rise or activate as well.

1. Hormones

There are about 50 hormones in your body, many of which influence anabolism, whether directly or indirectly. Here are the four main ones that enhance muscle growth:

  • Testosterone: This cholesterol-derived hormone is powerful at boosting muscle. That’s because it increases protein synthesis, decreases protein breakdown, and increases the release of other anabolic hormones, like growth hormone and IGF-1.(2)(3)(4)
  • Insulin: This hormone, which primarily functions to regulate blood sugar, also aids muscle growth. How insulin enhances hypertrophy is by reducing muscle protein breakdown, something we call “anti-catabolism.”(5)(6)
  • Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1): This is a hormone that has both anabolic and anti-catabolic effects on your muscles. That means it both reduces muscle breakdown and stimulates muscle build-up.(7)
  • Growth hormone. This hormone, which is also known as GH, doesn’t directly benefit muscle growth. Still, it helps you grow muscle, and that’s because it potentiates the effects of IGF-1.(8)

These four hormones benefit muscle growth. That’s why higher levels of these hormones help you pack on more mass.

Some hormones, however, don’t benefit but instead hurt muscle growth. An example is cortisol, which is also known as the “stress hormone.”

2. Signaling pathways

A signaling pathway refers to a group of molecules in a cell that works together to control cellular functions like cell division and cell death.

While research has made considerable strides to find out which of such pathways influence muscle growth, it still remains a relatively unexplored territory.

The following pathways, however, are believed to influence anabolism and muscle growth:

  • The PI3K/Akt pathway
  • The phosphatidic acid pathway
  • The AMPK pathway
  • MAPK pathways
  • Calcium-dependent pathways

3. Mechanical tension

Mechanical tension is a type of force that tries to stretch a material.

In the case of weight training, this means you load your body with resistance. Your muscles then contract with the goal to overcome that stretching force.

In other words, mechanical tension refers to the resistance you put on your muscles when you lift weights. And the more weight you use, the higher the mechanical tension is.

When it comes to exercising, research shows that mechanical tension is the primary driver of muscle growth. That’s why you should lift relatively heavy weights if you want to build muscle.(9)(10)

4. Muscle damage

The mechanical tension produced during weight training causes microscopic damage to muscle fibers. This is especially the case when you train with high levels of tension; for example, if you bench-press a lot of weight.

Such muscle damage is actually good. That’s because your body will not only repair the affected muscle fibers but will also add new fibers to your muscles to prepare for a similar stressor in the future. In other words, it grows your muscles.

SIDE NOTE: Although most experts believe it to be true, it’s not entirely clear whether muscle damage indeed stimulates growth.

Some scientists claim muscle damage is just a side effect of weight training and does not benefit hypertrophy.

That said, it’s likely that muscle damage does drive muscle growth, which is why it deserves a spot in this list.

5. Metabolic stress

The burning sensation you feel while you do an exercise for a relatively high number of reps − let’s say fifteen − is what we call metabolic stress.

Such metabolic stress occurs because higher-rep weight training causes the build-up of metabolites in your muscles, the main ones being lactate, inorganic phosphate, and H+.(11)(12)

That metabolic stress, in turn, stimulates muscle growth in various ways. For instance, it increases muscle fiber recruitment, stimulates anabolic hormone levels, causes cellular swelling, and alters myokine production.

How to Increase Muscle Anabolism Naturally − The Four Fundamentals

By now, you know the basics of what influences anabolism and catabolism. As a result, you may wonder how you can increase anabolism, so that you can build more muscle and shape your dream figure.

If so, below you’ll find four ways in which you can do just that. While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it’ll show you the fundamentals and steer you in the right direction.

1. Lift Weights

It’s no surprise that weight lifting helps you build muscle. But why is that? The reason is that it causes three things within your body and muscles: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.(13)

As a result, protein synthesis increases while protein breakdown reduces, which means your body gets into a more anabolic, muscle-building state.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss how you should train to optimize muscle growth, this article answers that question. It covers seventeen evidence-based tips you can instantly use to maximize your gains.

2. Be in a Calorie Surplus

If you’re in a calorie surplus, which means you consume more calories than you burn, you can build more muscle.

That’s because such an act causes physiological changes that boost hypertrophy. Examples are higher testosterone and IGF-1 levels, and reduced cortisol.(14)(15)(16)

It’s important to note, however, that consuming more calories doesn’t necessarily mean more muscle gains.

One 12-week study, for example, found similar muscle gains between resistance-trained athletes who maintained a small calorie surplus and those who ate an extra 600 calories on top of that.(17)

However, the subjects of the higher-calorie group gained an average of five times more fat, which indicates that you should avoid excessive calorie intake, even though you’re ‘bulking.’

Small calorie surplus (NCG) VS eating an average of 600 calories
Comparative changes in body weight (BW), fat mass (FM), and lean body mass (LBM) between those consuming a small calorie surplus (NCG) and those eating an average of 600 extra calories (ALG).

 Source: Eur J Sport Sci. 2013;13(3):295-303.

Here’s an easy, step-by-step formula you can use to calculate how many calories you should take in each day to optimize muscle growth while minimizing fat gain.

3. Consume Enough Protein

Protein forms the foundation of muscles. In fact, to grow a muscle, it’s all about building up more protein (amino acids) within that tissue than get broken down.

Now, in order to create such a positive ‘protein turnover rate,’ it’s essential that you consume enough protein. That’ll help you pack on more muscle mass.(18)

But how much protein should you consume?

The answer is at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So, if you’re 80 kilos (176 pounds), that means at least 128 grams of protein per day.

If you do that, you’ll reap all the muscle-building benefits of protein, as concluded by a 2018 meta-analysis published in British Journal of Sports Medicine.(19)

how much protein should you consume?
Source: Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384

4. Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is crucial to stimulate an anabolic state and shape an eye-catching figure. One weight-loss study, for example, looked at how sleep deprivation influences body composition during a calorie deficit.(20)

During the study, overweight and obese adults were randomly divided into two groups.

One group could sleep as much as they wanted each night; the other group had to shorten their sleep schedule by forty minutes per day from Monday to Friday.

The results?

Even though both groups lost the same amount of weight, those who were sleep deprived lost four times more lean body mass (20% vs 80%). And that was even though they could catch up on sleep during the weekend!

In other words, if you want to optimize muscle mass − whether that’s to gain muscle while you bulk or maintain it during a cut − it’s essential to get enough sleep.

For most people, that means getting between seven and nine hours per night, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. But you may need more or fewer hours based on factors like your genetics and the quality of your sleep.

The Bottom Line on Anabolism vs. Catabolism for Muscle Growth

Anabolic state refers to building up while catabolic refers to breaking down. Both processes always take place within your muscles, and in case the rate of anabolism is higher than the rate of catabolism, you build muscle.

To achieve such positive turnover rate, there’s a lot you can do. The four main ones are lifting weights, maintaining a calorie surplus, consuming enough protein, and optimizing sleep.

Do you have a question about anabolism or catabolism? Or do you have anything to share about both processes? Let us know in the comment section below.

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