If you are really serious about building your muscle mass and improving your strength, don’t run to the gym just yet. Muscle stimulating exercises are not enough, because they are only one part of the whole process. Why, when and how do your muscles grow? It is crucial for you to grasp the foundations of muscle growth and all the factors that contribute to it. Proper training and nutrition, efficient muscle contraction, variety of training routines and the way anabolic hormones are released from endocrine glands into your bloodstream; all of these encourage muscle hypertrophy.
Three key body functions that are responsible for muscle development are: protein synthesis, contractions, and satellite cells.
Protein synthesis. Proteins are building blocks of cells. The process of protein synthesis is important for muscle growth (increasing cell size, not creating new ones), but also for all other organs whose nutrition the body prioritizes. Due to malnutrition, body breaks proteins from muscle tissue for energy. In such cases, one can never achieve proper muscle growth (hypertrophy). Secretion of certain anabolic hormones (insulin, testosterone and growth hormone) promotes protein synthesis in the body. With the right nutrition and proper resistance training (which improves muscle protein balance), muscle protein synthesis will exceed muscle protein breakdown.
Satellite cells are “asleep”, until the muscle fibers get damaged or traumatized by intense resistance training. These cells are on the outer surface of muscle fibers, and their function is to optimize the environment for maintenance, growth and repair of muscle tissue. Satellite cells are mobile, and when damage or trauma is caused, they multiply and give nuclei to muscle tissue, rehabilitating it. During the process, muscle cells repair and grow.
Contractions. Muscle contraction is triggered by electrical impulses or signals. Sacroplasmic reticulum is a cell component responsible for transmitting these impulses between brain and muscles, telling them to contract or relax. When they activate, muscles develop a sort of a “memory” over time, and this allows the skeletal muscle tissue to perform contractions and movements at faster and easier rates. Due to quicker and easier contractions, muscles are able to grow at a steady rate (after a period of strength enhancement).
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Testosterone is the true MVP when it comes to promoting protein synthesis, and it heavily affects strength and muscle size. Natural ways for increasing testosterone levels (if low) include eating foods rich in zinc, fat (in decent amounts), vitamins B and D, through resistance and strength trainings and avoiding alcohol.
Insulin can promote both muscle growth, and fat storage. Insulin provides the amino acids needed for protein synthesis, but releasing great amounts of insulin at the wrong times leads to storing fat. One should control the body’s insulin release by choosing the right time of day for nutrition intake (first thing in the morning and after workout), when insulin has anabolic effects.
IGH-1 is a hormone that stimulates cell growth and regeneration, muscle strength and fat loss. It has an important role in childhood body development. The main issue is its secretion, which happens when both insulin and GH hormone levels are high (when insulin levels are high, GH levels go down, and vice versa). The best time for inducing IGH-1 release is after workout, when GH levels are high, make sure you eat a protein-rich meal to cause insulin secretion. Growth hormone (GH) has a function similar to insulin’s. Higher levels of GH should be achieved for maintaining muscle mass by avoiding excess insulin release, lifting weights, cardio, and some good, quality sleep.
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Hypertrophy, in general, refers to a growth of a certain organ, due to its cells becoming larger. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy refers to the increase in muscle cell fluid (sarcoplasm -glycogen, water, ATP and creatine phosphate), making muscles bigger, but is less likely going to make you stronger. Myofibrillar hypertrophy, on the other hand, is aimed towards improving strength. It happens when you cause muscle-fiber trauma by lifting more than your body is used to (an overload stimulus). The body treats the trauma by increasing myofibrils (cells located where the muscle contracts). Muscle fibers get bigger by absorbing more contractile proteins, myosin and actin, which enlarge the myofibrils.
One can trigger muscle hypertrophy by inducing:
1) Metabolic stress. The sensation or the “burn” you feel when lifting weights. Metabolic stress contributes to the release of IGH-1, testosterone and growth hormone (which stimulate muscle cell growth), as well as cytokine proteins (whose role it is to activate satellite cells). The cells around the muscle swell, contributing to muscle growth, but not necessarily to the increase of muscle cell size.
2) Muscle damage. Localized muscle damage or muscle soreness can be experienced after a hard workout. It occurs when inflammatory molecules, cytokines and immune system cells are released, and satellite cells start doing their rehabilitating job. This provides an anabolic environment for muscle cell growth and strengthens the muscles so they can withstand future damage.
3) Muscle tension. Muscle growth is achieved when you provide stress greater than your muscles can handle. Creating muscle tension affects the connection between motor units and muscle cells. Lifting heavy weights is the best way of creating this kind of muscle growth environment.
Learn to incorporate and control all the factors that affect muscle growth and strength. Induce hormone release with the right nutrients and exercise, create additional metabolic stress and make your body adapt to it. Change your training routine continually in order to “damage” different muscle fibers. Also, bear in mind that muscles don’t grow during the workout. When you fuel and rest your muscles, that is when they regenerate and grow.
Mathews McGarry is passionate about many forms of strength training, and spent years lifting, dragging and flipping all manner of heavy objects. After graduating from the Faculty of Health Sciences, he started writing about his experiences, and sharing tips for better life at highstylife.com and other health blogs. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo credits: Jay Fuertez, Hawke Anderson