Building muscle is the goal of many people who go to the gym. The growth in muscles is not only related to the external appearance, but is also related to numerous health factors. For example, more muscle contributes to better metabolism of nutrients, increases daily energy expenditure and supports and protects joints.
But how does muscle building actually work? And how can we influence the process?
Everything is related to one word
And this is: protein balance. More precisely: muscle protein balance. This means the balance between the build-up and breakdown of muscle proteins (our muscles largely consist of proteins). We go through both processes every day, i.e. there are always phases in which proteins are built up or broken down in our body. Our muscles are also affected. In an average person, around 1.2% of muscle protein is converted (i.e. built up or broken down) per day.
This interplay of synthesis and degradation must be net positive if our goal is to build muscle. The bottom line is that the build-up must exceed the breakdown. Since building new muscle proteins takes a long time, we have to spend as much time as possible (many weeks, months and even years) in as many "positive phases" as possible.
How can we influence the balance in our favor?
We have two main options for this:
During training, our muscles are exposed to heavy loads. As a result, our muscle protein balance is in an acutely negative state. However, the tide turns after completion of the workout: for up to almost 48 hours after the end of the training, muscle protein synthesis increases by a factor of two to five.
So if we train regularly and make sure we recover from training, we're increasing muscle protein synthesis through training. Over a long period of time, this allows us to spend more time in a constructive rather than a destructive state. The result: more muscles.
2. Dietary Protein
Proteins, which are made up of many amino acids, are the basic building block that is needed to support the development of muscle proteins. The so-called essential amino acids are particularly relevant here, which we, as the name suggests, have to ingest through food. Eating protein from our diet also increases muscle protein synthesis. However, this reaches its maximum much earlier than through training: the maximum is reached about 2 hours after protein intake, after which muscle protein synthesis drops rapidly to the initial level.
You can read here how much protein you should be consuming in order to provide the body with ideal nutrients for muscle building.
So what do we take away from all of this?
This article is intended to show you (in a simplified manner) what the goal is when building muscle. And that is to create a positive muscle protein balance as often as possible over a long period of time. We can achieve this by doing hard strength training and at the same time providing the body with sufficient protein.
Schoenfeld, B. (2010): The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 10
Schoenfeld, B. (2016): Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.