Anabolic & Catabolic States & Why You Should Care
One of the most useful definitions of the word “health” is as follows:
health (n.) — an appropriate balance between the anabolic and catabolic states of the body.
This definition implies that it is not merely the absence of disease that confers health on someone.
But what do we mean by “anabolic state” and “catabolic state?”
And are there specific things we can do to adjust anabolic activity and catabolic processes in the body?
I’m glad you asked.
What Is An Anabolic State?
The word “anabolic” comes from the Greek anabole “that which is thrown up; a mound,” from anaballein “to throw or toss up,” from ana “up, upward,” and ballein “to throw” (from PIE root *gwele- “to throw, reach”).
In practice, when we talk about the body’s anabolic stage or anabolic process, this covers anything pertaining to the process of building up.
The body is constantly engaging in the anabolic process. Examples of this include building new bone tissue, regenerating organs, constructing new skin out of collagen and elastin, growing the hair and nails, and healing wounds.
For our purposes—and those of the fitness industry—the term “anabolic” refers to the building and remodeling of muscle tissue.
The primary hormones associated with the anabolic state are testosterone, insulin, and growth hormone.
What Is A Catabolic State?
The word “catabolic” comes from the Greek katabole “a throwing down,” from kataballein “to throw down,” from kata “down,” and ballein “to throw” (from PIE root gwele- “to throw, reach”).
In practice, when we talk about the body’s catabolic stage or catabolic process, this covers anything pertaining to the process of tearing down.
Just like anabolism, the body is constantly engaging in catabolism. Examples include dead cells being disassembled, layers of skin being shed, glycogen being reduced to glucose for energy usage, and fatty acids being released from fat cells for usage.
The primary hormones associated with a catabolic state are adrenaline, cortisol, glucagon, and various interleukins and cytokines.
In the fitness industry, the catabolic state is generally thought of as a degradation of muscle tissue, and is mostly considered to be undesirable.
But like so many other things in the fitness industry, there’s more to the story.
If you had to assign a “catabolic” and “anabolic” label to stages one and two, which one goes where?
Well, think about it. In step one, there are no anabolic effects going on. Muscle is being torn under mechanical loading, the fuel systems in the body are being depleted, and there is a rapid reduction in the strength capacity of the target muscles.
Ideally, this maximizes the production of adrenaline, cortisol (a stress hormone), glucagon, and inflammatory cytokines.
Sounds pretty catabolic to me.
Now look at step two. The muscle fibers rebuild and remodel themselves, eventually overcompensating by growing larger than they were before the events in step one. At the same time, the muscle cells adapt by increasing their fuel capacity, filling with water and glycogen. Together these two steps are known as myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy respectively.
Ideally, this optimizes the production of testosterone, insulin, and growth hormone.
Sounds pretty anabolic to me.
Nothing anabolic happens during the workout. It’s all catabolic.
Nothing catabolic happens during recovery. It’s all anabolic.
If these are out of balance, you get undesirable results. Too much catabolic exercise and too little anabolic recovery and your body will not be able to adapt. Too little catabolic exercise and too much anabolic recovery and your body will not be stimulated to change.
The Blind [Mis]Leading The Blind
For decades we’ve all seen fitness magazine and website marketing talking about “Anabolic Bodybuilding Routines” and “Anabolic Training Guides” and “The Most Anabolic Workout Ever.”
But we now know that this is backwards. There is nothing anabolic about a workout. They should actually be marketing the most “Catabolic Bodybuilding Routines” and “Catabolic Training Guides” and “The Most Catabolic Workout Ever.”
In the minds of the public, “Catabolic” = “Bad.”
But in reality, “Catabolic” = “A Necessary Ingredient In The Muscle Growth Process.”
You can’t have one without the other.
The Most “Anabolic Workout” You Can Do
The best way to grow and develop your muscles is to make step one as catabolic as possible, then make step two as anabolic as possible.
To make step one as catabolic as possible, you will need to maximize the three elements of the exercise stimulus: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress. And as you remember from this blog, there is no better tool for this job than ARX’s Adaptive Resistance™.
So there is no such thing as an “anabolic exercise” or an “anabolic workout.” In reality, the most “anabolic workouts” you can do are actually the most catabolic workouts you can perform!
Then, step two is where the anabolic growth occurs. This growth and development will depend on your sleep habits, your nutrition, and your stress levels.
We’re not in the business of dictating lifestyle and diet, but we have noticed some commonalities between all the various types of habits that help your body become more anabolic. The basics are:
- Get more sleep—recommendations vary, but most of you should be getting more
- Eat more protein—recommendations vary, but most of you should be getting more
- Drink more water—recommendations vary, but most of you should be getting more
- Calm your nervous system—purposely switch over from “fight-or-flight” to “rest and digest” several times daily in the form of meditation, a nap, or a walk outside.
Additional Read: The Best Tool For Resistance Exercise
The Pendulum Always Swings Back
Do you want to move forward towards your physical and health goals? Do you want to avoid the frustration of stalled progress or a lack of clarity about how to structure your program?
Then let this model be your guide. An alternating balance between catabolic training and anabolic recovery will get you where you want to go.
Night, Day, Night, Day.
Left Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot.
Tear the body down, let the body rebuild, tear the body down, let the body rebuild.
Catabolic, Anabolic, Catabolic, Anabolic.
And now you understand these physiological states, and why you should care.
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