When we start out on a fitness journey, looking to grow muscle, we get hit with so many different terms. It’s easy to get lost in them – hypertrophy, anabolism, MPS – each term means something, but it’s not often clearly explained. Therefore, everyone can benefit from taking a step back and really understanding the basics of muscle structure and growth, whether you’re a seasoned bodybuilder or just starting out.
The secrets of muscle growth
Before diving into the nitty-gritty of the science, we need to understand muscle structure. Skeletal muscle is made from bundles of fibers. Each bundle is made up of a variety of proteins, certain ones, like myosin and actin, are responsible for muscles contracting.
Our muscle grows when we incorporate new amino acids into our muscles. That process is called muscle protein synthesis, MPS for short. These are used to make proteins like actin and myosin.
While that’s clear, how does that happen on a cellular level? It’s all about signals activating mTOR, the master controller of the musclebuilding process. Its name stands for mechanistic target of rapamycin. mTOR synthesizes information about whether the cells have enough energy and whether they’re working hard, like they do during exercise. These signals help it control the processes of synthesis and breakdown.
It’s as if mTOR is a builder – once it checks that there are enough building blocks and that there’s been a signal to start building, the magic happens.
Amino acids and exercise turn on mTOR. When we train, mTOR is switched off, so that our cells can use amino acids to get energy from the. However, when we recover, mTOR is switched on, and amino acids we get from a protein shake or a snack maximize its activity.
Alongside the on and off activity of mTOR, there is another process. Our body breaks down muscle, and that process is happening constantly. For us to grow muscle, we require the synthesis to happen more than the breakdown does. That’s where the term net protein balance comes in. Having a positive net protein balance means that we make new muscle faster than we break down what we have.
To ensure that our body is building muscle, we need to supply it with plenty amino acids and a training regime that maximizes the tension our muscles feel. This shifts the balance between muscle growth and breakdown, favoring overall growth. You may also hear this process be called hypertrophy.
What can I do to grow muscle?
While many will tell you that building muscle requires a minute-by-minute plan of exercises and supplements, the truth is that we build muscle through activating muscle building. You need to make your muscles send the signals that activate mTOR.
The first half is resistance exercise. Muscle contractions during exercise activate mTOR, making it recruit other helpers to carry out its functions. Increasing training is the way to go about this – higher volume exercise, meaning more sets, leads to a higher increase in muscle size.
The second half is protein intake. To build a house, you need bricks, just like for musclebuilding, you need amino acids from protein. Aim for around 1.4-2g of protein per kilo of your weight. Getting protein containing essential amino acids, the ones your body cannot make on its own, boosts musclebuilding. Certain amino acids, like leucine, can increase the rate of musclebuilding, as they turn off signals that prevent mTOR from working.
Combining the two will lead to great results.
What about supplements?
You might wonder, if musclebuilding is so simple, what about the countless supplements that promise you quick gains? Let’s go through how some of the more popular supplements work together with this mechanism.
The way we benefit from protein powders is very straightforward. Protein powder has amino acids, and many contain all the essential amino acids for a musclebuilding boost. For example, Maxler Ultra Whey protein powder contains a balanced amino acid profile, alongside a great taste.
BCAA supplements, containing branched-chain amino acids, work in a few ways. They supply the building blocks of muscle. Leucine activates mTOR. BCAA Powder contains 6 g of BCAAs in each serving, with 3 g of leucine.
Arginine is another amino acid that can be used as a specialized supplement, and it works in a similar way to leucine. It helps activate mTOR by turning off signals that prevent it from functioning. Arginine AAKG contains 5 g l-arginine with l-arginine alpha-ketoglutarate in each serving, helping you reach your goals. For more about arginine’s benefits, check out our arginine blog.
Creatine monohydrate is another common supplement. It helps with providing muscle cells with energy. Creatine monohydrate increases synthesis as it can interact with the mTOR pathway. Maxler Creatine 100% Monohydrate powder allows you to personalize your creatine dosage to increase your gains. If you’re looking to learn more, check out our creatine blog.
A lot of the popular supplements somehow interact with mTOR’s signaling to increase muscle growth. However, they still require an adequate protein intake and a strength training regimen. A combination of all three is guaranteed to help you reach your goals.