How Muscles Are Formed
Our muscles are made of protein, and protein is made from a combination of essential and non-essential amino acids.
Understanding Amino Acids
The building blocks of protein.
There are over 300 amino acids in the body, only 20 of which occur in proteins in the body. These 20 amino acids are broken into two groups the non-essential amino acids (NEAA) and the essential amino acids (EAA).
There are 11 non-essential amino acids (NEAA) which our bodies can produce on their own. In other words, they are not essential to our diet. There are some instances where our bodies are not able to produce enough to keep up with the demand, in which case they could be considered conditionally essential.
The other 9 are essential amino acids (EAA) we have to ingest in some way. We either get them from dietary protein or supplements.
Getting The Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) We Need To Thrive
Protein is the only macro nutrient we need to survive because getting the 9 EEAs is so critical to maintaining our vital organs and tissues, brain function, as well as our muscle.
The quantity and quality of dietary protein is your diet is important to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of EEAs. To learn more about quality protein click here.
Another option is to take a quality free form EAA supplement at the right ratio and concentration which has been proven to be 3x more effective that dietary whey protein in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Learn more about EAAs here.
A Delicate Balance
All proteins in the body are in a constant start of turnover, they are being broken down and rebuilt throughout the day.
Most vital tissues and organs maintain a balance of this turnover, meaning they regenerate fat enough to keep up with the rate of breakdown. They pull the essential amino acids they need for this process from the amino acid pool that circulates in the blood and is kept at a constant concentration.
Our muscles on the other hand go through periods of anabolism and catabolism, their job is to keep the concentration of EAAs constant in the blood in the absence of dietary protein.
Catabolic State – Muscle Breakdown
In this state muscle protein is being broken down faster than it can be regenerated in order to keep the amino acid pool concentrations stable and supply other vital organs and tissues with the amino acids needed for regeneration.
We typically enter into catabolic state:
- In between meals when you’re no longer absorbing amino acids
- When we’re sleeping
- Low protein diets
- Low energy or calorie restrictive diets
- In the extremes case hunger strikes / anorexia
We also enter into a catabolic state during different types of exercise.
Stress, illness and other physiological responses can increase the demand for amino acids as well. These situations cause muscle protein to break down at an even faster rate in order to keep up with the demand for amino acids. In severe cases breakdown may persist even when amino acids are ingested, this condition is called anabolic resistance.
Anabolic State – Building Muscle
In an anabolic state muscle mass is increasing, the rate of which muscle protein is being created exceeds the rate at which it’s being broken down. The amino acid pool is stable and the body has plenty of NEAAs and EAAs to keep up with demands all around.
Things that contribute to an anabolic state:
- Taking a free form EAA supplement that peaks concentration of EAAs in the amino acid pool, this directly relates to the magnitude of muscle protein synthesis that is stimulated. 1
- Sufficient quality dietary protein (food or supplements) that provides enough EAAs to peak blood concentrations.
Muscle Protein Synthesis, Stimuli & Blockers
You have a blueprint in your body for every protein in your body. These blueprints are translated, delivered and constructed by different molecules, each with a very specific role.
Each type of protein in the body is comprised of a unique combination of amino acids. Human skeletal muscle also has a unique amino acid profile as well.
Muscle protein synthesis can be stimulated, or initiated by various factors but every piece of the puzzle, or amino acid, has to present at that time for the final product to be completed. Other wise the translation process from blueprint to protein will not completed.
The amount of muscle synthesized is related to the concentration of the EAAs in the amino acid pool at the right ratio.
- EAAs are considered rate controlling to the process of muscle protein synthesis and thus are also the most potent stimuli as well when taken as a free form supplement. Learn more about EAAs here.
- Dietary protein intake
- Some BCAAs have been found to trigger the process but this does not guarantee that the process is completed. Learn about the BCAA myths here.
- Resistance Training
Rate-Controlling Factors, or Blockers
- Sufficient amino acids are not available during the translation process, being short of just one can stop the whole process
- Anabolic resistance where initiation factors aren’t as responsive to EAAs or dietary protein. Resistance can be triggered by stress, illness or aging. There are ways to jumpstart the system with the right ratio of EAAs.
3 Keys To Building Muscle
- Peak EAA concentrations in the blood to prevent breakdown and stimulate synthesis
- Stress less, stay healthy and active as you age to help prevent anabolic resistance
- Activate your muscles through resistance training a couple times a week.
Learn more about dietary proteins, the EAA solution and the BCAA myth.
1.Robert Wolfe, Essential Amino Acid Solutions for Everyone (unpublished, 2016), 43.