I have now been training for almost two years but unfortunately I have reached a plateau. I have become desperate to put on some mass but nothing really seems to work. As a result I tried to read everything I can about various mass boosting diets and the Anabolic Diet seems to be the best but in your article about the CKD you claimed that this diet wasn’t optimal in order = to gain muscle mass. Which diet will you then prefer for mass gain?
Well, you didn’t give me a ton of information about your training or diet so it’s hard for me to say what caused you to plateau. So I’ll try and make some general comments. Yeah, right, this is one of those posts that I should turn into an article here on MESO-Rx, since I got a bit carried away with the info dump.
In the body, we are always dealing with net processes. Writers tend to simplify things down (mainly to make it easier to read, and because the details aren’t the critical for the average reader) to the end result. That is to say, any end result you get is the net effect of two competing processes, which still doesn’t make any sense. Put in a more comprehensible way.
net fat loss = fat burned – fat stored
net muscle gained = protein synthesized – protein broken down
As far as end result, thinking in these terms isn’t so critical, because most of us are concerned with the net result. that is, if I want to lose fat, I really don’t care whether I increased the amount of fat I burned or decreased the amount of fat I stored, all I care about it that I can see my abs (and I’m still waiting for this one). If I want to gain muscle, I don’t really care if I increased protein synthesis or decreased protein breakdown, the end result is that I have more muscle (I’m still waiting for this one too).
But from a training, diet, supplement strategy, it can be important to differentiate between the individual processes. The easiest example I can think of is the ephedrine/caffeine/aspirin stack (ECA). The ECA stack’s main effect is to increase fat breakdown. but a lesser known effect is that it also increases fat storage to a small degree. The reason that fat is lost is that the increase in fat breakdown is larger than the increase in fat storage. So that the net effect is fat loss. By the same token, yohimbe inhibits fat storage. Which is why combining ECA (increases fat breakdown and increases fat storage) with yohimbe (decreases fat storage) has a greater effect than either taken by itself. Note that this isn’t a recommendation as the combo of ECA and Y can be dangerous for many people.
Muscle gain is basically the same way. To get a net increase in muscle mass, we can approach it from two basic directions. We can either try to increase protein synthesis (which I’ll call anabolism from here on out) OR we can try to decrease protein breakdown (which I’ll call catabolism from here on out). Up until this decade, the big supplement push was in terms of increasing anabolism (it was also thought that anabolic steroids, as their name would suggest, primarily acted by promoting protein synthesis, now it is thought that a lot of the effects of AS occur by decreasing catabolism). Now one of the big supplement buzz words is ‘anti-catabolics’, such as leucine, glutamine, KIC, HMB, Phosphatidyl Serine, etc., etc.
So let’s look a little bit more at anabolism and catabolism in general. Since no-one has even a marginal clue as to all of the factors which affect anabolism and catabolism, I’ll focus on the two we do know a lot about: hormones and nutrients and some of their interactions.
The primary anabolic hormones are
Testosterone: this is one of the main hormones involved in muscle growth. Men have more than women which is part of why men can put on more muscle, on average. It can be lowered by too much training and too little dietary fat. The big push in supplements right now are the various testosterone precursors like androstene &c, and for a very good reason: raising testosterone tends to increase muscle mass.
Insulin: another one of the main anabolic hormones, this is almost entirely determined by carb intake. The decrease in insulin levels is the main reason that I don’t think the Anabolic diet (or any ketogenic diet) is ideal for mass gains. Low carbs means low insulin.
Thyroid: thyroid hormones have a dual role in terms of growth. Too much thyroid causes muscle loss and too little thyroid helps prevent muscle loss. So for optimal protein synthesis, we don’t want thyroid to be too high (rare unless your hyperthyroid or using thyroid medications) or too low (low carb diet). Thyroid drops on a low carb diet which is another reason that I don’t think lowcarb diets are ideal for mass gains. Thyroid tends to go up with a higher carb intake, and a higher calorie intake, and may be influenced by protein intake.
Growth hormone: I personally think GH is highly overrated in that most of it’s effects are thought to be mediated through IGF-1. Sure a ketogenic diet will raise GH but so will total starvation. The problem being that IGF-1 levels drop in both cases. This is also why I think the rash of GH supplements flooding the market are total crap but that’s a different discussion for a different day.
IGF-1: Insulin like growth factor 1, this is determine both by protein intake AND by total caloric/carb intake. Too little protein and IGF-1 drops like a rock, same thing with too few carbs. This is the final reason I don’t think the Anabolic diet is ideal for mass gains since a lowcarb diet will lower IGF-1 levels. however a recent review paper suggested that blood levels of IGF-1 don’t play a big role in growth anyhow so the drop on a ketogenic diet may not be a big issue. This may also explain why injectable IGF-1 didn’t really pan out as an anabolic.
The catabolic hormones are
Glucagon: which primarily affects the liver, shifting it from anabolic to catabolic. Glucagon will only be high when carbs are very low. So it will go up on a ketogenic diet and be low on a high carb diet.
Cortisol: cortisol is thought to be one of the main catabolic hormones, stimulating the breakdown of muscle protein directly. Cortisol is increased by any kind of exercise but especially by overtraining. Additionally, cortisol will go up when insulin/blood glucose decreases. So keeping blood glucose/insulin high (meaning eat carbs) will help keep cortisol down.
So the ideal anabolic situation (in terms of hormones) would have fairly high levels of testosterone, insulin, GH and IGF-1 and low levels of glucagon, cortisol and the catecholamines. This means that, in general terms, the ideal diet for mass gains would provide:
1. Sufficient calories: hard to say how many for mass gains but 18 cal/lb. is a good place to start, increasing as necessary. I find that a lot of lifters simply don’t eat enough to provide mass gains.
2. Sufficient protein: assuming adequate calories and a high quality source, a protein intake of 1 gram/lb. of bodyweight should be sufficient
3. Sufficient carbs: hard to say exactly how much but 50-60% of total calories is probably a good place to start. I also find that a lot of lifters eat too much protein and too few carbs. What is ultimately happening is that the protein is just being used for energy anyhow (by being converted to glucose). Carbs are a cheaper way to get energy. A guy I’m training right now has determined that his best growth occurs with ~4000 cal/day and he weighs right at 200 lbs. Anything less and growth is very slow, anything more and he just gets fat.
4. Sufficient dietary fat: 20-30% seems optimal for maximizing testosterone levels.
Obviously you should be eating every 3 hours or so to keep protein flowing to your muscles as constantly as possible. Every meal should be a mix of carbs, protein and fat IMO.
Some other strategies to consider:
1. Drink carbs during your workout. A recent abstract (posted on this site by Bryan Haycock) found that consuming a carb drink during training helped keep insulin up and cortisol down, causing the supplement group to gain more muscle over the length of the study. A 5-7% carb drink (like Gatorade or Twinlab Hydra Fuel or just diluted orange juice so that you get about 35 grams of carbs over an hour period) during training would be ideal.
2. Take in carbs/protein immediately after training. Typically 1-1.5 grams/kg of carbs and about 1/3rd as much protein right after training is the recommended amount. This will help keep cortisol down and get carbs/protein to the muscles when they need it.
3. I think a good strategy for mass gains (that has gone largely ignored) is to consume a protein/carb/fat/fiber meal right before going to bed. The 8 hours when you’re sleeping represent a time period when the body shifts from anabolic to catabolic because blood glucose and insulin go down and cortisol goes up. By providing nutrients while you sleep, you should be able to maintain an overall anabolic mode and get more growth. If you’re truly motivated, you could get up in the middle of the night (about 4 hours into sleep) and have another small carb/protein drink. I’m still looking into this phenomenon (called diurnal cycling of protein) to see how much of an impact it might have.
4. Glutamine: muscular glutamine levels correlate highly with protein synthesis and training is known to cause depletion of glutamine. The problem (addressed in other Q&A’s) is getting the glutamine into the muscles. I think the best strategy is to use small doses (like 2 grams) several times a day to avoid causing increased liver uptake and to get as much into the muscle as possible. If nothing else, 2 grams of glutamine should probably go into your post-workout shake.
Finally you should look at your training. I find that a lot of people’s first instinct when they plateau is to increase training. In general, the opposite is what’s needed. Taking a week at a lowered volume/frequency of training can get gains going again (in fact, taking a week off when you are slightly overtrained tends to cause a rebound of anabolic hormones). Also, to keep from lowering testosterone and raising cortisol, a good rule of thumb is no more than 2 days of training in a row without a day off. Finally, workouts lasting longer than 90′ tend to raise cortisol more so than shorter workouts (and may lower testosterone) because liver glycogen becomes depleted and the body goes catabolic. So keep your workouts short and sweet and try applying some of the strategies I’ve described here and see what happens.