How to Avoid Catabolism

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How to Avoid Catabolism

A look at supplementation strategies to reduce muscle breakdown.

By Devlin Brown and Jack Lotter

Everyone who trains is interested in muscular development. While the sport of bodybuilding is a science and an art, the fundamental commonality among all gym-goers, from serious athletes to weekend warriors, is the pursuit of a muscular physique. Accordingly, a word that all bodybuilders understand is “anabolic”. Conversely, a word all bodybuilders recoil at when hearing is “catabolic”.


According to Wikipedia, anabolism is broadly described as a set of metabolic pathways that construct molecules from smaller units. This requires energy (which will be consumed). In other words – grow, or get bigger. We obviously want to remain in an anabolic state for as long as possible.


The opposite of anabolism is catabolism, which is a set of metabolic pathways that breaks down molecules into smaller units, which releases energy. It is clear, then, why a bodybuilder does not want to be in a catabolic state. It has the potential to destroy hard-earned muscle.

Getting big

It is well-cemented in general society that lifting weights builds muscular physiques. This can probably be traced to Charles Atlas and his famous “guy who gets sand kicked in his face” advertisement, and the mainstream popularisation of bodybuilding in the 1970s by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. However, the role of weights is over-emphasised. There is a misconception among men and women alike that simply pitching up and lifting weights makes you big and bulky. If only it were that easy!

Any battle-hardened, iron-game aficionado will know that bodybuilding does not start and end in the gym. Understanding this is what separates true success from moderate gains. Our cover athlete in the last edition Cobus van der Merwe couldn’t have said it more succinctly: “The most important thing that men (and women) must know to grow muscle and size is to understand that you aren’t growing in the gym – you grow in the kitchen and in your bed.”

While lifting is fun and gives you a pump, to grow you need to understand that it is everything that surrounds your training that makes you grow. Eating, sleeping and supplementation are integral to halting the catabolic effects of exercise, and converting that into an anabolic state that truly benefits the stimulus of hard resistance training. Let’s not be naïve – you cannot look like Cobus by eating and sleeping alone, you need to put in many years of smart, hard, painful work in at the gym. But you also need to have all the other pieces of the puzzle in place.

Avoiding catabolism

Sadly catabolism is unavoidable – in fact it is required, to some degree, for anabolism to start. However, it is the length of time we spend in a catabolic state that should be of primary concern when you are trying to grow.

Exercise, by its nature, is catabolic. It breaks down molecules (including muscle tissue) and releases energy. One vital aspect of a bodybuilder’s arsenal is to limit muscle catabolism, and one way to do this is through supplementation. A smart supplement protocol – what to take, when to take it and how to take it – will go a long way to shifting your body from a catabolic to an anabolic state.

Supplementation can broadly be defined into three main categories: pre-workout, intra-workout and post-workout supplementation.

Pre-workout supplementation

Pre-workout supplementation is important because we need to prepare our bodies and muscles before we train, making sure that all the necessary nutrients are properly digested and ready to be used by our hard-working muscles during our session. This gives us the strength and energy required to get through hypertrophy-inducing workouts. Timing is essential. By ingesting nutrients before we train we would ideally like to ensure that they’re going to be assimilated and utilised during the workout. Our focus here is to get our body into an ideal state for training and performance, decreased catabolism and, of course, get our body to lean toward creating as much of an anabolic environment as possible. For this reason many pre-workout supplements contain concentration-enhancing and focus-inducing substances for increased performance and intensity, as well as highly bioavailable macronutrients such as branched chain amino acids, which can help to limit muscle catabolism during training.

Intra-workout supplementation

Intra-workout supplementation is meant to fuel our muscles with ingredients that potentiate muscle growth. They also help to get rid of waste by-products, exercise metabolites, free radicals and toxins which perpetuate catabolism and, of course, get all the anabolic, hormonal and muscle-sparing nutrients into the muscles as quickly as possible, where they’re needed most. Intra-workout supplementation is also of paramount importance because it is used to give us quickly digestible and readily available energy to fuel our workouts. It also prevents our body from breaking down hard-earned muscle tissue for use as energy during exercise, and prevents the depletion of muscle glycogen stores too quickly, which can improve endurance and workout intensity. By fuelling our body with quickly assimilated and rapidly absorbed energy we are also priming the body to release the greatest and most anabolic hormone in the human body, insulin.

Post-workout supplementation

Post-workout supplementation is arguably the single-most important factor of all. After one has trained sufficiently and taxed the muscles adequately to stimulate hypertrophy, the muscles themselves accrue micro-trauma and damage on a cellular level. This damage is the greatest stimulus and precursor for muscular adaptation. If not adequately nourished this muscle will atrophy rather than hypertrophy (break down further rather than rebuild). We have primed our body for lifting and created an anabolic environment that is conducive to muscle growth with our pre-workout supplementation. We have fuelled our muscles, not only with energy to train but also with anabolic primers, helped curb catabolic factors from interfering with our hard training session and created an insulinotropic environment with our intra-workout supplementation. Now, here, in this final segment of our workout supplement trio, we focus on repairing the damaged muscle and halting the catabolic process, building thereon and capitalising on the investment we made in our session.

Some important pre-workout supplement ingredients and what they do


Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – leucine, isoleucine and valine – are among the nine essential amino acids needed by the body. “Essential” means that your body cannot make them and therefore they have to be obtained through the diet. BCAAs are not broken down in the liver, but rather bypass it and are transported directly into the muscles. Despite playing their role in protein synthesis they are also used for extra energy during intense weight-training sessions. They also help prevent your body from going into a catabolic state and therefore it is quite obvious why they should form part of your supplement protocol.

Leucine is unique in its ability to stimulate skeletal muscle protein synthesis. In fact, leucine has a several fold greater impact on protein synthesis than any other amino acid. Leucine activates a major complex in the anabolic (muscle-building) pathway called the mTOR gene. Increased leucine levels signal to mTOR that there is sufficient dietary protein to synthesise new skeletal muscle protein, which it codes for.


This is not classified as one of the essential amino acids, but it has been shown to help prevent muscle breakdown and benefit protein synthesis. Glutamine is the most common amino acid found in your muscles – up to 61% of skeletal muscle is made from glutamine. During intense weight training glutamine levels are severely depleted, negatively impacting strength, stamina and recovery. Research has shown that supplementing with L-glutamine can therefore prevent catabolism, improve performance and promote protein synthesis.


Taurine is an amino acid which is the second-most abundant amino acid in skeletal muscle after glutamine. However, some peer-reviewed research has suggested that taurine is the most abundant amino acid in type-2 muscle fibres. It has been shown to increase muscle mass, strength and power, and it is also thought by some to have an insulin-type effect on the body. Resistance exercise results in depleted levels of taurine, and studies have shown that this depletion is prominent in fast-twitch fibres. With strength and size training it therefore becomes even more clear why taurine supplementation is so popular.


Arginine is a naturally occurring amino acid that forms part of the necessary cascade for certain physiological functions, such as the secretion of hormones like growth hormone, to occur, as well as the removal of toxic substances. It converts into nitric oxide in the body, a chemical which is important for muscle growth. Nitric oxide dilates the blood vessels that carry blood to the muscles, which promotes the efficient delivery of glucose and amino acids.

Arginine Alpha Ketogluterate

This is the salt of the amino acid arginine, and is present in pre-workout nitric oxide supplements which are used to promote vasodilation for the reasons stated above.


L-citrulline converts into arginine in the body, which then converts into nitric oxide.The primary purpose of L-citrulline is to support the optimisation of blood flow to muscle tissue. This is vital not only for actually performing the workouts but also for metabolic reasons – the delivery of nutrients to the muscles.


Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a hot topic at the moment. They are unique in that you get them from fats, but unlike normal fats, MCTs are rapidly digested and assimilated and, being energy dense, offer a readily available fuel source for our muscles while we train. This, again, prevents muscle catabolism as your muscles are far more inclined to utilise MCTs for fuel than amino acids derived from muscle tissue. This is also great if one is on a carb restricted or ketogenic diet as the MCTs will charge the body adequately, giving a carb depleted bodybuilder or athlete the energy required to have a gruelling workout without the added carbs.


It’s tried and tested. This is a must-have substance to fuel workouts. In a nutshell, it is proven to facilitate fat metabolism and can increase strength and focus. Unless you are training later in the afternoon and you are caffeine sensitive and as such concerned about affecting your sleep patterns, this is a prerequisite in any lifter’s arsenal.


This is also a topic of hot contention at the moment. Beta alanine increases muscle carnosine levels substantially which, through a myriad of factors, helps increase the pH level within a muscle cell. This helps facilitate enzymatic processes and acts as a buffer for hydrogen ions during exercise. In layman’s terms, it delays fatigue allowing one to train substantially harder and push further, which potentiates a greater stimulus for muscle growth. Additionally, this substance may offer protection against exercise-induced lactic acid production, making it a workout endurance enhancer. It is worth noting that lactic acid is not all bad, especially regarding the effect it has on the release of growth hormone.


Creatine is an old timer on the block, yet it is often overlooked as an important supplement. Creatine has stood the test of time because it works, so use it. Creatine allows one to perform more repetitions by increasing the potential for usable ATP in muscle cells. It also increases protein synthesis, helps fill the muscle cell with fluid thus increasing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and allows both waste products and toxins to exit the muscle cells quicker. It also gets anabolic primers into the cell faster.

Some important intra-workout supplement ingredients and what they do


Vitargo refuels muscle glycogen 70% faster than any sugar, and it passes through the gastrointestinal tract 80% faster than sugar. If you’re not on a carb restricted diet this allows us to fuel our workouts and benefit from the highly insulin-sensitive environment created during exercise. This means our muscles are better able to absorb glycogen for fuel more efficiently during training. Vitargo also boosts insulin response, which makes the muscle cells more permeable and receptive to other anabolic factors like those mentioned above, and those listed below.


ALA or Alpha Lipoic Acid is not only a powerful antioxidant which will help curb the catabolic effects of free radical production incurred as a result of strenuous activity, but is also excellent at increasing one’s insulin sensitivity. The greater one’s disposition to being insulin intolerant the greater one’s risk is of storing fat and becoming diabetic as the body secretes larger and larger amounts of insulin. Greater insulin sensitivity means insulin is more effective at lower concentrations. By making ourselves more insulin sensitive we are making ourselves more receptive to the most anabolic hormone in the body. Again, this will make both Vitargo, and the host of another supplements we take around our workouts, more effective.

MCTs, BCAAs and glutamine are also important intra-workout supplements.

Some important post-workout supplement ingredients and what they do

Whey Isolate

Whey protein isolate is the cleanest, most readily absorbable and digestible protein source we have at our disposal. After we train we want to get the building blocks of our muscles (amino acids) into our body as quickly as possible, and there is no better way to do this than with whey protein isolate.

Micellar casein

Micellar casein is the slowest absorbing protein we have at our disposal as lifters. So why incorporate this into our protocol? Studies have proven that ingesting whey protein and casein protein after a workout resulted in a greater muscle gain over whey protein alone. Micellar casein is the primary protein content of cow’s milk. It is a very high biological value protein and studies suggest it forms clumps when it enters the stomach, therefore slowing its digestion. This results in a much slower and sustained release of amino acids into the body, which is beneficial for periods when food is not being consumed. It has been shown that once whey protein is no longer able to deliver BCAAs, about four hours after consumption according to some studies, micellar casein is still able to supply BCAAs.

BCAAs, glutamine and creatine are also important post-workout supplements.


There are various supplements you can use to avoid catabolism and stay anabolic for longer. That is the name of the game if your primary focus is gaining muscle. Putting together an informed supplement protocol will go some way to achieving this goal. Knowing what you are doing with each supplement is vital to putting together a smart protocol.


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