banner by Dheeraj K. Jalluri

Power in Protein

by McKenzie Sicke

With its reputation for rigorous academics, it comes as no surprise to see plenty of students at Pitt hitting the books year-round. Still, based on the volume of people crowded inside the Peterson Events Center, it is evident that students at this 12th Healthiest Campus take time from exercising their minds to hit the gyms too. Throughout the Pete’s Baierl Recreation Center, the free weights area is often flooded with people sporting “Powerlifting USA” shirts and squatting more than the weight of a few textbooks. With a student body largely focused on studying healthcare and wellness, many have pondered how exactly all the heavy metal and protein shakes actually lead to new muscle growth. The answer essentially boils down to nothing more than neurons, proteins and cells.

How It’s Done

It is a common misconception that workouts alone build muscles. In reality, the key to increasing strength lies in what happens when you rest. Following a workout, your body repairs damaged muscles by fusing them together into new protein strands called myofibrils. This fusion increases the number and thickness of these muscle fibers, thus resulting in muscle growth. Yet, growth only occurs when the rate of protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown. For this reason, attention to diet and nutrients is as equally important as exercise in training.

Some of the most important tools in muscle repair are satellite cells, undifferentiated cells that act as blank slates and are capable of transforming into any type of skeletal muscle cell. Satellite cells divide into two, lending one of their offspring pair to help develop more muscle cytoplasm, thus directly contributing to muscle growth. Meanwhile, the other cell in the pair is saved to replicate again when more muscle repair is required. Still, the issue remains that these muscle-boosting cells must be activated. There are three main ways to achieve this, and each provides different results.

Grasping the Gains

Utilizing muscle tension, or exerting more stress on your body than it is used to handling, is one method. Muscle tension increases as the weights you are lifting increases. This approach mostly affects the connection between motor neurons and skeletal muscles, specifically the brain’s messages to your muscles in order to instruct them how to move. Muscle tension is what contributes to the strong, but less-visible muscles of powerlifters, as well as the “fast gains” of new lifters beginning to maximize this connection. Oftentimes, powerlifters focus their workouts on high weight, low repetitions and long rests. The reason for this routine is that it maximizes your usage of muscle tension by incorporating weights at almost 90 percent of your one-rep max, or the most weight you can lift during one repetition, for only a couple of repetitions. The long rest time allows for full recovery between sets so that you are fresh to lift the heavy weight again. This contributes to the greatest increases in strength by increasing muscle density.

Local muscle damage also contributes to muscle growth, as it triggers your inflammatory response and activates pivotal satellite cells. On the downside, the localized muscle tears are often the reason you are sore after a workout. Nevertheless, the more you exercise, the better your body becomes at handling this stress, eventually adjusting its mechanisms to minimize the sensations of soreness.

“Feeling the burn” during a workout is also an anatomical phenomenon known as metabolic stress. While exercising, arteries pump blood into your muscles, and constant repetitions of an exercise without rest maintain contractions that prevent blood from escaping through the veins. This influx of blood causes swelling around the targeted muscle, therefore increasing levels of glycogen, which increase muscle size without necessarily adding as much strength. Essentially, glycogen swells your muscles with empty mass, resulting in visible enlargement called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Bodybuilding and workout plans designed to build a muscular physique use hypertrophy training by incorporating higher numbers of repetitions and continuous sets to maximize metabolic stress. Although the weight is lower, the muscle fibers will still grow along the connective tissue, thereby increasing muscle size, but not necessarily strength and muscle density.

Some people may confuse hypertrophy with actual muscle growth, but Justin Re, a high school strength and conditioning coach in Webster, NY, explains the misconception. “Most people think of muscle gain as the actual muscle fibers getting bigger, which is called hypertrophy. To get bigger and stronger muscles, a proven method is called ‘time under tension.’ You can call it going slower,” Re suggests. “Let's take the bench press for example. One person lowers the weight four to five seconds and presses at approximately one to two seconds. The other lowers and presses quicker. Both do the same sets and repetitions. Research has shown that the person using more time under tension will gain more muscle density.”

Bringing a Boost

Another popular practice in the weight-lifting community is the use of supplements. At any given gym, there is bound to be at least one person carrying around a protein shake after their workout. Two of the most popular proteins are whey and casein, and they have very different effects on the body.

Whey is a thin, liquid by-product of cheese production that in actuality contains only 1 percent protein. Therefore, the whey powder that is used in protein shakes is a powdered and concentrated form of raw whey. This supplement is considered to be a fast-acting protein because it metabolizes relatively quickly in the body. Within 20 to 40 minutes after consumption, the amino acids that build protein reach peak level in your blood, and subsequently are either used in protein synthesis to help build muscle or are oxidized into urea and glucose. As mentioned earlier, the rate of protein synthesis must outweigh the rate of protein breakdown to create muscle gain, so by that virtue increasing the amount of accessible amino acids can help ensure muscle growth.

On the other hand, casein peaks the blood’s amino acid levels about three to four hours after consumption, earning its reputation as a slow-acting protein. Not only is it metabolized slower than whey, but casein’s amino acid peak is also considerably less intense, reaching only about 20 percent of whey’s effectiveness. Even so, the reason that casein is still so popular in weightlifting culture is because it drastically decreases the rate of protein breakdown, contributing to muscle gain.

Both proteins are useful in their own ways. However, it is important to note that casein coagulates in the stomach, causing other proteins to be absorbed much more slowly. With this in mind, consuming both supplements together would frankly be a waste of time and effort. Whey is often used post-workout, while casein can be taken before bed in order to induce a protein increase before a long rest period. Moreover, a constant flow of protein would also be pointless because it is singularly the acute spikes in amino acid levels that induce an increase in protein synthesis. Tossing back protein shakes all day would only be effective for a few hours, but this regimen would not produce any increase in results over time.

Intriguingly, one fairly controversial supplement is produced right in your own body. Creatine is a natural substance which forms creatine phosphate, one of the keys to generating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemically-stored energy released during exertion. About 8 percent of adolescents consume creatine as a supplement, and it is especially popular in high school and college-aged athletes. While it may increase lean muscle mass, aid in muscle recovery and improve strength, research surrounding creatine has found that the substance to be most effective in sports that have short burst movements, such as sprinting or weight-lifting. Nonetheless, due to our fundamentally different physiologies, not all people’s bodies even react to the increased creatine. Not only is creatine not universally effective, but long-term studies on the effects of creatine, particularly in adolescents, are few and far between. Additionally, one risk factor of the natural supplement is that it can increase dehydration, which is especially dangerous for intense athletes. Ultimately, although it is produced naturally, absorbing creatine from protein-rich foods such as meat and fish is generally safer than supplements.

All things considered, since supplements are not considered “food” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are little to no regulations on their contents. This lack of control may result in potentially unsafe situations, especially for athletes who may unknowingly be taking banned substances. In fact, many trainers like Bryan Olson, a personal trainer at the Baierl Recreation Center, and Re personally prefer sticking to real food to meet their nutritional needs. Re emphasizes that “supplements can be expensive and most of the time our bodies don't end up absorbing the nutrients. So it's literally like throwing money down the toilet.”

Fitting Fitness In

For busy college students, this gym talk can all seem like a lot to juggle when your New Year’s resolution was at the very least to go to the gym more than that one time you felt ambitious during your first semester. When I asked Olson about how he recommends college kids make the most of their time at the gym for general health and physique, he clarified that a three-days-a-week plan is a good baseline. One day should incorporate long-distance cardio of any type, while the remaining two days should start with short, but intense weight lifting to stimulate your muscle groups, and finish off with a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. These routines often incorporate circuits or repeating sets of fast-paced movements to speed up your heart rate, and also exert your muscles more than cardio. Ultimately, Olson’s biggest push was nutrition: “You can train like a pro athlete, but if you eat like a freshman in college you won’t get anywhere. You have to train like a pro and eat like a pro to see results.”

Though the world of weightlifting may have seemed mysterious, the answers can often be found right in those biology textbooks you thought were only for class. Learning how to maximize your muscles’ potential may or may not make you want to immediately run to the gym and “feel the burn,” but you just might get the urge to lift that textbook a few times and test out those satellite cells for yourself.