The fitness world is filled with terms that people tend to throw around without actually knowing their meaning — case and point: “anabolic” and “catabolic.” How often have you heard people talk about the “anabolic window” or warn you that you don’t want to be in a “catabolic state?”
Too often, these terms are talked about as if they’re on opposing teams and that one’s preferable over the other. In truth, anabolism and catabolism work hand-in-hand to help you achieve whatever it is you’re striving for — whether that’s to lose fat, gain muscle, or get stronger or faster.
In this piece, we’ll cut through the bro speak and give you the lowdown on these words, how they affect your body, and why you shouldn’t be scared of some of the terms you’ve probably heard in your local locker room.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
How are Catabolism and Anabolism Connected?
Before defining each term, we need to give a quick crash course on how the two are connected. Both are heavily involved in your body’s metabolism or the set of reactions that help sustain life.
Metabolism has three main purposes:
- Converting food for energy to run cellular functions,
- converting macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) into fuel for the body,
- and the excreting toxins out of the body (i.e., what happens when you go to the bathroom).
This is where anabolism and catabolism come in. We’ll go into more detail in a bit, but for right now, understand that catabolism is when you break down food into different molecules. Anabolism controls how the body uses those molecules for different purposes. For your body to use these molecules, they must be broken down. It’s in this way that anabolism and catabolism are synergistic.
A healthy metabolism operates with a mix of anabolism and catabolism. Maintaining a balance between the two functions requires proper nutrition, a regimented training schedule, adequate sleep every night, and hormonal control, to name a few.
Let’s go a little more in-depth and what catabolism and anabolism mean.
What Does Catabolic Mean?
Catabolic is an adjective for catabolism, a set of metabolic pathways in the body that break down molecules (such as fat lipids and protein) into even smaller units used for energy or other bodily actions.
Put simply: Catabolism is your body’s process of breaking down your food to fuel your workouts and carry out everyday actions like getting out of bed.
There are also catabolic workouts such as running, swimming, or biking — essentially, any cardio. These training methods are considered catabolic because your body breaks down glycogen for fuel during long periods of activity.
The breakdown and production of energy require the use of several hormones:
What is the Catabolic State?
If you’re looking to put on weight or muscle, doing too many catabolic workouts isn’t ideal because, again, you’re breaking down your body’s energy resources, which includes muscle tissue.
But you can also become catabolic without busting out cardio workouts. When this happens, you enter what’s known as the “catabolic state,” or a state in which your body is breaking down nutrients and stored energy (again, which includes your muscle) at a higher rate than it can build them back up.
Excess catablosim is caused by overtraining, not hitting your macronutrients, and not getting enough sleep. When either of these things happens, your body is emitting too much cortisol. Cortisol is known as the “stress” hormone — your body secrets it when the body or brain needs extra glucose (or energy). But excess cortisol is also linked to a weakened immune and digestive system, higher heart rate and blood pressure, and mood changes.
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There are a few ways to reduce the amount of cortisol in your system. You can take a few days off from the gym, make sure you’re eating enough, and get a good night’s sleep. Though it’s easier said than done, try and also and reduce as many stressors in your life as possible.
Although catabolic workouts shouldn’t be done in excess if you’re trying to gain muscle, they are necessary to improve your conditioning, along with your heart and lung health. So how much cardio is ok? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends you do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercises. (1)
What Does Anabolic Mean?
Anabolic is an adjective for anabolism, a set of metabolic pathways that build up essential parts of your body from smaller molecules. In other words, the anabolic system is responsible for building up muscle and the maintenance of organs and tissue matter.
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Just as they’re catabolic workouts, there are also anabolic workouts that include weightlifting and resistance training. When we put stressors on our body through resistance training, we secrete certain anabolic hormones that assist in the pathways related to those processes.
These hormones are:
- Growth Hormone
There’s really no magic number on how many anabolic workouts you should do per week, unlike catabolic workouts. Some studies back weightlifting only one day per week, and some endorse a five-day-per-week lifting plan. You’ll have to find what works for you with a coach and by listening to your body. (2)(3)
Is Anabolism Related to Anabolic Steroids?
Note: The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of BarBend and/or BarBend’s organizational partners. BarBend does not support or condone the use of banned substances in strength competition.
The short answer is, “no,” anabolism and the processes related to it don’t necessarily have anything to do with anabolic steroids.
They’re called anabolic steroids because they mimic the natural reactions of the anabolic pathways — primarily by helping build muscle mass and limiting catabolic reactions in the body. They essentially make it easier to stay in an anabolic state when the body makes itself bigger and stronger. A 2004 study on athletes who used anabolic steroids found the following side effects (4):
- Increased facial acne
- Mood changes
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased anger
However, it should be noted, a 2006 study in the Journal of Sports Science Medicine found that some of those supposed side effects may be more linked to improper supervision of athletes who use anabolic steroids rather than the drugs themselves. In other words, if a professional doctor was overseeing the use of these steroids, many of the athletes may not have seen most side effects. (5)
Not that we’d have to remind you to consult a physician before taking any substances, right? OK, good.
What is the Anabolic Window and Does it Exist?
The other thing people connect anabolism to is the hotly-debated anabolic window or a 30-minute period of time in which your body can more quickly absorb protein and carbohydrates.
Bodybuilders and athletes everywhere once, and still do, live by the anabolic window, rushing to chug a protein shake or a plate of chicken and rice to ensure they didn’t work out in vain. The only problem is they may have been fooled this entire time.
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Recent studies show that it doesn’t matter if you’re a professional bodybuilder unless you eat 30 minutes two hours after a workout. (6)
However, protein intake is essential to keeping yourself in an anabolic state because protein is the building block of all muscles. To that end, evenly distribute your protein intake throughout the day. Studies have shown this strategy has led to increased protein synthesis and improved body composition. (7)
How to Be Anabolic and Catabolic at the Same Time
Again, anabolism and catabolism aren’t enemies — they work in tandem to give you the best metabolism possible.
There are also instances in which the two can work together simultaneously. Sprinting and high-intensity interval workouts are two examples of this because both combine strength training with endurance workouts. The result is you secrete anabolic and catabolic hormones at the same time.
The Final Word
Anabolism and catabolism are necessary parts of your metabolism. You need to make sure you’re doing enough catabolic workouts to improve your conditioning, not stay in a catabolic state for too long, do enough anabolic workouts to maintain muscle mass and healthy organs, and find a way to balance the two.
- Garber, Carol Ewing Ph.D., FACSM, (Chair); Blissmer, Bryan Ph.D.; Deschenes, Michael R. PhD, FACSM; Franklin, Barry A. Ph.D., FACSM; Lamonte, Michael J. Ph.D., FACSM; Lee, I-Min M.D., Sc.D., FACSM; Nieman, David C. Ph.D., FACSM; Swain, David P. Ph.D., FACSM Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2011 – Volume 43 – Issue 7 – p 1334-1359 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb
- DiFrancisco-Donoghue J, Werner W, Douris PC. Comparison of once-weekly and twice-weekly strength training in older adults. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(1):19-22. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.029330
- Thomas MH, Burns SP. Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016;9(2):159-167. Published 2016 Apr 1.
- Hartgens F, Kuipers H. Effects of androgenic-anabolic steroids in athletes. Sports Med. 2004;34(8):513-54. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200434080-00003. PMID: 15248788.
- Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA. Medical issues associated with anabolic steroid use: are they exaggerated?. J Sports Sci Med. 2006;5(2):182-193. Published 2006 Jun 1.
- Mori H. Effect of timing of protein and carbohydrate intake after resistance exercise on nitrogen balance in trained and untrained young men. J Physiol Anthropol. 2014;33(1):24. Published 2014 Aug 6. doi:10.1186/1880-6805-33-24
- Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, Layman DK, Paddon-Jones D. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2014 Jun;144(6):876-80. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.185280. Epub 2014 Jan 29. PMID: 24477298; PMCID: PMC4018950.
- Meckel, Yoav1; Eliakim, Alon1-3; Seraev, Mariana2; Zaldivar, Frank3; Cooper, Dan M3; Sagiv, Michael1; Nemet, Dan2,3 The Effect of a Brief Sprint Interval Exercise on Growth Factors and Inflammatory Mediators, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 1 – p 225-230 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181876a9a
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