According to the book, Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, ‘skeletal muscle has a remarkable ability to rapidly adjust to changes in physiological requirements. This includes hypertrophic muscle growth and the atrophic loss of muscle mass, both of which occur in response to hormonal, endocrine and mechanical stimuli. In ageing muscle, sarcopenia (the loss of muscle fibres) can aggravate hormonally and mechanically induced atrophy.’
Harvard Health describes sarcopenia as age-related muscle loss and says that it can begin at around age 35. While in the early stages, it can occur at a rate of one to two per cent a year, after a person crosses 60, it can accelerate to three per cent a year.
But it’s not just age. Other factors can also lead to muscle loss. The journal, Molecules, points out the various conditions that could cause skeletal muscle atrophy. They could be denervation, disuse, ageing, chronic diseases, heart disease, obstructive lung disease, diabetes, renal failure, AIDS, sepsis, cancer and steroidal medications.
Importance of muscle mass
Experts highlight the importance of maintaining skeletal muscles because the benefits are numerous. According to Neelam Chauhan, dietician, Noida International Institution of Medical Sciences, Uttar Pradesh, building muscle mass decreases the risk of various health conditions, gives shape to the body and also makes everyday activities easier. “Muscles also increase one’s metabolic rate, build strength and stamina as well as reduce the risk of injury,” she says.
“Building muscle mass depends on various factors. It depends on how much you want to build and what you want to build. Thus, one has to eat a diet rich in protein and do regular exercises under the guidance of an expert,” says Dr Sandeep Ghanta, consultant internal medicine, Citizens Specialty Hospital, Hyderabad. He adds that, apart from keeping diabetes and hypertension under control, building muscle mass can improve one’s immunity and also help one fight against infectious diseases.
Experts opine that the way to counter the rate of atrophy (muscle loss) is to increase the rate of hypertrophy (muscle gain).
The e-book, A guide to weight training: Designing programs and setting goals based on scientific literature, defines weight training as ‘a type of (resistance) training to increase the strength and size of skeletal muscles primarily using bars, dumbbells and/or other equipment.’ It talks about the positive impacts of weight training including reducing the signs and symptoms of many diseases and chronic conditions.
The best way to build muscle mass is to start with compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead shoulder presses. “These four exercises are more than enough for any beginner to build muscle mass. After three to four months of training we can add more accessories to make it a proper muscle-building programme,” says Raghu, founder of Mutante Strength Gym and Athletic Centre, Bengaluru.
Raghu adds that while cardio exercises are important, they don’t lead to muscle gain and hence one should stay away from overdoing them. “Excess cardio should be avoided as it could lead to loss of muscles. Losing muscles means the slowing down of metabolism,” he notes.
Surbhi Aggarwal, a lifestyle management coach and dietician from New Delhi agrees with Raghu and points out that one should strike a good balance between strength and cardio workouts to effectively increase muscle density. “Cardio is good for keeping your heart healthy. But a person who is looking to tone the body and gain muscle mass should focus more on strength training exercises. A combination of cardio and strength training works well. Cardio can be done for ten to 15 minutes daily and strength training, for 30 to 45 minutes,” says Aggarwal.
Dr Ghanta suggests weight-bearing exercises like weightlifting and dumbbell training five days a week for 45-60 minutes. He also says it is vital to avoid smoking and heavy drinking as they have a bad impact on the liver and could lead to muscle loss.
Nidhi Bisht (31) is a professional athlete who competes in the model physique category at international fitness competitions. She started her fitness journey in 2013. Her love for lifting weights motivated her to join a gym. Bisht tells Happiest Health that it took her almost three years to build muscle mass under professional guidance. In the process, she learned a lot about the various aspects of gaining and maintaining muscles, including the significance of diet. “I eat eggs because it is a healthy fat and chicken breast because it is a good lean protein. Likewise, fish is a good source of protein. I also prefer isolate protein as it dissolves and absorbs quicker than whey protein. My diet also has vegetables like broccoli,” she says.
Since our muscles are built with proteins, a person needs to include protein in every meal. “It is important to have food rich in protein like egg, dal (lentils) and beans,” notes Aggarwal.
There are options for vegetarians too. Experts say healthy fats like almonds, paneer (cottage cheese), avocado, vegetable oil and olive oil can be consumed. A fistful of nuts and seeds should also be incorporated during the day as snacks. Vegetables like spinach, green peas, soybean sprouts, asparagus, artichokes and cabbage are also rich in proteins.
Meanwhile, Chauhan talks about the importance of eating whole foods. Whole foods are fresh foods with little or no processed ingredients – foods that are very close to their natural state. “For good nutrition, the diet should include whole foods, as they give different nutrients like fibre, potassium, magnesium and iron which help in building muscles. That’s why consumption of whole food is essential.” She also says that in order to build muscle mass, people should consume more calories than they expend.
Aggarwal notes that meals can be cooked in ghee or mustard oil and also states the importance of healthy fats. “Meals should be accompanied by salads that are dressed with olive oil. Generally, for muscle mass, a good amount of protein, good fat and complex carbohydrates are required. Olive oil, being a healthy fat, help with muscle gain. As per Ayurveda, ghee helps increase weight in a healthy manner. When ghee is digested and assimilated properly in the body, it gives energy. This again helps in maintaining muscles.”
Balance is the key according to Raghu. “The diet varies from person to person according to their goals. No matter what the goal is, nutrition is very important. The diet should consist of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibre and water. Protein is the key recovery nutrient. Carbohydrates help with ensuring adequate calories and energy to fuel training sessions. Fats provide calories and help maintain hormone levels. Fibre helps to keep the intestine in good health.” He adds that the common recommendation of protein to build muscle mass is 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Rest, recovery and breaking the plateau
Raghu says that during an intense workout there is a creation of microscopic tears in muscle tissues. So each muscle group needs at least 48 hours to heal, repair and to be ready for the next session. “During rest, cells called fibroblasts repair it. Every time the tissue heals and grows, the muscles get stronger with proper nutrition,” he points out.
Highlighting the ways to break the workout plateau (the process where the body gets used to the workout routine and doesn’t show the desired results), Raghu advises changing the exercise routine and adding new workouts to the current regime. This is one way to shock the body out of dormancy.
Women and hormones
Testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) are the most important hormones that stimulate muscle growth in the human body, says Raghu. According to him, women and muscle mass is a slightly misunderstood concept. “Women can gain muscles just as easily as men. But the only difference is the size of the muscles in the overall skeletal structure, as females produce a lesser amount of testosterone than men. Women can also develop lean muscle mass with a proper nutrition plan, workout and rest,” he points out.
“It’s not that difficult to gain and maintain muscle mass. It requires patience, keeping yourself motivated, focused and consistent,” says Bisht.
Food tips to help build and maintain muscle mass
- Healthy smoothies with regular milk or nut milk are good for those on the go. Smoothies are less time-consuming to make, and they give a good number of calories. Nut milk with a combination of complex carbs like oats and fruits can also provide a calorie-dense diet.
- Coconut water with malai (cream) is a good daily item as it is a natural energy drink. Generally, people drink coconut water to lose weight. But on the other hand, people who want to gain muscle mass should have it with malai as it is rich in good fat. Coconut water also balances the electrolytes in the body.
- Honey keeps the gut healthy and helps in digestion. Whether for muscle mass or overall mass, one should consume products that are healthy for the gut. Honey being a probiotic is good for gut health.
- Water is the main component of our muscles and when water is present in an adequate amount, vitamins and minerals are transported to the different parts as per the body’s requirements. When the person is not drinking enough water, body functioning will not be that effective even if he/she is consuming other nutrients. One should drink three litres of water a day.
(Source Surbhi Aggarwal)