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Anabolic vs. Catabolic Training: Which Is Better for Weight Loss?

18th September 2016
Anabolic vs Catabolic

Updated on 22.10.2021

Anabolism and catabolism are metabolic pathways required for the normal development, growth, healing, and reproduction of the human organism, but they describe two opposite processes.

While anabolism refers to the building of molecules and requires energy for completion, catabolism describes the reactions during which complex molecules are broken down into smaller ones, and energy is released. In other words, anabolism is the building up of molecules, whereas catabolism is the destruction or degradation of molecules.

What is the difference between anabolic and catabolic?

From a biological point of view, both processes are necessary for maintaining life, and they’re both mediated by hormones. For instance, the hormones involved in anabolism are insulin, testosterone, and the human growth hormone (HGH), while the catabolic reactions are mediated by adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.

When it comes to fitness and weight loss though, the terms “anabolic” and “catabolic”, refer to different types of exercises that deliver different outcomes.

What does anabolic mean?

Anabolic - PushUpsPut simply, anabolic means growth. The process of anabolism involves the production of complex molecules and is responsible for the growth and multiplication of cells. According to scientific research, being in an anabolic state leads to an increase in muscle mass and overall body size.

If you want to enter and keep your organism in an anabolic state, you need to make sure you consume the right amount of energy from the right source. For example, foods and nutritional supplements that are high in protein provide muscles with the nutrients and energy needed for growth. On the contrary, if you do not supply your body with enough food, it will inevitably enter a state of catabolism.

What is catabolic?

Catabolic - CyclingCatabolic means breakdown which is the opposite of anabolic (build-up). The body enters into a state of catabolism when it requires energy, and the energy from external food sources is not enough. The process leads to the breakdown of large molecules, complex compounds, and bodily tissues, such as muscle and fat.

Prolonged cardio exercises, such as marathons, triathlons, and mount trekking, can push the organism into a catabolic state. The body will first use up all of the available glycogen after which it will start breaking down fat and protein to produce energy through the process of gluconeogenesis.

Catabolic and anabolic exercises

Anabolic vs CatabolicWhen it comes to fitness and weight loss, science suggests that anabolic exercises build muscles, while catabolic workouts burn fat. When you eat something, the food is broken down through the process of digestion. The larger molecules are split and turned into smaller ones. This is a catabolic process, meaning that the macronutrients obtained by food, such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, are broken down into smaller molecules, which are then used by the organism as building blocks for cells and tissues.

The energy that is released during catabolism is stored in the ATP molecules and used whenever the organism needs it. Without this energy, the anabolic processes can’t take place, as the organism does not produce energy during anabolism. So catabolism is the process that drives anabolism forward.

Once the body has its building blocks available (the macronutrients), the anabolic processes can take place. These include the growth and healing of tissues and occur both during and after exercise. If the body produces more energy in the catabolic state than it requires for its anabolic processes, the excess is stored as either glycogen or fat, for later use.

Examples of catabolic exercises

Catabolic - SwimmingCatabolic exercises include prolonged and steady activities that can be of either moderate or high intensity. During such physical activities your heart, breathing, and blood pressure get elevated. Once the body uses up all the carbohydrate stores, it starts breaking down adipocytes (fat cells) and myocytes (muscle cells).

For weight loss and for decreasing your body fat percentage, you need to keep your body in a catabolic state, which is achieved during cardio exercises that last around 45 minutes. Such workouts are great for decreasing the total fat mass, as the body consumes energy while in an anabolic state.

Some common examples of catabolic exercises include:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Running
  • HIIT workouts
  • Mountaineering
  • Gardening

Examples of anabolic exercises

The anabolic state is achieved through strength training and proper nutrition, so if you want to gain more muscles, you need to lift weights or do bodyweight exercises. The hormones that are associated with anabolism help in putting on lean mass and can lead to muscle growth, but you need to pay attention to nutrition as well.

Without the needed nutrients, your body won’t be able to build muscle tissue while in an anabolic state, so make sure you get enough protein and carbohydrates before and after exercise. Also, make sure to get enough sleep and rest post-workout, as these processes also support the growth and repairing of the damaged muscle tissues.

Great examples of anabolic exercises include:

  • Weight-lifting
  • Pushups
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Pull-ups

How do catabolism and anabolism affect body weight?

body weightTo increase your lean mass and decrease your body fat percentage, you may need to perform both anabolic and catabolic workouts, depending on your current body composition. But in general, in the anabolic state, the body builds muscles, and in the catabolic state, it burns fat. The scientific evidence suggests that anabolic and catabolic exercises have different effects on your body, but each of them causes damage to your muscles, so make sure you rest, eat healthily and hydrate your body properly after each workout, regardless of its type.

If the cardio workout lasts longer, the organism uses the blood glucose at the beginning, but then it needs an additional source of energy to power the muscles and continues the routine, so it starts breaking down the glycogen stored in muscles or fat tissue. The exercises that keep the body in a catabolic state will result in little to no muscle building but instead will support your weight loss efforts.

Catabolism

  • Breaks down glycogen (carbohydrate stores), muscle, and fat
  • Provides the body with energy
  • Breaks down macromolecules into smaller and simpler molecules
  • Involves the hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and glucagon
  • This leads to a reduced body fat percentage, muscle tissue, and overall weight

Anabolism

  • Builds up muscles and maintain a leaner body
  • Uses up energy and calories
  • Builds macromolecules from smaller and simpler molecules
  • Involves the hormones insulin, testosterone, human growth hormone, and estrogen
  • This leads to increased muscle mass, athletic body, and faster metabolism

If you want to decrease your body fat percentage while at the same time putting on some lean mass and building a more athletic and defined body, ask for your trainer’s recommendations, as the more lean mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate is and thus the more efficient your body is at burning calories during and after exercise.

Final thoughts

The proper understanding of catabolic and anabolic processes will help you reach your desired fitness outcomes, both in the gym and on the weighing scale. If you are looking to lose weight in terms of fat mass, while at the same time keeping your body tight and fit, the combination of cardio exercises plus strength training plus a healthy diet rich in high-fiber and high-protein foods is a good way to go.

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References (in order of appearance)

Moore D. R. (2019). Maximizing Post-exercise Anabolism: The Case for Relative Protein Intakes. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, 147.

Konopka, A. R., & Harber, M. P. (2014). Skeletal muscle hypertrophy after aerobic exercise training. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 42(2), 53–61.

Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11, 20.

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