Does gaining body fat too quickly slow down muscle gains? or impede the gain of lean muscle mass at some point? There are some myths and some truths in these questions. Let me explain to you how this all works including the effects of estrogen, insuline, IGF-1 and nutrient partitioning.
There can be two concerns that people have about gaining body fat too quickly and impeding muscle gain. Those are:
- Excessive conversion of testosterone to estrogen
- Insuline sensitivity and nutrient partitioning effect
If we take away these concerns then there is never a problem because more food always equals more muscle mass. That’s a given and no one debates that. Food is simply anabolic and the more you eat, the faster you gain muscle mass. Even morbidly obese people often times have alot of muscle mass beneath the layer of fat. They just lose a lot of that muscle when they diet down just like anyone else does.
So, food itself is anabolic but the concerns are hormonal and also two completely different points that we need to address.
#1 Concern: Excessive Estrogen
Now, the first one about excessive estrogen isn’t true. Absolutely not. People get way too caught up in transient fluctuations within normal hormone ranges. The reality is that you can not significantly impact your normal hormone ranges enough to affect muscle mass unless you’re literally starving yourself where you crash your testosterone production. Minor testosterone changes of 10 to 20% have never been found in a single study to have any measurable effect on muscle mass.
The conversion is because of the aromatase activity. Aromatase is the enzym that converts testosterone to estrogen in men, women, owls, horses etc. All mammals deal with this. This conversion happens to a large extend inside your body fat.
So people who are fatter tend to convert a little more testosteron to estrogen than people who are leaner. That is true.
The thing is though, that it is not enough of a difference to largely impact your muscle gains. We are talking about at most a few percentages more of your testosteron being converted to estrogen. Estrogen is anabolic, just not as anabolic as testosterone and that is the point people tend to forget.
We know all of this from plenty of studies that are done in humans, cows, mice and everything.
This is also stuff that has to be noted in the lifestock industry because this affects slaughter weight of certain animals. They have to know how this stuff interacts as far as gaining muscle in mammals and it seems to be the same for humans. They’re alot like us in some ways.
What studies have noted is that estrogen causes a synergistic effect with testosterone. So, a little bit of elevated estrogen levels actually amplifies the anabolic signal. Too low of estrogen levels seems to cause potential downregulation of testosterone receptors in your muscle tissue.
What this means is that you do not see a loss in muscle mass when your estrogen goes up, but you do gain body fat easier. That’s a big deal. But when your estrogen goes too low, men gain muscle slower.
Estrogen and IGF-1
That’s why it’s funny whenever you see a muscle building supplement that claims to lower estrogen. If you were to take a real estrogen blocker (prescription) and there was no change in your testosterone levels, meaning you’re just on your normal production, you will gain less muscle mass. In fact, we have noted that prescription estrogen blockers (aromatase inhibitors) reduce IGF-1 production in muscle tissue by as much as 25%. So in theory you can gain muscle mass about 25% slower as a result of taking that.
Estrogen doesn’t hurt your muscle mass gains, it can be synergistic and so a little bit testosterone converting to estrogen doesn’t have a negative effect. If you factor this is because of a lot of extra food you end up with a net anabolic effect. It is not a problem.
#2 Concern: Insuline Sensitivity and Nutrient Partitioning
Now where we start running into problems is when your food intake gets so high that you’re gaining large amounts of body fat or you’ve even fairly clean bulked for a long enough period of time that your bodyfat percentage has gone up significantly. What we start to notice is that you do lose some insuline sensitivity in your muscle tissue.
This has something to do with nutrient partitioning in the body. Nutrient partitioning is where all the different nutrients in your blood goes and that has to do with the amount of any given tissue you have and how much receptors it has for things like insuline and other transporting hormones in the human body.
As bodyfat starts to go up, it competes with muscle tissue more for the calories that are there.
Let’s say you gain an extra 10 pounds of body fat. In other words, you have an extra 10 pounds of body fat that is taking away some of that extra fuel in your bloodstream. What ends up happening eventually is that you have to eat more calories to gain muscle mass again at an ideal rate. Because the fat tissue, through nutrient partitioning, is starting to compete more with muscle tissue for insuline and nutrients.
Well, if it’s competing with muscle tissue then that could interfere unless you increase the food intake enough to compensate for it.
Now, a lot of people will say:
”Wait a minute, so it doesn’t hurt my muscle gains and I’ll gain just as much muscle if I eat enough food but the fat is getting more of the food too, wouldn’t you gain more fat?”
Well yeah, you would gain more fat. That is the problem.
That is the problem we run into for the people that are worried about body composition and gaining too much body fat. The fatter you get, the more you have to eat to continue to gain muscle mass at an ideal rate and then you would get fatter even quicker. You will reach a treshold very quickly to where your body fat gains way out pace your muscle mass gains. Eventually you’ll reach a treshold where you will gain 5 pounds of fat for every pound of muscle that you’re gaining.
So what ends up happening when you want to gain 5 pounds of muscle, is that you’re gaining 25 pounds of fat along with that.
This is obviously for people that are concerned with their overall body weight, strength to weight ratio and body composition. It doesn’t stop anyone who doesn’t care about upper end body weight, for example overall strongman champions, they have bellies. But they are still strong, they are still stronger than lean athletes and still caring the most amount of muscle mass. The problem is that they never lean out so they have to keep feeding all the body fat in order to keep feeding the muscle tissue.
When you do reach that treshold to where you say:
”I don’t need any more bodyfat than this and it probably isn’t healthy to have any more.”
Then it is better to slowly cut down just for nutrient partitioning purposes to keep yourself from getting overfat. Cut back on some of the calories, clean your diet and do some cardio. Ultimately the people who are going to gain the slowest are going to be the people who tend to stay lean year-round.
So there is always a compromise no matter what you do, because at a certain point when you get too lean you start losing muscle mass no matter what you do but if you get too fat you can’t continue to gain more muscle mass without even gaining more fat. This can become a never ending cycle.
Both extremes has it own set of problems so for most people it is wise to find a middle ground in there.
- Estrogen doesn’t hurt your muscle mass gains
- Minor testosterone changes of 10 to 20% have never been found in a single study to have any measurable effect on muscle mass.
- You do lose some insuline sensitivity in your muscle tissue when you’re gaining too much body fat.
- The fatter you get, the more you have to eat to continue to gain muscle mass at an ideal rate and then you would get fatter even quicker.
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