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Hitting the Wall: Why You Can’t Build Muscle

Posted May 06 2010 8:07pm

Also In This Issue:

By James LaValle, R.Ph, ND, CCN

Are you a person that works out but still has trouble losing body fat and/or gaining muscle?

build muscleIf you search the web for how to build muscle, you are likely to find a lot of talk about eating plenty of protein.   But I have found that while boosting protein intake may be needed and is sometimes helpful, if you do not respond well to exercise, very often there is a metabolic imbalance somewhere.

One factor that people almost never think about when it comes to building and maintaining muscle is SLEEP.

A few months ago, I had a fitness instructor ask me if I might know why he wasn’t able to build muscle. Despite the fact that he used protein shakes, had a very regular workout routine and had worked out for years using the best of equipment, he just couldn’t build muscle.  He was also a little overweight with too high a percentage of body fat.  A 30-something male fitness instructor can’t put on muscle?   Something is desperately wrong!

The first question I asked him was “Do you sleep well?”   His answer was no; in fact he told me had sleep apnea.  Strike one!  When you lose sleep, you lose growth hormone production.  In childhood, growth hormone makes you grow in every way.  In adulthood, it’s most important function is to make you build and maintain your muscle. 

If you aren’t sleeping well as an adult, your growth hormone production will be reduced and your ability to gain muscle from exercise will be greatly compromised. So make no mistake, getting your zzzzzz’s is very important for your fitness.

If taking simple measures like reducing your caffeine intake and trying a natural sleep aid like melatonin or Seditol (an herbal extract we really like) are not effective, the most likely suspect is elevated evening cortisol, which most often occurs from chronic stress.  To get the full benefit of a sleep aid, you also need to down regulate your daytime stress response, or address any other potential sleep confounders. 

For sleep apnea, food allergies can be involved.  So, we find switching to an elimination diet (low in common food allergens, especially wheat and dairy) is helpful.  And it was for this trainer.  So, first things first to improve his muscle mass we got him sleeping better.

The next thing we did for this trainer was look at his fasting blood glucose.  It was on the high end of normal indicating he had some insulin resistance.  Insulin is an anabolic hormone, so it can help muscle building.  But if it elevates too high for too long after meals, it also builds fat stores.

To address that we advised changing to a low glycemic index/glycemic load diet.   We also recommended blood sugar supportive nutrients like alpha-lipoic acid, chromium and magnesium (which also helps sleep).  

It wasn’t very long at all and he was losing body fat like crazy and building lean mass.

Had these measures still not worked very well, I would have dug deeper.  Other problems I might typically find in a person who doesn’t respond like they should to exercise are things like sex hormone imbalances and suboptimal thyroid hormone levels.     

For instance, this trainer could have been low in testosterone.  Testosterone is not only supremely important for muscle building, it also influences insulin and glucose regulation.  Thyroid hormones drive the rate at which cells burn fat and glucose for fuel, so they profoundly affect a person’s ability to burn fat. 

We also evaluate GI health because it can be a source of inflammation and very disruptive to metabolism.  In some instances, when people are just not responding well to anything we do, we test for heavy metal levels, which can affect thyroid function and insulin resistance.

So you see we have a whole host of things that could be involved in the inability to lose fat and gain muscle:

Why is this important to understand? We are told that to lose weight and become fit, we need to eat less and exercise more.  But it is not that infrequently that I see people doing just that, but it doesn’t work like it should for them.  They struggle in vain, exercising hard and often, and still they don’t respond appropriately to the exercise. 

These people need to realize it’s a sign that something is wrong. If this is you, get to a practitioner that can help you evaluate possible underlying causes.  It may take some digging, but you can get to the root of the problem, and not only help your fitness, but improve your overall health and vitality.

[Ed. Note: James LaValle is the founding Director of the LaValle Metabolic Institute, one of the largest integrative medicine practices in the country.  Dr. LaValle is the author of 14 Days to Less Stress and Better Sleep, a revolutionary program to improve your sleep and banish stress for good.  To learn more, click here .]

6 pack abs Cutting Edge Fitness:

By Missy Hawthorne, RN, CSCS

From Butt Blasters to Thigh Masters, to 10-minute workouts, we are constantly being promisedthe quick fix to fitness!   This fast-twitch, always on the run, texting and twittering society leads to the desire for instant gratification an extremely unfortunate byproduct of our increasingly impatient lives!

Can you really become slender AND get rock hard abs in just 10 minutes a day?   For most people the honest answer is NO.   Achieving optimal fitness like they show in these promotions (ideal body weight, body fat percentage, and a six-pack) is going to take a lot more than that.

In my experience, people can work out for an hour 5 times a week, and still not come close to that picture, and that’s even with the help of a good trainer who has designed a good program.  Do these trainers selling exercise devices/programs know something I don’t?  No they do not.  

Look at the fine print all of these programs come with a diet you need to follow, and they also state that the results they show on TV are “not typical.”  That means the vast majority of people will not look like the people on TV at the end of the 6 or 12 weeks, or whatever it is.

The truth is, genuine fitness, good health, and weight regulation require good, old-fashioned time and effort.  Certainly short-bout exercise does have some benefits as many Total Health Breakthroughs articles have discussed, and we have learned that high intensity interval training is MUCH more effective for weight loss than those hours and hours we used to spend doing aerobics.

But what is a realistic amount of time to spend on your fitness program? What will accomplish your goals, but not make you have to “live in the gym?”

To be quite honest, the answer is it will be different for everyone.  Numerous studies have identified that the amount of time needed to achieve fitness was anywhere from a few months to a year, depending upon several factors like how de-conditioned you are when starting out, your age, whether you eat a healthy diet or not, and the amount of time you are willing to devote to exercise.1 

Even your gender heavily influences how long it will take you to get fit.2  And let’s not forget genetics this too plays a role.

These factors are why each and every person, conditioned or not, progresses at a different rate even if they are doing the same workout with the same effort!

One of the most interesting studies to date evaluated a program based on a claim seen on TV that people could get fit in just 6 weeks, exercising 3 times a week.3  This study had unfit sedentary people try to do just that.   One group did cardiovascular exercise and the other did strength training. 

In six weeks, the cardio exercisers lost almost one pound and a little body fat.  The strength-training group actually gained a little weight, but did lose a little body fat but very little, .05%.  So exercise, even at that moderate level, was effective, and that was without any dietary changes.  The control group who did no exercise, gained both weight and body fat.  

This study is spot on with what I see with my clients by six weeks into a program we start to see some muscle building and some fat loss, and by the end of the year, we see about 8 or 10 pounds of weight loss, with moderate exercise only. 

If you step up your exercise intensity and frequency and you cut out refined carbs, the weight loss and fitness achieved is even greater.  (If people are NOT seeing at least modest results by 12 or 16 weeks, most likely they have some sort of metabolic disruption, as Jim’s article discussed.)

So in looking at the promises behind many of these programs and products, just be realistic, because if you are expecting optimal fitness in a just a few weeks, you could get discouraged and want to quit.  

If you are very overweight, haven’t worked out in a while, if ever, and your diet still leaves a lot to be desired, you are probably looking at about a year of dieting and exercise to achieve something close to that “optimal” picture.  That’s realistic, and it would be a great accomplishment. 

So really, the headlines should say, Just Think, in Only One Year You Can Reverse Years of Bad Diet and No Exercise!


[Ed. Note: Melissa Hawthorne, RN, BSN, CSCS is the owner of Priority Fitness Personal Training and Wellness.  She is a Master Trainer for the Resist-a-ball Company, ISCA Personal Training, Kick-boxing, and Beamfit.   Melissa serves as a fitness consultant for the LaValle Metabolic Institute.  To learn more, click here .]

Miracle foodsWeight Loss:

By Laura LaValle, RD, LD

Just as there are many “miracle” exercise products which deceptively promise an Atlas-like bodyin just a few minutes a day, in the food world there are promises of weight loss from super foods or “miracle” juices (think acai berry).

Unfortunately, there is no one food that will magically melt away unwanted pounds.  However, the overall quality of our diet IS crucial to our success with weight management, and can make or break our fitness level.

So what dietary measures should you to take to support weight loss and overall fitness?

1. Reduce calories, especially from carbs.   Studies continue to show that when it comes to losing weight, diet is by far the most important factor.  To put it another way, studies have found that physical activity produces only minimal weight loss when calories are not also reduced.1  

If you are a regular THB reader, you know that when it comes to calorie reduction, we believe that the most important calories to reduce are from carbohydrates.  When compared head to head, diets that are lower in carbs and higher in fat and protein, outperform every time on weight loss.2,3

And it’s especially critical to reduce your intake of sweets. Studies have indeed shown that calorie for calorie, high glycemic index foods (sweets and refined carbs) lead to less appetite control, greater calorie intake, and even reduced metabolic rate.4 

The simple sugar fructose, which comes from fruit and fruit juices, is also associated with weight gain and increased appetite.5  The studies show that good weight loss and metabolic health are achieved with about 25 to 35% of your calories from carbs.  That’s about 110 grams of carbs on 1800 calories per day and 75 grams on 1200 calories per day.

2.  Take in plenty of potassium.  Believe it or not, potassium helps us preserve muscle.  A recent study found that people who ate 3,540 mg of potassium per day or more preserved almost 4 pounds of muscle over a 3-year period compared to people who took in half that much potassium.6  This is enough to offset the natural losses of muscle that tend to occur as we age (called sarcopenia).  It should also help us retain the muscle we work so hard to build with workouts! 

Foods are highly variable in their potassium content, but the best sources are fruits and vegetables a ½ cup serving of beans averages about 500 mg of potassium.  A 1 cup serving of fruit and vegetables averages about 400 to 500 mg.  So ½ cup of beans, 1 cup of fruit, and 5 cups of vegetables per day will get your intake where it needs to be. 

3.  Take in enough protein.   As long as you don’t have any metabolic disruptions like lack of sleep, protein really helps support a healthy metabolism.  For one, it provides the amino acids necessary to build and repair muscle. Resistance training in particular causes micro-tears in your muscle fibers, and the more you do, the more protein you probably need to build and maintain muscle.7 

But even for people who don’t work out as intensely, there’s another reason to eat a diet that’s higher in protein hunger control.  Studies have shown that diets that are higher in protein lead to reduced appetite, reduced calorie intake and more weight loss than lower protein diets.8  The amount that achieved those goals was 30% of the calories as protein or 90 to 135 grams per day on 1200 or 1800 calorie diets, respectively.* 

Having some protein for each meal and snack is a good goal.  And if you exercise strenuously, you may want to add a post-workout snack such as a whey protein shake.

As several THB articles have pointed out, it’s also important to choose organic protein foods as often as possible to reduce your intake of pesticides that can interfere with thyroid hormones and induce insulin resistance. 

As you can see, it’s not just the amount of food you eat, but the types of foods you eat that can have a huge impact on weight loss, muscle retention, and your overall fitness.  This can take some planning, but the benefits are well worth it!

For help on implementing a diet that is lower in carbs, but still high enough in potassium and protein, I recommend our recent e-book, The Metabolic Code Diet: Unleashing the Power of Your Metabolism for Lasting Weight Loss and Vitality.

* Caution: Anyone who has failing kidneys should consult their doctor before increasing protein intake.


[Ed. Note: Laura B. LaValle, RD, LD is presently the director of dietetics nutrition at LaValle Metabolic Institute.   Laura and her husband, Jim LaValle, R.Ph, CCN, ND have developed the powerful and life-changing Metabolic Code Dietcontaining step-by-step, easy to follow recommendations for harnessing optimal metabolic energy and turning your body's chemical make up into a fat-burning furnace.  To learn more click here now .]

grilled chickenHealthy Recipes:

By Laura LaValle, RD, LD

The key to success on a low carb diet is finding many great recipes to give your same old foods(animal protein and veggies) a variety of delicious tastes.  This recipe is guaranteed to become a favorite for spicing up the same old chicken!

Serves: 4
Time to Table: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including marinating time)

Healing Nutrient Spotlight
Excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin K, selenium
Good source of potassium, magnesium

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
5 T. olive oil
¼ cup finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. white wine vinegar
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. coarse ground black pepper
¼ tsp. poultry seasoning
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. honey
1 bag precut salad greens
16 cherry tomatoes or 4 small tomatoes, quartered

*Use organic ingredients for optimal nutrition.

Place 3 T oil, onion, garlic, 1 T. vinegar, pepper, salt, and poultry seasoning in glass storage container.  Whisk ingredients together well and add chicken breasts.  Turn breasts several times to coat chicken well with the marinade.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Place chicken on a medium hot grill and close grill lid.  Turn chicken after about 5 to 7 minutes.  Cook another 7 to 8 minutes for a total of about 15 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in center. 

Dijon Sauce:
While chicken is cooking, combine 2 T. oil, 1 T. white wine vinegar, 1 T. Dijon mustard, and honey in small bowl.  Whisk until smooth.  

Cut chicken breasts into strips, and place chicken on bed of greens.  Drizzle chicken with Dijon sauce and garnish greens with tomatoes.

232 calories, 27 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 4 g sugars, 10 g fat, 1.6 g saturated fat, 6.5 g monounsaturated fat, 1.3 g polyunsaturated fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 324 mg sodium, 476 mg potassium, 1449 IU vitamin A, 48 mcg vitamin K, 15 mg vitamin C, .14 mg thiamin, .15 mg riboflavin, 13 mg niacin, .70 mg vitamin B-6, 37 mcg folate, .43 mcg vitamin B-12, .95 mg pantothenic acid, 1.6 mg iron, 41 mg magnesium, 1.1 mg zinc, .10 mg copper, 20 mcg selenium

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