Positive Nitrogen Balance, Hormone Manipulation and Recovery

Open up any bodybuilding magazine and you usually see pretty much the same articles recycled over and over,often offering little if anything new. Oh, sure, there are some decent articles every so often, but how often do you see an article on aspects like hormone manipulation, the importance of being in a positive nitrogen balance, or proper recovery?These are critical aspects to your bodybuilding success, yet you seldom see quality articles on these topics. This article will cover each of these important areas:

Positive Nitrogen Balance

There have been so many articles on protein, I’m not going to squeeze into an already crowded area with yet another article on that topic. What I want to focus on is nitrogen, it’s importance, a bit of history and tips to promote a positive nitrogen balance and how to stay in a stay in a state of positive nitrogen balance.

What is nitrogen and how does it apply to the bodybuilder? According to Tabors Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, nitrogen is “one of the important elements in all proteins, nitrogen is essential for tissue building.” More important, perhaps, to bodybuilders is that nitrogen is a direct measurement of protein levels in the body.

For the most part, we are told to eat sufficient protein to maintain a positive nitrogen balance because your body is actually in an anabolic, or building up phase in this state, where a negative nitrogen balance, from lack of adequate protein, indicates a catabolic, or tearing down state. This is why protein ( and eating enough through out the day) is so important: lack of adequate protein, and your begins to break down tissue (read: muscle) to meet it’s daily protein needs. Our bodies constantly assemble, break down and use proteins (in the form of amino acids, the building blocks of protein), in fact there are literally thousands of different protein combinations used by the body, each one has a specific function determined by it’s combination ( or amino acid sequence).

I can think back to the 80’s and early 90’s, and the advice then was to take 3-4 amino acid tablets, and 3-4 liver tablets anywhere from once every hour to once every three hours. Back then, the recommended intake for bodybuilders was much less than what has currently been recommended ( 1 gram per 2.2 lbs. of body weight), so it’s harder now to meet protein needs because the current suggestion is 1 to 1.5 grams per lb. of body weight, at least. So protein timing/intake becomes critical. Besides taking in high quality protein from food (lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs),the best way to keep your protein intake at the proper levels are through the use of protein shakes. Whey protein remains number one, because of it’s high quality, but milk based proteins are making a comeback, largely because of their longer lasting effects in the body: whey is typically touted as a fast digesting protein, milk as a slow digesting protein. The other part of getting the most out of your protein intake and thereby maintaining a positive nitrogen balance is carb and fat intake, both are needed in reasonable amounts to insure protein synthesis.

Reasonable amounts of carbs are dependant on goals, for fat loss, stay closer to 80-100 grams a day. For mass, think about 2 grams per lb of body weight. As to fat, I’d stay under 50 grams a day.

Hormonal Manipulation

Hormones are anything that is produced by one organ, carried by the bloodstream to a second, or target, organ and that affects the second organ’s function. There are two major classes of hormones: protein hormones and steroid hormones.Protein hormones are made up of long chains of amino acids and include the following hormones: insulin, glucagon, IGF, all pituitary hormones.

Steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol. They diffuse freely into all cells. However, their “target” cells contain cytoplasmic and/or nuclear proteins that serve as receptors of the hormone. Steroid hormones include testosterone and cortisol.

Hormone Regulation

The levels of hormones circulating in the blood are tightly controlled by three homeostatic mechanisms:When one hormone stimulates the production of a second, the second suppresses the production of the first.Example: The follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates the release of estrogens from the ovarian follicle. A high level of estrogen, in turn, suppresses the further production of FSH.Antagonistic pairs of hormones.

Example: Insulin causes the level of blood sugar (glucose) to drop when it has risen. Glucagon causes it to rise when it has fallen.

Hormone secretion is increased (or decreased) by the same substance whose level is decreased (or increased) by the hormone.Example: a rising level of Ca2+ in the blood suppresses the production of the parathyroid hormone (PTH). A low level of Ca2+ stimulates it.

Hormone Transport

Although a few hormones circulate simply dissolved in the blood, most are carried in the blood bound to plasma proteins. For example, all the steroid hormones, being highly hydrophobic, are transported bound to plasma proteins.

The main anabolic hormones in the body are:

Testosterone – This a steroid hormone isolated from the testes. It is produced by the interstitial cells of Leydig (simply, cells in the testes, named after Franz von Leydig, who discovered them). Testosterone performs the following actions in the body: accelerates growth in tissues upon which it acts and stimulates blood flow. It stimulates and promotes the growth of secondary sexual characteristics. It’s essential for normal growth of the male accessory sex organs, deepens the male voice, and promotes muscular development in men.

Growth hormone – Human growth hormone (also called somatotropin) is a protein of 191 amino acids. The GH-secreting cells are stimulated to synthesize and release GH by the intermittent arrival of growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH) from the hypothalamus. GH promotes muscle growth and fat loss, it also promotes growth by binding to receptors on the surface of liver cells, this stimulates them to release insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1; also known as somatomedin), this is a protein hormone similar in structure to insulin. It has anabolic effects: Its primary action is mediated by binding to specific IGF receptors present on many cell types in many tissues. The signal is transduced by intracellular events. The effect is the promotion of cell growth and multiplication.

Almost every cell in the human body is affected by IGF-1, especially cells in muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, kidney, nerves, skin, and lungs. In addition to the insulin-like effects, IGF-1 can also regulate cell growth and development, especially in nerve cells, as well as cellular DNA synthesis.

Insulin – A hormone secreted by the beta cells of the islets of Langerhans of the pancreas. What’s the beta cells of the islets of Langerhans? Paul Langerhans was a German pathologist in the 1800’s. Islets of Langerhans are clusters of cells in the pancreas, islet means they are detached from surrounding tissues like an island, or, characterized by a difference in structure. Going back to the islets of Langerhans, there are three types of cell clusters: alpha, beta and delta. The beta cells are in greatest abundance and produce insulin.

Insulin affects many organs. It stimulates skeletal muscle fibers to take up glucose and convert it into glycogen; take up amino acids from the blood and convert them into protein. It acts on liver cells stimulating them to take up glucose from the blood and convert it into glycogen while inhibiting production of the enzymes involved in breaking glycogen back down (“glycogenolysis”) and inhibiting “gluconeogenesis”; that is, the conversion of fats and proteins into glucose. It acts on fat (adipose) cells to stimulate the uptake of glucose and the synthesis of fat. It also acts on cells in the hypothalamus to reduce appetite.

In each case, insulin triggers these effects by binding to the insulin receptor – a transmembrane protein embedded in the plasma membrane of the responding cells.

How does all of this affect the bodybuilder? As many of you know, understanding hormones could take several books and is in fact a field of scientific study. But by having a basic understanding of the main anabolic hormones, realizing the impact they have on muscle growth and by naturally stimulating the production of these anabolic hormones, greater gains can be achieved.

This is done by doing the following:

1. The body’s natural production of testosterone can be increased through hard work on the big, compound movements, such as the squat, deadlift and power clean . Also, the bigger the muscle, the more testosterone is released in response to the exercise. What’s bigger than the legs and back, which these exercises primarily target? These exercises should be the cornerstones of your routine. Think 5-6 sets of each, heavy weight, reps in the 6-10 range. Diet also affects this hormone. Eating a reasonable amount of carbs( no super low carb diet) and some cholesterol is important to maximize release. There are a number of supplements that increase testosterone, from basic herbal based products to the more hardcore pro-hormones. These will help maximize results, especially for the older bodybuilder whose natural levels have begun to decline.

2. Research shows that when GH is secreted along with testosterone, it magnifies the effect of the testosterone. Research also shows that there is a direct connection between the muscle burn of lactic acid buildup and GH release. What better way to get the burn than through some form of extended set techniques, like drop sets for example. Of course, there are numerous ways to extend a set, but the idea is to train to or past failure on at least some sets. For me, doing one heavy set, after warm ups, of say, squats, and then going right into a drop set, dropping the weight 3-4 times, until I can barely lift an empty bar, is the ultimate intensity set. Another good idea I like is the classic 20 rep squat routine, except I like to use a fairly heavy weight. Still another is to use rest pause, great for those without training partners. Similar to drop sets, this is a great way to extend a set. In fact, as far as hormonal manipulation is concerned, taking a basic exercise done with a heavy weight and a intensity technique like drop sets or rest pause sets offers the best of both worlds – testosterone release and GH release.

3. Insulin being a hormone primarily tied into blood glucose levels, can cause our body to store fat if you have constant spikes all day – that’s why watching your simple carb intake is a good idea as eating to many simple carbs in the absence of complex carbs and/or protein causes insulin surges. It also causes amino acids and creatine to be stored – this promotes protein synthesis. To get the anabolic actions with out the fat storage, you want to cause an insulin spike at two key times of the day – first thing in the morning when you first wake up and after your work out .

You do this by drinking a mixture of simple carbs and protein, about 40 grams protein to 40-60 grams carbs. You want to get nutrients in the bloodstream as fast as possible after your workout and take advantage of the anabolic actions of insulin at the most critical time, this also starts the recovery and growth process. But in the morning, you are also at a critical time as far as nutrient needs are concerned because you have just come off a short fast while you slept and research shows this creates an anabolic window – take advantage of this by triggering an insulin spike. By keeping all your other meals high in protein and mixed with complex carbs, you can keep insulin spikes under control during the rest of the day.

One other key is to limit training time to 1 -11/2 hours, any longer and the body will release catabolic hormones, such as cortisol, that can have very destructive, for the bodybuilder, effects.


Those that know my writing know that I have often talked about how important recovery is to the growth process. You don’t grow by training 6 or 7 days a week using Ronnie Coleman’s pre contest routine, you grow by using a routine compatible with your experience level and by taking enough time between workouts to recover and let growth take place. How much time? Typically, 5 days of rest before training the same body part again is a good rule of thumb, although for “chemically enhanced” bodybuilders, as little as 2 days may be all that’s required, since steroids dramatically enhance the body’s recovery ability. Along with this is the fact that individual recovery is based on individual circumstances – age, schedule – both personal and work, type of job, training experience. An older man with a heavy work schedule and/or personal schedule will not recover as fast as an 18 year old with a light schedule and lots of free time. One of the most misunderstood aspects of training is the fact that you grow in between workouts when you are recovering, not because of how many workouts you do. I’ve said that before in my writing, but it bears repeating. Read that sentence about five times because in the 29 years I’ve been in bodybuilding, I still see far to many people that do not understand the concept of recovery, who think the more you train the faster you grow. How recovered you are should determine when you should train. Different muscles recover at different rates than others, and any time you train two or more days in a row, you may be “resting” certain muscles while you train others but you are taxing your entire system, putting a drain on total recovery. There are two ways to tell if you have recovered – if the body part you last trained is still sore on your next scheduled training day for that body part, you have not recovered. Rest one more day or until that body part is no longer sore. If you are unusually tired in the morning on any scheduled training day, and you haven’t changed anything in your approach, you’re probably entering an over trained state – you aren’t allowing enough time for recovery. Take off a few days and you’ll come back to the gym refreshed with more energy to train. Learn to tailor your workouts to your recovery ability for maximum gains.

Jim Brewster has over 30 years experience in bodybuilding and
is known internationally as an authority in the fitness field.
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