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Manipulating Dietary Cholesterol for Optimum Muscle Growth
Disclaimer: Discussion of pharmaceutical agents below is presented for information only. Nothing here is meant to take the place of advice from a licensed health care practitioner. Consult a physician before taking any medication.
Vince Gironda, the Iron Guru, used to recommend eating up to three dozen eggs a day in order to pack on mass fast. His rational was that the high cholesterol content would trigger a natural anabolic effect.
Ronnie Coleman, in his last video, Relentless, is taking a cholesterol lowering drug. Yet, such drugs are said to be detrimental to muscles.
Both behaviors seem contradictory!
Is high or low cholesterol better for muscle growth?
Why would anyone use a muscle wasting drug?
New research reconciles this paradox revealing that proper cholesterol manipulations can optimize muscle growth.
Acute training impact on cholesterol level
If moderate weight training does not seem to affect cholesterol levels, a traumatic workout will most definitely induce an acute reduction of blood cholesterol level within 2 hours (1). This shortage of cholesterol can last up to several days during the recovery phase. This lowering effect is due to an accelerated uptake of cholesterol by skeletal muscle. It reveals our fibers need this extra cholesterol in order to recover and grow.
Considering the positive impact of cholesterol on muscle growth (see below), it might be a good idea to include cholesterol-rich foods such as whole eggs in you first real post-workout meal. This strategy would make sure your muscles obtain all the cholesterol they need, preventing any potential shortage which would postpone recovery.
Dietary cholesterol intake on muscle growth
Riechman has studied the impact of cholesterol on (resistance) training-induced hypertrophy (2). This research has been conducted on elderly men and women, yet its findings seem relevant to younger subjects:
For 12 week, those people weight trained. When their daily cholesterol intake was inferior to 3.5 mg per kg of lean mass, no hypertrophy was detected. Strength only increased 36%. When their cholesterol consumption was above 5.7 mg/kg, muscle mass increased an average of 2.1 kg. Heavy cholesterol consumers experienced a strength increase of 86%.
Muscle growth and strength gains are closely related to dietary cholesterol intake. Considering a large egg contains around 200 mg of cholesterol, a 220 lbs bodybuilder would need at least 3 whole eggs a day.
Blood cholesterol level on muscle growth
Subjects with serum cholesterol lower than 178 mg/dl did not experienced much growth (+300 g of lean mass). When serum cholesterol was above 238 mg/dl, lean mass increased an average of 2.3 kg. The correlation between serum cholesterol and strength gains is statistically weaker. Subjects with low cholesterol level experienced an increase of 37% Vs 70% for subjects with high levels.
Muscle growth is positively correlated with blood cholesterol level.
Cholesterol lowering drugs on muscle growth
Statins are a class of drugs prescribed to lower the level of cholesterol in the blood. This class of drugs includes lovastatin (Mevacor), simvastatin, (Zocor), fluvastatin (Lescol), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and atorvastatin (Lipitor). The mechanism by which statins lower cholesterol is by blocking the enzyme in the liver, hydroxy-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A (HMCoA) reductase, responsible for producing cholesterol. Statin drugs lower total serum cholesterol levels, including HDL, as well as LDL levels.
Cholesterol intake and blood level represent two independent variables affecting hypertrophy. Subjects who responded the best to weight training were those consuming a cholesterol rich diet AND having a high blood cholesterol level AND using anti-cholesterol statin drugs. It is very surprising to discover that such drugs improved muscle gains as they are associated with myalgia, muscle weakness and muscle wasting in sedentary subjects.
Statin drugs accelerate muscle hypertrophy. The more we train, the more resistant our fibers get. It is increasingly difficult to damage them sufficiently to force them to grow. By rendering our fibers more fragile, statin drugs allow each rep to be more damaging to our muscles. As our muscles cannot seem to strengthen its fibers enough to counteract this fragilizing effect, they have no choice but to keep on growing.
Will cholesterol-related muscle catabolism favor growth?
I am not surprised that catabolic drugs facilitate muscle gains in trained subjects. I have already explained this paradox in a previously published clenbuterol article. Even cholesterol seems to enhance catabolism. Following an acute eccentric workout, soreness as well as strength loss are higher in young men consuming a whole egg diet rather than a low cholesterol diet (1). In response to this exacerbated catabolism, muscle strengthening is much more robust with the whole egg than with the white egg diet (1). This greater anabolic response explains the results observed on elderly. It also suggests that conclusions reached in older subjects apply to young men as well.
It may be important to note that if training-induced catabolism is enhanced by cholesterol lowering drugs, they also protect muscle cells from apoptosis (death) (3). This protective effect may facilitate an additional growth response.
Anabolic steroids and cholesterol
Anabolic steroids can either increase or decrease cholesterol levels depending on the choice of the drug as well as the individual response of the user. For example, orally active 17-alkylated anabolic-androgenic steroid are known to cause and undesirable reduction in HDL cholesterol levels. A severe reduction (which can go as low as having almost no cholesterol) is really bad for 2 reasons:
Cholesterol is needed for muscle growth (as well as for general health). It is very hard to bring cholesterol production back up to normal even with discontinuation of the steroids.
An increase in serum cholesterol levels would be a much better scenario as more cholesterol would be available for growth. It would also provide a good reason to get a prescription for the anti-cholesterol drug class of statins.
With regards to muscle hypertrophy, It is a good idea to follow a high cholesterol diet (at least 3 whole eggs a day).
This is especially true if your training is both intense and traumatic.
Be careful during a low calorie diet as cholesterol intake usually is reduced during this period.
Cholesterol level tends to decline in summer, so be careful at that time, too.
Whole eggs are very appropriate and recommended following a workout.
Steroid users should closely monitor their blood cholesterol level as a decrease may reduce muscle growth.
Steroid users with high cholesterol levels should consult a physician and may consider the use of statin drugs in order to grow even more rapidly.
Riechman SE. Dietary Cholesterol Alters Recovery from Eccentric Muscle Damage in Humans. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Volume 38(5) Supplement May 2006 p S386
Riechman SE. Dietary and blood cholesterol and statins increase hypertrophy with resistance training. FASEB J. 2005 19 A1571
Urso ML. Changes in ubiquitin proteasome pathway gene expression in skeletal muscle with exercise and statins. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2005 Dec;25(12):2441-4.