Dr_Grove_Higgins Pain & Movement Specialist
The Insulin Sensitivity Reset
Here’s how to maximize the anabolic effects of insulin production, minimize the unwanted effects, and get jacked.
Insulin is the hormone known for managing blood sugar, but it also helps with muscle growth. After all, anabolism is the building phase of metabolism, and it’s triggered by insulin. Let’s quickly review its anabolic effects:
Insulin helps build protein in muscles. It connects with receptors on muscle cells and starts pathways that increase mRNA translation, driving protein synthesis, muscle repair, and growth.
Insulin stops the system that breaks down most proteins in muscle cells, enabling recovery to occur.
Insulin helps us use glucose and store glycogen in muscle cells. High insulin levels move glucose into muscle cells and change it to glycogen. This is used as energy during workouts, helping with high-intensity exercises, muscle endurance, and the pump.
Insulin increases the uptake of essential amino acids like leucine, isoleucine, and valine. This makes them more available for muscle repair and growth.
Insulin helps create fatty acids and stops the breakdown of stored fat. This might not seem directly anabolic, but body fat is needed for hormone production, including testosterone. So, insulin’s effects on fat creation can indirectly support muscle growth by ensuring your body has enough energy stores and hormones, including testosterone.
Coach Charles Poliquin believed that managing insulin levels with low-carb diets could enhance muscle growth. The key? Maximize the body’s response to insulin by controlling insulin release.
Here’s how to get the most muscle-building power out of insulin without causing the body to develop insulin resistance, according to Poliquin:
- Eat Carbs After Workouts: This increases insulin levels which drive nutrients into muscle cells and promote growth.
- Cycle Carbs for Better Insulin Response: Poliquin suggested carb cycling to improve insulin sensitivity and muscle growth. This means alternating between high- and low-carb days based on your workout intensity and goals. In addition, carb cycling can help support energy levels for better workouts.
- Take Control of Insulin with Low-Carb Diets: Poliquin promoted low-carb and keto diets to help some people control insulin levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and lose fat. However, he also said that keto might only work for some people. Finding the right balance between carbs and your personal needs is important.
- Eat Quality Carbs: Poliquin stressed the importance of eating high-quality carbs for better insulin response. He recommended nutrient-dense, low-glycemic carbs like sweet potatoes, quinoa, and oatmeal. These provide steady energy without causing sharp spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
- Manipulate Protein and Fat Intake for Better Insulin Response: Poliquin also highlighted the need for enough protein and fat in your diet to help insulin response and muscle growth. Eat high-quality protein sources like grass-fed beef, wild game, and eggs. He also suggested eating healthy fats, like avocados, nuts, and olive oil, to support hormone production.
- Customize Your Nutrition Plan: Poliquin knew that not everyone responds to low-carb diets the same way. He believed each person should create their own nutrition plan based on their needs, goals, and genetics. By trying different macronutrient ratios and tracking your progress, you can find the best balance of carbs, proteins, and fats for your body.
- Go to Sleep: Poliquin also discussed the importance of sleep for muscle growth and performance. Plus, adequate sleep helps control insulin sensitivity which supports muscle growth.
Based on Coach Poliquin’s advice and combined with recent science, here’s a simplified strategy to boost insulin’s anabolic signaling effect:
Morning Routine: Start your day with a protein-rich breakfast to support repair and growth. Include healthy fats, such as avocados or nuts, to support hormone production.
Pre and Intra Workout: Consume a serving of Surge® Workout Fuel about 15 minutes before your workout to enhance energy levels and endurance. Drink another serving during training.
Post-Workout: Eat a meal rich in high-quality carbohydrates and protein within 30-60 minutes after your workout to spike insulin levels.
Throughout the Day: Focus on nutrient-dense, low-glycemic carbs, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, and oatmeal. Prioritize high-quality protein sources. Adjust your carb intake based on your activity levels and individual needs.
Evening Routine: A protein-rich meal or snack before bedtime supports overnight muscle repair and growth. Prioritize sleep to enhance insulin sensitivity.
Despite our best efforts, sometimes our bodies become less sensitive to insulin’s effects. Aging and a high-carb lifestyle combined with stress can flip the switch – the body begins to ignore insulin’s anabolic signal. To make the most of insulin’s muscle-building power, re-sensitize your body. Here are some tips to help boost insulin sensitivity:
Keeping insulin low by reducing carb intake will make your body pay attention to insulin when it’s present again. This may take weeks or months. Blood tests (A1C and HOMA-IR ratio) can be helpful.
CGMs devices allow you to monitor your response to food. Learning how to modulate glucose spikes and bring them down quickly after eating can be an invaluable tool. I’ve used the Veri device with patients and athletes successfully.
Both resistance training and cardio help your body respond better to insulin. Walking after meals can be a huge tool for regaining insulin sensitivity.
Intermittent fasting – alternating between fasting and eating periods – can improve insulin sensitivity and help regulate blood sugar levels for more efficient muscle-nutrient uptake. Several weeks of 12-16 hour fasts (4-8 hour eating window) can bump up sensitivity significantly. Fasting can also be done during specific days of the week, alternating days of normal eating and fasting.
Extra body fat reduces insulin sensitivity. Maintain a healthy body weight to enhance your body’s response to insulin.
Get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. This has a huge anabolic payoff.
Chronic stress hurts insulin sensitivity. Find a stress-reducing activity to keep stress levels under control.
Some supplements, such as alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, and magnesium, may improve insulin sensitivity. I like:
By following these simple tips and improving your body’s sensitivity to insulin, you can maximize your muscle-building potential. Keep in mind, everyone’s needs are different, so find the right balance for your goals and lifestyle.
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- Vega RB et al. Role of insulin signaling in the interaction between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2014;42(3);117-125.
- Jacobsen ALG et al. Role of dietary carbohydrates in muscle glycogen synthesis after strenuous exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2021;121(3):621-639.
- Ji LL et al. Effect of insulin on amino acid uptake and protein turnover in skeletal muscle from exercised rats. Am J Physiol. 1987;252(6):E712.