Does Obesity and Insulin Resistance Make It Harder to Build Muscle?

Can obesity and insulin resistance make it harder to build muscle.

One strategy people use to lose weight is to exercise, mainly cardio. Although cardio is a calorie burner, strength training offers benefits you don’t get from a moderate-intensity cardio workout. Studies clearly show that strength training helps with weight loss as well. Building metabolically active muscle tissue gives your resting metabolism a boost, although the effects are subtle. For each additional pound of muscle that you gain, you burn an additional 6 to 10 calories daily. Most importantly, strength training helps preserve muscle and strength when you lose weight so that you have a healthier body composition. Ideally, we want to shed body fat rather than muscle.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight, you need strength training. Yet, a recent study suggests that people who are obese and who have insulin resistance may have a muscle-building disadvantage. Is there truth to the idea that carrying more body fat interferes with muscle hypertrophy? Keep in mind this was a small study, but it suggests there’s a link.

For the study, researchers recruited 9 obese and 9 normal weight young adults to take part in a weight training protocol. The subjects were not physically active. Beforehand, the researchers measured the body composition of the participants, their level of strength, and their glucose tolerance.

Is Building Muscle Harder When You’re Obese?

As part of the study, the researchers took muscle biopsies from one thigh of each of the participants. Afterward, the subjects did 4 sets of a leg exercise, completing 10 to 12 reps during each set. The researchers then used a special technique to monitor the levels of amino acids in the participants’ bloodstream. After the exercise session, the participants consumed lean ground pork.  Then, the muscle biopsies were repeated two more times, the last one 5 hours after the exercise. The leg that the participants didn’t exercise served as a control.

After the exercise and ingestion of protein, muscle protein synthesis increased in both legs of the participants. However, the lean individuals experienced a greater boost in muscle protein synthesis in the exercised leg than the obese subjects did. Based on this, researchers concluded that obesity seems to reduce the degree of muscle repair and hypertrophy that takes place in response to a workout.

Why might this be? Based on the results of this study, it appears that anabolic signaling pathways that tell muscles to grow are less robust in people who are obese. One contributing factor could be the greater degree of insulin resistance in people who are obese. Insulin is a hormone that helps open up the channels for glucose and amino acid to enter muscle cells. After a workout, muscles need those amino acids to help them repair. When a person is insulin resistant, glucose and amino acids don’t enter muscle cells as efficiently. As a result, working muscles may not get the building blocks they need to grow as easily.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to break the cycle of insulin resistance. The most effective strategy is to lose weight, but it’s hard to do that when you’re insulin resistant. When insulin sensitivity is low, the pancreas has to produce more insulin, and the excess insulin stays in the bloodstream longer. Insulin promotes fat storage and blocks fat breakdown. That certainly makes losing weight a challenge

Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Insulin Resistance

One key to maximizing muscle development when you’re obese would be to improve insulin sensitivity. To do that, a diet lower in carbs may give you an advantage. Some studies show that low-carb diets are more effective in boosting insulin sensitivity. But, very low-carb diets (less than 50 grams of carbs daily) are an extreme approach to treating insulin resistance. Such drastic carb reduction may not be necessary to break the cycle of insulin resistance.

How can you improve insulin sensitivity? Start by eliminating processed foods and refined carbs from your diet. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugar. Doing this alone will improve how your cells respond to insulin. Of course, you want to include enough protein in your diet as protein is satiating and supplies the amino acids your muscles need to grow.

Exercise is part of the prescription for insulin resistance too. Although you might think aerobic exercise is the most beneficial, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a combination of aerobic and resistance training is more effective for improving insulin sensitivity. In fact, one study showed that every 10% increase in muscle mass was linked with an 11% improvement in insulin sensitivity. That’s worth strength training for! Even if it is harder to build muscle when you have a lot of body fat, you’ll still get benefits.

Simply moving more is beneficial. In one analysis of 1626 men and women, subjects who were the most sedentary were twice as likely to develop insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome compared to those who met the recommended exercise guidelines. It’s not enough to do a structured workout, although it helps. Be aware of how much you’re moving throughout the day. Less television in the evening and more after-dinner walks!

Small Things You Can Do to Improve Blood Glucose Control & Reduce Insulin Resistance

Some studies suggest that consuming apple cider vinegar with a meal lowers the glucose response to that meal. The active ingredient seems to be the acetic acid in vinegar. If you’re eating a salad, a vinegar-based dressing is your best choice. When you consume vinegar with acetic acid, it slows the rate at which foods moves out of your stomach and into your intestinal tract. This helps to reduce glucose absorption and the rise in blood sugar you get with a meal.

Some research suggests that a pinch of cinnamon helps with blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity. In fact, one study found that it enhanced insulin sensitivity for up to 12 hours after consumption. How about a pinch of cinnamon in your morning coffee? These are small changes that may be beneficial, but they’ll only have an impact if you follow an unprocessed diet and exercise. They’re small steps you can take to improve how your cells respond to insulin.



·       Science Daily. “Post-Workout Muscle Building and Repair Blunted in Obese Adults”

·       The Journal of Physiology. “Altered anabolic signaling and reduced stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis after feeding and resistance exercise in people with obesity” 16 August 2018.

·       J Diabetes Complications. 2015 Sep-Oct;29(7):950-4.

·       J Appl Physiol (1985). 2015 Jun 15;118(12):1474-82.

·       J Clin Oncol. 2008 Feb 20;26(6):907-12.

·       MedPage.com. “Muscle Mass Knocks Out Insulin Resistance”

·       Obes Res. 2005 Mar;13(3):608-14.

·       Eur J Clin Nutr. 2005 Sep;59(9):983-8.

·       HealthLine.com. “How Cinnamon Lowers Blood Sugar and Fights Diabetes”


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