Written by Adam Tzur
Last updated: 26.12.2016
Thanks to Greg Nuckols of Strengtheory for giving me feedback when writing this article.
- mTOR has many functions. It regulates fat storage, the immune system, hypertrophy, atrophy, metabolism, and whole-body energy balance (along with AMPK).
- mTOR activation does not guarantee gains, and AMPK activation does not guarantee atrophy. In fact, some studies show the opposite could be true.
- Non-hypertrophic stimuli like cardio, inflammation, and the immune system can activate mTOR.
- Anabolic signalling mechanisms are complicated; it’s very hard to predict gains by looking at acute changes in hormones, muscle protein synthesis, and mTOR activation.
In this article, the following questions are answered:
- What are the functions of mTOR?
- Can mTOR activation lead to hypertrophy?
- Are there situations where mTOR activation does not lead to gains?
The multiple functions of mTOR and AMPK
HyperTORphy: an introduction
Mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) is considered to be one of the wheels that drive the anabolic machinery in our body. It is activated by nutrition and exercise, and has been thought to alter muscle protein synthesis. mTOR is often called the “master regulator” of anabolism and cell growth for this reason (Foster & Fingar, 2010; Schoenfeld, 2010; Gonzalez, 2015b; Tee, 2014; Watson & Baar, 2014). Several researchers link mTOR with muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Thus mTOR is probably connected to hypertrophy (Mitchell et al., 2011; Goodman, 2014; Bond, 2016).
Here is an illustration from Goodman, 2014 of the mTORC1 signalling cascade:
As we can see in this illustration, mTOR connects to protein synthesis and cell growth via different pathways. This means that mTOR influences hypertrophy indirectly. Kind of like how the engine of a car is necessary to make it move, but you still need other “pathways” like the steering wheel, cooling mechanisms, clutch, etc. to functionally drive the car.
mTOR associates not only with MPS, but muscle protein breakdown (MPB) as well. As you may recall from my ASM article, MPB has a catabolic effect. Researchers like Goodman (2014) state that mTOR is inversely connected to MPB. This means mTOR deactivates MPB. By doing this, mTOR could help prevent catabolism (Sandri, 2013).
Metabolism and energy balance: how amino acids and glycogen affect mTOR and AMPK
Similarly to exercise, amino acids activate mTOR (Goodman, 2014; Bond, 2016). But not only amino acids are important for mTOR regulation; the energy status of a cell influences this as well. Cells have energy stores (i.e. glycogen) that can be depleted. For example, this depletion could happen after a long or intense bout of exercise (Boutcher, 2011; Aragon & Schoenfeld, 2013; Knuiman et al., 2015). The cell monitors 1 and senses when it’s low on energy (Carbone, 2012; Lopez et al., 2016). When this happens, it may try to conserve energy by activating pathways (i.e. AMPK) that inhibit anabolic signalling (i.e. mTOR) 1 (Xu et al., 2012; Morentin et al., 2014; Cai et al., 2015; Lopez et al., 2016). AMPK observes what and when we eat and uses this information to regulate energy balance.1
According to this theory, we will likely experience atrophy in periods of energy deprivation. However, the body tries to bounce back from energy deficits. One of the ways it does this is by upregulating glycogen resynthesis in muscle cells after exercise (Aragon & Schoenfeld, 2013). By supplying carbs post-exercise when the cell is energy depleted, we could maximise glycogen resynthesis. However, this probably isn’t something you need to focus on if you’re in an energy surplus. It could be more important if you are in a deficit or do several workouts per day (more on this in a future article about nutrient timing).
As I mentioned, cells always try to maintain cellular energy homeostasis (Carbone, 2012; Bond, 2016). By feeding, we diminish catabolic response that come from AMPK activation (Lopez et al., 2016). This is because macronutrients like protein activate mTOR, which in turn cross-talks with AMPK. Together, they control whole-body energy balance (Morentin et al., 2014; Cai et al., 2015; Hardie, 2011; Xu et al., 2012; Lopez et al., 2016). Some studies find that mTOR and AMPK influence your hunger and activity levels, but most of these studies are done on animals as of date. There are ethical considerations when playing around with mTOR in humans, since it affects the body in a lot of different ways.
mTOR plays an important role in adaptive immunity (Araki et al., 2011). This system specialises in eliminating specific pathogens (i.e. viruses, bacteria). There’s also the innate immune system that functions a bit differently. This system produces non-specific responses to pathogens, like inflammation. And since mTOR is connected to both systems, it is also regulates part of the inflammatory response.
Whenever the body is infected, T-cells, along with other immune mechanisms, fight against the threat. mTOR activation helps regulate T-cell traffic (Araki et al., 2011).
This means that mTOR activation isn’t always directly related to hypertrophy. This is a confounding variable that needs to be controlled for in mTOR hypertrophy research. In different terms, let’s say there’s a ball rolling down a hill. You know that your friend Frank went up the hill a few minutes ago, so you assume that Frank kicked the ball down the hill (classic Frank). This means you have created a causal relationship between Frank (the cause) and the ball rolling down the hill (the effect). However, it’s also possible that a strong surge of wind pushed the ball down the hill. Frank’s visibility and the wind become confounding variables we need to control for. So the next time a ball rolls down a hill, you need to be certain that you can see Frank kicking the ball, but you should also check that the wind isn’t blowing very hard at that moment. Now replace yourself with researchers, Frank with amino acids/resistance training, and the ball with mTOR, and the wind with alternative mTOR activation (i.e. immune system-related activation) and you can see my concern; we need to control for how mTOR is activated, and what type of protein synthesis it affects.
With that said, 2015 review by Weicchart et al., notes that mTOR activates the innate immune system as well as whole-body protein synthesis at the same time. This might seem weird, because why would infections cause gains (assuming MPS elevations = gains)? There are several reasons why they wouldn’t, one of them being that whole-body protein synthesis does not predict hypertrophy (Tzur, 2016). Myofibrillar protein synthesis is a better proxy for gains if measured alongside MPB. Ultimately this means that mTOR can active MPS in circumstances that are not hypertrophy-specific. At least this is what the animal research suggests. Another argument for mTORs connection to the immune system is that mTOR inhibition leads to immunosuppression in animals (Weichhart et al., 2015).
I won’t go into great detail about mTOR’s role in fat storage in this article, but it should suffice to say that mTOR regulates adipose tissue in many animals, and possibly humans 2 (Woods et al., 2008; Mannaa et al., 2013)2
Even though mTOR has been associated with growth and anabolism, there’s also evidence suggesting it drives the aging process (Hands et al., 2009; Ristow & Schmeisser, 2014). By inhibiting mTOR activation, you might be able to slow your natural aging (Lamming et al., 2013; Araki et al., 2011) using, for example, caloric restriction (Fontana et al., 2010; Frankson et al., 2013; Ristow & Schmeisser, 2014; Medkour et al., 2016).
mTOR has many important roles in the body. I think it is important to point this out because I usually see mTOR described as a hypertrophy switch and then nothing else is said of its multiple, complicated functions. It should be clear that mTOR does not function on it’s own; it’s connected to many other mechanisms.
Limitations of mTOR research
Some of the mTOR and AMPK research cited in this section is done on animals. Animal research is not directly applicable to humans 3. But this doesn’t mean animals and humans are completely different 4. In fact, some researchers think there is considerable overlap between species because they have many biological mechanisms in common 5. So there is definitively a basis for interspecies comparison. Even so, in the next section we completely discard animal science in favour of human research.345
Human hypertrophy and mTOR: applied research
We’ve discussed whether mTOR activation could lead to gains from a molecular point of view. But molecular logic is only one perspective. We need to look at the applied science; does mTOR activation lead to hypertrophy in real life human subjects?
I will present both sides of the argument independently, then critically evaluate the research that supports or challenges mTOR as a predictor of hypertrophy.
Before we start, let’s clarify some issues on causation and correlation:
What does it mean that mTOR “predicts gains”? In short, the assumption is that a greater degree of mTOR activation leads to more hypertrophy. A logical follow-up to this assumption is that mTOR deactivation should lead to atrophy (or at least non-hypertrophy). We also assume that if mTOR is causally connected to gains, then any activation of mTOR should lead to hypertrophy, even if there is no exercise-related stimulus. If mTOR activation does not lead to hypertrophy, it is not causally connected to gains. We have a correlation but no causation if mTOR is connected to gains only in some circumstances. And if there’s only a correlation, then mTOR’s predictive powers aren’t as strong, because we would need to control for other factors that would influence hypertrophy. Ideally we would like to be able to quantify it (Rennie et al., 2004).
For example: “x% mTOR activation leads to x amount of LBM gains”
The case for mTOR
We’ve already partially established how mTOR works, but let’s dig deeper into the theory. Let’s start with how we know whether mTOR is “activated” or not.
As per the illustration further up in this article, mTOR is connected to various downstream effectors like p70S6K. These factors can be phosphorylated, which is a complicated way of saying they can be switched on or off (Laplante and Sabatini, 2009). When researchers want to see if mTOR is activated, they usually measure the activity of enzymes like p70S6K. In other words they measure mTOR activation indirectly. There are many different ways of activating mTOR and downstream effectors (Hay and Sonenberg, 2004) but since I don’t want to write War and Peace part 2: The Paths to mTOR, I’ll stick to the effector that’s most relevant to us: p70S6K
Let’s start with a study from 2006, by Dreyer et al. where they put 11 untrained men and women through 6 resistance training sessions and measured mTOR downstream signals like p70S6K and 4E-BP1. They also looked at the mTOR inhibitor AMPK and compared the results to mixed muscle protein synthesis*. The researchers found that AMPK was activated during exercise, as is to be expected per our discussion on energy sensing and cellular energy depletion. Exercise lowered MPS temporarily. One to two hours post-exercise, mTOR downstreams were activated alongside increased MPS. So there is a correlation between mTOR and MPS.However, there are some issues with this study (click if you want to go in-depth)
1: the subjects were untrained, meaning their anabolic signalling responses “overreact” to resistance training stimuli compared to trained people (Coffey et al., 2005; Gonzalez, 2015; Gonzalez et al., 2015a)
*2: Mixed muscle protein synthesis does not predict gains (Tzur, 2016)
3: They didn’t measure LBM, or muscle fiber CSA. It’s important to measure gains directly.
4: N=11 (genotypic and phenotypic variation could affect the results)
With that said, they did make a cool discovery:
amino acid concentrations [did not regulate] mTOR signalling during and after resistance exercise, since mTOR phosphorylation was increasing while amino acid concentrations were decreasing.
This finding is a bit of a surprise since we would expect to see increased amino acid concentrations with increased mTOR activity.
Another study from 2008 got six untrained male students to participate in a 14-week resistance training program that added 40kg (mean) to their squat and 20kg (mean) to their bench (Terzis et al., 2008). They measured p70S6K and found an association with mTOR activation and strength and hypertrophy gains. However, the authors acknowledged that p70S6K may not be correlated to gains in trained athletes. Several other research teams agree that trained athletes respond differently to anabolic signals 6 (Coffey et al., 2005; Gonzalez, 2015; Gonzalez et al., 2015a).6
Luckily, Terzis et al. did measure hypertrophy directly (FFM and muscle fiber type CSA) in this study.
The low participation number was corrected (N=50) in a similar study by Kumar et al., 2009. This study has 360+ citations and is perhaps one of the hallmark studies of mTOR and MPS. They found a correlation between p70s6k in myofibrillar MPS and gains in young subjects. They concluded that older people had anabolic resistance, because of their reduced anabolic signalling. Sadly, Kumar et al. didn’t directly measure hypertrophy.
Things were turned on their head a year later when Terzis et al. published a study with eight untrained men doing 14 weeks of resistance training (Terzis et al., 2010). They discovered that p70s6K was correlated with muscle hypertrophy (but not strength) after a bout of training, while mTOR activation was not 7. This is slightly “shocking” given that p70s6K was previously considered a sign of mTOR activation. But in this study, p70s6K was independently linked to hypertrophy.7
I’m not quite sure whether to put this study in the case against or case for hypertrophy. On one hand it shows us that mTOR downstream signals are linked to gains, but on the other hand it says these signals function independently of mTOR. It raises the possibility that we can get gains without mTOR activation.
In addition to the studies mentioned, several other researcher teams find correlations between p70s6K and gains 8. Others find a weak correlation between p70s6K and MyoMPS 9. It’s possible p70S6k is independent of mTOR, meaning mTOR might not be directly involved in some of the hypertrophic processes.89
The case against mTOR
We will start the counterargument with Philp et al. challenging the assumption that molecular mechanisms like mTOR can predict gains by themselves:
It is likely that more than one factor is responsible for growth signaling in response to resistance exercise. It is possible that one sensor starts the cycle and the others function to maintain mTORC1 activity at various times after resistance exercise (…) in humans it is likely that many molecular signals are required to maintain or increase muscle mass (Philp et al., 2011).
This line of reasoning is acknowledged by other research groups (Hoppeler, 2016; Mitchell et al., 2015; Camera et al., 2016; Atherton & Smith 2012; McGlory and Phillips, 2015; Burd et al., 2015; Smiles et al., 2016; Phillips et al., 2013; Murach and Bagley, 2016; Tzur, 2016; D’Souza et al., 2014; Nakada et al., 2016; Gonzalez et al., 2015a; Timmons & Gallagher, 2016). Perhaps we need to look at several signalling mechanisms and pathways at different points in time to see “the big picture” of gains.
As an example, some studies find no link between mTOR and MPS (in some circumstances) (Burd et al., 2011; Mitchell et al., 2016; Nakada et al., 2016; Gonzalez et al., 2015a; Murton and Greenhaff, 2013). For example, a study from 2016 found that leucine supplementation (which strongly influences muscle protein synthesis) did not increase mTOR/AKT signalling (Church et al., 2016). Another study from the same year noted that fish oil supplementation reduced anabolic signalling but not muscle protein synthesis after strength training (McGlory et al., 2016).
Even though several studies say p70s6K is correlated with hypertrophy and MPS, there are others that contradict this 10 (D’Souza et al., 2014; Gibala et al., 2009 Nakada et al., 2016; Mitchell et al., 2012)10
The results of the present study suggest that p70S6K phosphorylation can regulate only a small rate of muscular growth [in humans], and that [other mechanisms are] required to gain a larger magnitude of hypertrophy (Nakada et al., 2016)
Beyond this, some authors critique the idea that mTOR causes gains because endurance exercise can activate mTOR in humans (Murach and Bagley, 2016). If mTOR is an anabolic pathway and endurance exercise activates mTOR, does that mean endurance exercise is anabolic? Probably not. Perhaps mTOR can also initiate mitochondrial protein synthesis which is usually elevated after cardio (Mascher et al., 2011). But MitoMPS isn’t related to hypertrophic gains. We have a similar problem with older individuals. In a recent 2016 review, Timmons and Gallagher discuss that mTOR activation is elevated in fasted elderly people. This sounds very strange, since we would expect mTOR to be deactivated because (1) fasting = anti-mTOR and (2) aging = anabolic blunting. However, T & G explain that the mTOR activation is probably a “compensatory response reflecting increased relative muscle loading in daily life (due to reduced muscle strength or conditioning)”. This is one example where the body has to upregulate an anabolic mechanism because it’s, paradoxically, having problems maintaining muscle mass and/or function.
Three years ago, Philips et al. published a study where they looked molecular networks and genes in 45 untrained participants. They analyzed anabolic signalling mechanisms to predict gains to a 20 week, monitored resistance training protocol. The cool thing was that they analyzed every individual in isolation, because humans have very different responses to exercise 11. This is a different approach to most studies who lump all subjects together into one analysis and ignore individual differences in signalling mechanism activation and gains. Surprisingly, the research team found that those with the greatest hypertrophy did not “require” mTOR activation 12.1112
Several researchers now question whether anabolic signalling mechanisms can predict hypertrophy at all, because the body is so complicated and so many of its anabolic signals are interconnected 13. The signals might function non-linearly; activation of p70s6K/mTOR might predict gains when measured 1 hour after exercise, but perhaps not 2 hours after exercise. Perhaps another signalling pathway takes over and continues the work towards hypertrophy (Schoenfeld, 2013; Camera et al., 2016). But then again, the body can send as many anabolic signals as it wants to; without proper recovery and nutrition it won’t be able to grow. This shows us how futile it is to tunnel-vision on singular anabolic mechanisms without analysing your lifestyle, diet, sleep, diseases, etc.13