Everything You Need to Know About ATP

ATP: The Engine of Life

You know what it means to hit “Beast Mode”, but you might be surprised to find out that we humans have more in common with our wild counterparts than we might think.

That is to say, the biological process that gives a cheetah its energy to reach 30 miles per hour is the same one that allows a seedling to sprout from the soil, as well as giving you the energy to read this article.

It all boils down to three letters: ATP.  Here’s everything you need to know about the fuel of, well, everything…

What is ATP Exactly? 

To put it simply, Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, is an organic molecular compound that serves as the main source of energy within the cells. Biochemists like to refer to it as the “energy currency” of the cell, and all living things on Earth use it - even microorganisms and plants rely on the stuff.

In our case, ATP is tasked with supplying energy to the cells to power all sorts of cellular and metabolic processes, from aerobic respiration to muscle contraction, and even DNA replication.

Without getting too technical with the jargon, let’s break down exactly how ATP plays its critical role in fueling our body while we’re busy chasing those gains…

Think of it like this: If our muscles are the engine, ATP is the fuel used to generate force to power the body.  ATP is so important, in fact, that your body has not just one, but three distinct systems dedicated to creating it.

The 3 Metabolic Pathways to Energy

Depending on the type of exercise that is being performed or the requirement of the activity, the body will ‘shift’ between these systems, like shifting gears on a manual transmission vehicle.

These energy systems are called metabolic pathways, and perform important functions as follows:

1. the Phosphagen System

First up is the powerhouse phosphagen system - also called the ATP-PC (phosphocreatine) system. This hard-hitter is the very pathway that takes over during high power/short duration exercises, like the 100 meter sprint and one rep of max deadlifts.

To power these short bursts of energy quickly, the phosphagen system uses the molecule creatine phosphate to make ATP, which gives us a rapid blast that lasts for about 10 seconds.

"Training this system will improve your explosive speed, strength, and power so you'll be able to jump higher, sprint faster, and throw harder..."  
David Greuner, M.D. @ NYC Surgical Associates

2. the GLYCOGEN System

Next up is the glycolytic system, which takes over in the sweet spot of about 12-90 seconds (during types of exercise that generally involve breaks between sets). Think your typical routine on the weights, a HIIT set, or a 400 meter sprint. 

Thanks to a process called glycolysis, the body is incredibly efficient at converting energy from glycogen – AKA stored glucose or sugar from food sources, particularly carbohydrates.

Sometimes also called the lactic acid system, this process of creating ATP is the culprit of post-workout soreness and fatigue. 

That's because lactic acid is a waste byproduct of the glycolytic process. However, the more you activate this process, the more efficient your body gets at it, creating less waste in the form of lactic acid = less soreness. Win-win!


Finally, we have the oxidative system. Associated with cardio and endurance fitness, the oxidative system is often referred to in more familiar terms as aerobic respiration (as opposed to the phosphagen and glycogen system, which are both anaerobic). 

This is the default setting of your body’s engine, whether you’re running a marathon, reading a book, or catching some z’s.

Its immediate distinction is that this system requires oxygen to operate, plus its primary source is actually fat.

This is exactly why cardio is hailed for its weight loss benefits, in addition to its stamina-boosting effects when you get your blood pumping and heart rate up for longer periods of time.

As you can see, the body is a vastly complicated thing, and there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye while we’re sweating it out. We’ll certainly be giving a nod of recognition to our ATP energy systems from now on… Where will yours take you?

Maggie Johnson | MME Warrior & Workout Contributor

Meet the new MME Combat Medic Pro™ Smartwatch. It's not only tricked out with apps, features & sensors that give you real-time feedback on your anatomical stats, but next-level user controls that let you call all the shots.


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