The Big ol’ Muscle Training Primer, Part 6

Welcome to part six of The Big ol’ Muscle Training Primer.

Today we’re talking about the wide world of supplements, and specifically we’ll be covering the ones most likely to result in positive gains in lean mass, overall performance, and general fitness. Before we get started, I want to note that much of what we know about the effectiveness of supplements is based on industry/user anecdotal report. Very few research bodies have explored the supplement market because it’s difficult to get funding in general, much less for something the overall scientific community doesn’t care much about.

BUT you shouldn’t take this as a disclaimer that basic supplementation is useless. A great many people have spent years researching and testing this stuff rigorously. Even with smaller sample sizes (i.e. fewer people than a traditional scientific study) the results that the fitness community is seeing tend to be stable and repeatable.

Now for the legit disclaimer: DON’T JUST START POPPING PILLS! Talk to your physician before you start taking anything new, and find out if something you’re going to take might have weird interactions with pre-existing conditions in your body, or with other medications you may be taking. I am NOT a doctor, and this should NOT be considered medical advice. Even I were a doctor, this still IS NOT medical advice.

Now that we’ve got that done, let’s talk about those supplements, eh?

Creatine

Your muscle cells produce creatine naturally, and you can find about 95% of the body’s supply around skeletal muscle. The remaining stores are spread throughout the body. In supplements, creatine is found as “creatine monohydrate” which means water has been added to the base compound, generally as a carrier. It’s used for cellular energy production and modulation.We eat it in fish and meat. A pound of uncooked beef contains approximately 1-2 grams of creatine. Our bodies make about 1-2 grams of creatine daily from the amino acids glycine, arginine and methionine.

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

  • Promotion of lean body mass
  • Increased muscle cell volume
  • Faster post-workout recovery
  • Increased glycogen storage
  • Increase high-intensity muscle performance

How to use it: 

  • Saturation: For best effect, the creatine levels in your body need to rise overall, for extended periods of time. This lets your body use the extra when it needs it. To initially saturate your stores, take 0.3 grams of creatine per kilogram of bodyweight every day for one week. For example, a 170 lbs (77 kg) person would need about 23 grams of creatine per day for seven days. Break this up into 5 gram doses 4-5 times daily for the duration of the saturation week.
  • Maintenance: Once you have saturated your system, take 5-10 grams per day, split into halves. Take half your dose with your pre-workout meal or shake. Take the other half of your dose with your post-workout shake.

Beta-Alanine

This is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that you don’t need to eat it to produce it, but you can find it in foods rich in protein (like poultry). Supplementing with BA results in an increase in intra-muscular carnosine, with regular dosages showing a 60% or higher boost over four weeks. This is a big deal because high intensity exercise causes our bodies to accumulate a large amount of excess hydrogen, dropping our internal pH, and causing the body to become more acidic. The build up of lactic acid leads to fatigue, decreased muscle performance, and eventual muscle failure. By maintaining higher carnisine levels, the build up of hydrogen is stunted, delaying the onset of these performance killers.

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

  • Elevated endurance
  • Improved force output
  • Delayed fatigue
  • Improved repeated sprint ability
  • Works synergistically with creatine

How to use it: 

  • Maintenance: Take 2-6 grams per day, half in the morning and half in the evening, approx. 12 hours apart.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

A very common supplement that is being increasingly found in protein bars and recovery drinks, BCAA’s help stimulate protein synthesis and help regulate protein metabolism. The three amino acids referred to as BCAA’s are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The body essentially  uses BCAAs to help muscles recover, driving nutrients to the muscle tissue, allowing for improved workout recovery.

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

In the muscle, BCAAs serve as an energy source during exercise, so taking a supplement can help restore the same nutrients lost during intense exercise. This supplement also reduces pain from muscle fatigue and improves metabolic recovery. There is some evidence that BCAA supplementation can also improve endurance by keeping muscles heavy with fuel during longer term exercise, which is of particular interest to long-distance runners, hikers, and swimmers.

How to use it: 

  • Maintenance: 3-5 grams upon waking, 3-5 grams pre-workout, 3-5 grams post-workout.

Glutamine

Glutamine is primarily used for it’s ability to slow down muscle tissue breakdown during intense exercise. This slowing may improve strength thresholds since the muscles can maintain maximal efforts longer without the usual fatigue/stress damage that naturally occurs during training. This may also improve endurance overall for the same reasons. Those weight training will find that they can lift heavier weights for longer periods and train more often. Pushing the limits of the muscles inspires the body to produce greater lean muscle to compensate.

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

  • Preserving muscle tissue leads to greater fat burning for energy, which improves body composition over time. The more lean mass you carry, the better your metabolism functions. Since weight loss training also usually leads to some muscle loss, anything that can be done to slow that process is beneficial in the long term.
  • Many people also show improvement in their overall immune system health, since your body is better equipped to deal with the stresses of heavy training.
  • Some studies also suggest that using as little as 2 grams of glutamine per day can lead to higher Growth Hormone levels in the body, which directly impacts lean mass growth and fat loss.

How to use it: 

  • Maintenance: 5 grams upon waking, 5 grams post-workout, 5 grams before bed.

Nitric Oxide Boosters

Personal Disclaimer: I suffer from regular, intermittent migraines. When I took an NO Booster, I had the worst non-migraine headache I have ever had, and it persisted for several hours until the NO dispersed to normal levels. I do not recommend this to anyone who has migraines frequently, but if you choose to try it, be aware you might have a really bad day. I have not heard of any other negative side-effects.

Nitric oxide (NO) is a molecule found throughout the body that’s involved in multiple processes. The one we care about most is its ability to dilate blood vessels, allowing more blood flow to the muscles for enhanced delivery of oxygen, nutrients, anabolic hormones and water (blood is mostly water). NO boosters provide  the amino acid arginine, which is readily converted to NO in the body. Research has found that subjects who were given arginine increased muscle strength/growth and lost body fat.

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

  • Greater energy during workouts
  • Enhanced muscle pump
  • Better recovery and growth post-workout
  • This gives you more energy during your workout, an enhanced muscle pump, and better muscle recovery and growth after the workout.

How to use it: 

  • Maintenance: For optimal dosing, take 3-5 grams of an arginine supplement at the following times:
    • Before breakfast
    • 30-60 minutes before your workout
    • Immediately post-workout
    • 30-60 minutes before bed
  • When possible, take each dose without food
  • Consider combining it with 500-1,000 mg of vitamin C, which can help maintain levels of NO for longer.

Carnitine

Carnitine is a popular fat-loss supplement. It is an amino acid in the body that is responsible for transporting long chain fatty acids like triglycerides into cell mitochondria. Once the fatty acids are in the mitochondria, they’re oxidized to produce energy. In addition, carnitine helps increase blood flow to muscles and has been shown to increase Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1).

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

  • Carnitine provides benefits similar to NO Boosters due to the blood flow improvement
  • Increase in testosterone levels post-workout along with an increase in the amount of T-receptors in muscle cells, stimulating growth
  • The increase in IGF-1 also leads to improved muscle growth over time

How to use it: 

  • Maintenance: For optimal dosing, take 1-3 grams of carnitine at the following times…
    • Breakfast
    • Pre-workout shake (generally 30 min prior)
    • Post-workout shake (within 60 min post)
    • Nighttime meal

Beta-Ecdysterone

This is an interesting compound called a phytochemical, which is a naturally occurring chemical found in plants. Many phytochemicals are responsible for the organoleptic (pertaining to the sense organs like smell or sight) properties of a plant. Examples would be the phytochemicals that give blueberries color or garlic that distinctive smell.

Beta-Ecdysterone is found in plants like spinach, where the main function is to protect the plant from insects. Back in the day, some enterprising Russian scientists discovered that it also has anabolic properties (substances which stimulate protein synthesis, muscle growth, and insulin).

Beta-ecdysterone  doesn’t behave like a hormone in the body. It works by stimulating protein synthesis, resulting in muscle growth.

The benefits associated with creatine supplementation include:

  • Anecdotal reports suggest that it’s very effective for producing increases in both muscle size and strength.

How to use it: 

  • Maintenance: For optimal dosing, take 100 mg (milligrams NOT grams) at the following times (total 400-500 mg per day)…
    • Breakfast
    • Lunch and/or Dinner
    • Pre-workout
    • Post-Workout

And that’s it! This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting point for most people training seriously for aesthetics, strength, and overall performance.

Join us next time when we’ll start talking about training specific muscle groups and the Push-Pull-Legs method!