You’re reading the latest issue of your favorite fitness magazine; and, cover-to-cover, you see ads for all kinds of supplements promising to “erupt your anabolic drive,” “dramatically increase protein synthesis,” and “pack on pounds of lean mass…fast!” There’s always an impressive before-and-after shot, and you’re intrigued. But, do these impressive ads have scientific muscle to back up their heavy claims?
Read on to learn…
How much protein and amino acids you really need to build muscle.
If creatine is the magic bullet it is claimed to be.
Whether or not andro and other pro-hormone supplements offer safe and effective alternatives to anabolic steroids.
What are the keys to achieving optimal muscle strength and mass?
Is there a genetic limit to how much muscle you can gain?
Protein & Amino Acids
Click on the link above to find out how much you really need to build muscle.CreatineWhat is it?
Creatine is comprised of three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. It can be made in the body (primarily by the kidneys, but also by the liver and pancreas to some extent) from these amino acids. Because it can be made in the body, there is no dietary requirement for it. We synthesize about 1 gm/day.
Creatine is also a naturally occurring compound found in beef, poultry, and fish. We consume creatine in our diet from these food sources (about 1 gm/day). Vegetarians who do not eat these animal foods tend to have lower creatine levels than meat eaters.
Once creatine is taken up by the muscle, it can combine with phosphate, forming creatine phosphate (CP). CP is a high energy compound stored in muscle that is used during very short, very intense power activities which last only 2-30 seconds (like weight lifting, sprinting, swinging a baseball bat, or slam-dunking a basketball). It's claimed that taking creatine supplements will help you train harder and achieve greater gains in muscular strength and size.Does it work?
There is convincing evidence that creatine supplementation enhances recovery, and thus improves performance, during repeated bouts of very intense power activities. The physiological basis for creatine supplementation is similar to that of carbohydrate-loading routinely practiced by endurance athletes (like long-distance runners and cyclists). While carbohydrate loading increases stores of muscle glycogen (which provides energy during endurance events), creatine supplementation increases stores of CP (which provides energy during short bursts of high intensity exercise). Supplementation with creatine has been shown to increase muscle CP stores by 10-30%. Because of increased stores, CP is less rapidly depleted and you are able to maintain your high-energy performance slightly longer during repeated bouts of high intensity activity.
A common side effect of short-term creatine supplementation is increased body weight (1.5-4.5 lb.). This is probably due to water retention (since water travels along with creatine into muscles). But, over the long term, there may also be some increase in protein synthesis and muscle mass due to increased training capacity. Because of the fluid shifts that occur with creatine supplementation, it's important to drink plenty of fluids while taking it. Should you add creatine to your training plan?
While there is good evidence supporting the positive effects of creatine, it's important to remember that it's no magic bullet. Hard training, combined with adequate calories from whole foods, is what builds muscle. Creatine supplements just give you a little extra edge by maximizing your muscle CP stores, helping in recovery between sets, and allowing you to keep training at a higher intensity. But, keep in mind, that the actual performance benefit is quite small—it increases performance only 5-8% during repeated bouts of very intense activity.
Creatine works best in people who have marginal stores in their muscles (like vegetarians). If you include a lot of meat, chicken, and fish in your diet, which most power athletes do, your muscles are probably already saturated with creatine, and you may see only minimal gains with supplementation. The average concentration of creatine in muscle is approximately 120 mmol/kg and ranges from 90 to 160 mmol/kg. You cannot supersaturate creatine muscle stores above this level. Once muscle capacity is reached, excess creatine taken from supplements is simply excreted in the urine.Is it safe?
This is an important question to ask your self before taking any dietary supplement. As for creatine, here's what we know about its safety:
Taking supplements may suppress your body’s own creatine synthesis, but this reverses when you stop taking it.
Anecdotal information from athletic trainers suggests a relationship between creatine supplements and muscle cramps, muscle spasms, and even pulled muscles (possibly due to water retention, dehydration, or over-training), but this has not been seen in scientific studies.
Research studies done in the United States have been relatively short term (less than 5 years), so the long term safety of taking creatine is unknown.
There are increasing concerns about possible kidney stress and liver damage with supplementation. In one case report, a 20 year old healthy man developed acute nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys) after supplementing with 20 g of creatine daily for four weeks. This exceeds the recommended dosage of 20 g for 5 days, followed by a maintenance dose of 3 g daily. People with pre-existing kidney conditions, family history of kidney disease, and others who are at high risk (such as people with diabetes) should avoid creatine supplements.
Because long term safety data is not available, creatine can no longer be distributed to athletes in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). But, unlike many other muscle builders, it is not a banned substance in the athletic world.
It is expensive and the small performance benefits may not be worth it.
If you decide to try it, be sensible!
Manufacturers typically recommend a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase. In the loading phase, the optimal amount required to increase creatine stores to their maximal level is about 20 g/day for 5 days. To get 20 g of creatine from food, you would have to eat about 10 pounds of steak! The 20 g should be divided into four, 5 g doses and taken every 3 to 4 waking hours. In the maintenance phase, one daily dose of about 3 g is typically sufficient to maintain elevated levels of creatine in muscle.
Don’t bother taking more than these recommended doses. Once your muscles are loaded up, the excess creatine will just be excreted in your urine. And, more importantly, the excess creatine in your body may cause damage to your liver or kidneys.
Other tips for safe and effective creatine supplementation:
Take each dose with food or beverage, preferably a carbohydrate-rich item that has a high glycemic index (or high blood sugar response) plus some protein. This will enhance its uptake into muscle.
Drink plenty of water (especially during the loading phase) to avoid dehydration, prevent muscle cramping, and minimize any potential damage to your kidneys. Remember, as muscle retains the ingested creatine, fluid is retained with it. This leaves less fluid available for the other vital functions it serves in the body, such as body temperature regulation (through sweating), particularly when exercising in hot, humid conditions.
Monitor your individual response. If you don't see any positive effects within a few weeks (or if you experience any negative effects at all), stop taking it.
Since we don't know the consequences of long-term supplementation, it's probably a good idea to cycle on and off. In other words, take it for a few weeks or months and then take a break for a few weeks or months.
Don’t worry about a skipped dose. It takes 4 weeks for muscular creatine levels to return to normal after supplementation stops.
DHEA & Androstendione (Andro)
What is it?
DHEA and andro are precursors (prohormones) to testosterone and estrogen. Both are derived from cholesterol and produced by the adrenal glands. Andro is also produced by the ovaries and testes. The theory is that if you take high amounts of these precursor hormones, you may raise testosterone levels and see the same anabolic effects.
Will taking Andro and DHEA increase testosterone levels?
There is no guarantee that taking more of these precursors will result in increased testosterone levels. Consider these possibilies…
The body may not produce more of the enzyme needed for conversion of DHEA and andro to testosterone (if no true shortage of testosterone exists in the body).
Excess may just be metabolized and excreted.
Excess may be converted to different substances with undesirable side effects. For example, it could raise estrogen levels instead of testosterone levels. Elevated estrogen levels are associated with increased fat mass (especially in the thigh, gluts, and triceps) and gynecomastia (or breast development in men). Alternatively, it could raise levels of dihydrotestosterone, a potent androgen that causes growth of the prostate (not skeletal muscle) and increases acne and balding.
A study by King et al (1999) found that 300 mg andro/day in untrained men with 8 weeks of resistance training had no effect on serum testosterone, muscle size/strength, or body composition. However, it did increase serum estrogen levels and decrease the HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
Are Andro products safe alternatives to testosterone?
No. If they do raise testosterone levels, they would be expected to have the same adverse effects as taking testosterone or other anabolic steroids. These adverse effects include increased aggressiveness (“roid rage”), acne, premature baldness, liver dysfunction, heart muscle damage, (in women) excessive facial and body hair growth and voice deepening, and (in men) gynecomastia or breast enlargement, reduced sperm production, and testicular shrinkage. Because of these potential risks, andro is no longer available over-the-counter. It was reclassified as a “schedule III controlled substance” (only available with a special doctor’s prescription) under the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004.
Important Note to Athletes!
All prohormone substances are banned by most athletic associations, including the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), the USOC (US Olympic Committee), IOC (International Olympic Committee), NFL (National Football League), ATP (Association of Tennis Professsionals) and Major League Baseball. Therefore, taking andro, DHEA, and other prohormone products could result in disqualification from your sporting event.
Taking andro or other prohormone supplements are not recommended. The research done to date with androstendione shows that it does not raise testosterone levels, but raises estrogen levels instead. If other andro products are developed that do raise testosterone levels, they will likely carry the same risks as taking anabolic steroids.
Keys to Maximizing Muscle Gains
The most important factor to build muscle is heavy resistance training. No amount of protein (or any supplement for that matter) will promote gains of anything but body fat without consistent work in the weight room!
Make sure you consume adequate calories to build new muscle tissue. Increase your total calorie intake by 350-500 calories every day to gain about 1 pound per week. As long as you are working out, the extra calories consumed will go mostly towards building muscle, not body fat. Click here for more tips on healthy weight gain
Make sure you consume adequate carbohydrate to meet your energy needs for heavy resistance training (and to spare the protein you eat for its building functions). It's especially important to consume carbohydrate, along with protein, immediately after your work-outs to promote optimal recovery and building. Click here for more tips on what to eat before, during, and after workouts for maximal results
Be sure to consume adequate (but not excessive) protein from a variety of lean animal and/or plant foods. Most students should aim for about 10-35% of their total calories from protein. Click here for more info about your personal protein
If you’re on the go and don’t have time to eat protein-rich foods, a high protein sports beverage or bar (with 20-30 g protein per serving) can come in quite handy. Just be sure that it is low in saturated fat and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fat).
Most supplements are more hype than they are worth. And, some can have undesirable and/or dangerous side effects. If you decide to supplement, be sensible! Take no more than the recommended dose, monitor your individual response, and always discuss what supplements you are taking with a qualified health professional.
Keep in mind, once you reach your genetic size potential, you cannot get any bigger. There is an upper limit to how much pure muscle your body can acquire (naturally) without further gains in fat mass too.
Can Supplements Overcome Your Genes?
Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds on people's false hopes and desperate efforts to achieve something that, for most people, is an unrealistic body ideal. The amount of muscle you can put on and the amount of body fat you can lose is restricted to a great extent by your genetics and your body type.
Further, to maximize what you CAN achieve (given the constraints of your genes) takes a lot of work! It’s not as simple as just taking a supplement. To achieve your personal best requires a balanced eating plan and a consistent physical activity program. It takes time, patience, and effort to develop and implement these two things.
The models you see in fitness magazine ads didn’t get there by just taking the supplements they are promoting. They got there with a combination of 1) genetic endowment, 2) a very rigid eating plan (often unhealthfully rigid!), 3) hours of hard training every day (often to the point of compulsive!), and in many cases 4) illegal anabolic steroids and/or surgical procedures like liposuction and breast enhancement.
Consider a male fitness model who is HUGE (weighing in at 250 lb), but who is completely shredded with only 3% body fat. With this very low level of body fat, this much muscle mass is not possible to obtain naturally without the help of illegal, dangerous anabolic steroids. There is a physiological limit to how much lean muscle mass a man’s frame can hold, given a certain percentage of body fat. In order for him to gain more lean muscle mass, he would have to also gain more fat mass. Most men simply cannot be that BIG and be that LEAN naturally.
Consider a female fitness model who is super lean (with only 12% body fat), but has HUGE breasts. With this very low level of body fat, this much breast tissue is usually not possible. After all breasts are made of fat!
The supplement industry is making lots of money; while consumers are getting more and more obsessed about their weights, diets, and exercise regimens and more and more frustrated, depressed, and angry because they are not able to achieve the stunning results displayed in the ads. Worse yet, hundreds of thousands of consumers are putting themselves at risk, conducting a large-scale experiment on themselves with supplements that have questionable long-term safety.
Consider putting your time, energy, and money in better places. Enroll in a nutrition class, invest in a couple of sessions with a personal trainer, or buy a new outfit that highlights your best features. You’ll feel better and look better too!
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center