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
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
What 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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