Which Supplements are for Strength and Muscle Gains
There are thousands of supplements on the market making it really hard to choose the ones that will work best for your athletes. When athletes approach you about supplements, it is important to stress that they are no substitute for a poor diet, inadequate training or lack of sleep. Nor are they essential in most cases, but they can enhance strength and muscle gains. The key is to choose supplements according to an individual athlete’s goals. Do some research and go through a decision-making process based on safety, cost effectiveness, and whether and how the supplement actually works. To make things a little easier for you, here are my top 3 supplement recommendations. These are considered safe, are evidence-based and have shown some remarkable results in both recreational trainees and athletes.
WHEY PROTEIN: You are probably aware that protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery after training. One of the major concepts in sports nutrition is net protein balance (NPB). During training, NPB becomes negative as more muscle breakdown occurs than can be stored. Therefore, it is essential to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in order to remodel the damaged muscle and achieve a positive NPB to increase muscle mass. Research suggests that consuming a whey supplement (<1h before or after a resistance training session, depending on what works best for an individual athlete) with a high content of the essential amino acid leucine (≈3-5g) upregulates the mTOR pathway, the key cell signalling pathway responsible for muscle protein synthesis. Having a whey protein shake is an easy and convenient way to meet your athletes’ daily protein requirements, especially if they can’t stomach solid food after a hard training session.
CREATINE MONOHYDRATE: If your athletes are looking for a performance boost, creatine monohydrate seems to be the most effective supplement out there, especially when it comes to capacity for high-intensity exercise and gains in lean muscle mass. During high-intensity exercise, our energy needs are met by the phosphocreatine (PCr) shuttle and anaerobic glycolysis (the metabolic pathway that converts glucose into lactate due to an absence of oxygen). Creatine supplementation increases PCr stores and helps to shuttle a phosphate group to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule needed to power a muscle contraction. Creatine monohydrate may also help ATP production via glycolysis by increasing the activity of phosphofructokinase (a key enzyme) or by buffering the hydrogen ions that are thought to cause acidosis. The most common dosage is a loading phase with 0.3g/kg body weight/day for 5-7 days followed by a maintenance phase at 0.03g/kg body weight/day for 4-6 weeks. Your athletes may experience a short-term weight gain of a couple of kilograms due to water retention. However, if they stick to it alongside proper strength-based training, they will probably see an increase in muscle strength. If they do not respond, this is likely because they already have naturally high creatine stores and supplementation has no added benefit.
Β-HYDROXY-Β-METHYLBUTYRATE OR HMB: HMB is a metabolite of the key essential amino acid leucine and works in a similar manner by activating the mTOR signalling pathway for muscle protein synthesis. It is also anti-catabolic because it reduces muscle protein breakdown signalling. Since the amount of HMB converted from leucine is too little to have any significant effect, HMB supplements are now available. Bear in mind that HMB does not have the same standing as whey and creatine do. Even so, exciting new research supporting its benefits in increasing strength, power, and muscle mass has shown impressive results in a well-controlled, 12-week training cycle study in athletes.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s Position Statement also looks promising. This critical analysis of studies suggests that HMB is most beneficial when consumed for 2 weeks shortly before or after a training session at a suggested dose of ≈38mg/kg body weight. It is considered to be a safe supplement for long-term use in all ages, and in both trained and untrained individuals. Two forms are available: calcium HMB and free acid form HMB. The latter may have a superior bioavailability, increasing the plasma absorption and retention of HMB, however, there is not much research yet to support this. Heterogeneity in study designs and population samples may also explain why some studies show no clear benefits. Although more well-controlled studies are needed to draw clearer conclusions, the research so far points in a positive direction and, since HMB is considered to be a safe supplement, I think it is worthwhile giving it a try to see if it works for your athletes.
I hope this will help you choose the best supplements to help achieve your athletes’ goals! But remember, focusing on good and consistent nutrition is more important – it’s the foundation. As the name suggests, supplements are there only to help support a proper foundation and are not a ‘quick fix’. Lastly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer: each athlete will have an individual response requiring a programme tailored to their specific needs.
1. Devries, M. C. & Phillips, S. M., 2015. Supplemental protein in support of muscle mass and health: advantage whey. J Food Sci, Suppl 1:A8-A15.
2. Hall, M. & Trojian, T.H., 2013. Creatine Supplementation. Curr Sports Med Rep, 12(4):240-4.
3. Wilson, G. J., et al., 2014. The effects of 12 weeks of beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate free acid supplementation on muscle mass, strength, and power in resistance-trained individuals: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Eur J Appl Physiol, 114(6): 127-1227.
4. Wilson, J. M., et al., 2013. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: beta-hydroxyl-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB). J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 10(1):6.