Bodybuilding supplements are dietary supplements commonly used by those involved in bodybuilding and athletics. Bodybuilding supplements may be used to replace meals, enhance weight gain, promote weight loss or improve athletic performance.
Among the most widely used are vitamin supplements, protein, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), glutamine, essential fatty acids, meal replacement products, creatine, weight loss products and testosterone boosters.
Supplements are sold either as single ingredient preparations or in the form of “stacks” – proprietary blends of various supplements marketed as offering synergistic advantages. While many bodybuilding supplements are also consumed by the general public their salience and frequency of use may differ when used specifically by bodybuilders.
Annual sales of sport nutrition products in the US is over $2.7 billion (US) according to Consumer Reports.
History of bodybuilding
Athletes in ancient Greece were advised to consume large quantities of meat and wine. A number of herbal concoctions and tonics have been used by strongmen and athletes since ancient times across cultures for the enhancement of strength, vigour, prowess and stamina.
In the 1910s Eugene Sando— widely considered to be the first modern bodybuilder in the West — advocated the use of dietary control to enhance muscle growth. Early Liederman, advocated the use of “beef juice” as a way to enhance muscle recovery.
In 1950s with recreational and competitive bodybuilding becoming increasingly popular Irvin P. Johnson began to popularize and market egg-based protein powders marketed specifically at bodybuilders and physical athletes.
The 1970s and 1980s marked an explosion in the growth of the bodybuilding supplement industry fueled by an unprecedented increase in mainstream recreational bodybuilding and the widespread use of modern marketing techniques.
In the USA, in October 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was signed into law. Under DSHEA, a supplement manufacturer alone is responsible for determining that the dietary supplements it manufactures or distributes are safe.
Dietary supplements did not henceforth need approval from FDA before they were marketed. Except in the case of a new dietary ingredient, a firm did not have to provide FDA with the evidence to substantiate safety or effectiveness.
It is widely believed that the 1994 DSHEA further consolidated the position of the supplement industry and lead to unprecedented growth and sales figures.
Modern bodybuilding supplements are often marketed as promoting various desirable processes related to improving nutrition, enhancing body composition or improving lifting performance. Supplements are often categorized accordingly.
While many of these categories are based on scientifically based physiological or biochemical processes, their use in bodybuilding parlance is often heavily colored by bodybuilding lore and industry marketing and as such may be deviate considerably from traditional scientific usages of these terms.
Protein milkshakes, made from protein powder (center) and milk (left), are a common bodybuilding supplement.
Bodybuilders often supplement their diets with a powdered form of protein. The powder is mixed with water, milk or juice. Protein powder is generally consumed immediately before and after exercising, or in place of a meal.
Some types of protein are to be taken directly before and after a workout (whey protein), while others are to be taken before going to bed (casein protein).
The theory behind this supplementation is that bodybuilders, by virtue of their unique training methods and end-goals, require higher-than-average quantities of protein to support maximal muscle growth.
Currently, no consensus has been reached in determining whether or not an individual in exercise training can benefit from protein and amino acid supplements.
Protein supplements come in various forms: ready to drink shakes, bars, bites, oats, gels and powders. Protein powders are available in a variety of flavors.
Whey protein contains high levels of all the essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids. It also has the highest content of the amino acid cysteine, which aids in the biosynthesis of glutathione.
For bodybuilders whey protein provides amino acids used to aid in muscle recovery. Whey protein is derived from the process of making cheese from milk. There are three types of whey protein: whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate.
Whey concentrate is 29%–89% protein by weight where whey isolate is 90%+ protein by weight. Whey hydrolysate is enzymatically predigested and therefore has the shortest rate of digestion of all protein types.
- Casein protein (or milk protein) has glutamine, and casomorphin.
- Soy protein from soybeans contain isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen.
- Egg-white protein is a lactose- and dairy-free protein.
- Hemp seed contains complete and highly-digestible protein and hemp oil is high in essential fatty acids.
- Rice protein, when made from the whole grain, is a complete protein source that is highly digestible and allergen free. Since rice protein is low in the amino acid lysine, it is often combined with pea protein powder to achieve a superior amino acid profile.
- Pea protein is a hypoallergenic protein with a lighter texture than most other protein powders. This protein has an amino acid profile similar to that of soy, but pea protein does not elicit concerns about unknown effects of phytoestrogens. Pea as protein is also less allergenic than soy.
Shaker Bottle commonly used to mix supplements. Has mesh inside to avoid lumps in the mixture.
Although it is generally undisputed that athletes and bodybuilders need an increased intake of protein, the exact amount is highly individualized and dependent on the type and duration of the exercise as well as the physiological make up of the individual.
Age, gender, and body size may vary this protein intake. Some health experts have criticized protein shakes as being unnecessary for most people that consume them, since most users already get enough protein in the normal varied diet with enough calories.
However, there is some evidence to support the idea that protein shakes are superior to whole foods with regards to enhancing muscle hypertrophy in the one hour window following intensive exercise.
Moreover, for athletes who do not have the time to prepare whole food meals on the run or immediately after exercise, a protein shake may be preferred for practical as well as performance reasons.
Additionally, some studies suggest low-calorie dieters, vegetarians, haphazard eaters and those who train very heavily may benefit significantly from protein supplements. Traditional nutrition theory states that the body can only metabolize 5-9 grams of protein per hour, and that excessive daily intake can cause weight gain, kidney problems, osteoporosis, or diarrhea.
However, many bodybuilders report consuming hundreds of grams of protein per day to achieve maximal strength gains, so this nutrition dogma may only apply to the general public.
Taking an overdose of protein can lead to a loss of appetite, which may be useful for some dieters. Nutritionists claim that osteoporosis occurs from excessive protein intake because protein can put pressure on the kidneys and lead to bone loss due to calcium leaching.
However, recent research has cast doubts on these claims, and suggests that higher calcium excretion may be due to increased calcium absorption in the intestines due to protein intake. Indeed, it is well known that dietary protein is itself important for bone growth, and some studies have found increased bone formation in response to exchanging dietary carbohydrates for protein.
Nutritionists also argue against increased protein consumption because weight gain may occur because, as the body cannot store protein, excess protein will either be burned as energy or stored as fat (if you are already getting the calories you need).
However, dietary protein is converted to fat far less efficiently than either carbohydrates or lipids, so consuming a calorie excess in protein will result in far less fat gain that would a calorie excess of other macronutrients.
Research by Tarnopolsky et al. (1988) showed that for bodybuilding individuals, 0.90g of protein per kg of body weight per day is recommended, whereas endurance athletes require 1.34g/kg/d of protein.
Their findings indicated that protein requirements are actually much lower than might be expected and that protein supplements therefore may not be as effective as is popularly believed. However, it should be noted that both of these levels are significantly higher than the levels claimed to be necessary for the general population (0.8 g protein / kg body weight).
Studies suggest that there are different protein requirements for anaerobic and aerobic exercise. Endurance athletes in aerobic activity may have increased daily protein intake at 1.2-1.4 g per kg body weight per day where strength training athletes performing anaerobic activity may have increased daily protein intake needs at 1.4-1.8 g per kg body weight so as to enhance muscle protein synthesis or to make up for the loss of amino acid oxidation during exercise.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; the body breaks consumed protein into amino acids in the stomach and intestines. There are three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Each has numerous benefits on various biological processes in the body. Unlike other amino acids, BCAAs are metabolised in the muscle and have an anabolic/anti-catabolic effect on it. BCAAs account for 33% of muscle protein.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid found in human muscle and is commonly found in supplements or as a micronized, instantly soluble powder because supplement manufacturers claim the body’s natural glutamine stores are depleted during anaerobic exercise.
Serum glutamine is used by the body to counteract the acidosis that results from exercise; in order to replenish the loss of glutamine from the bloodstream, the body catabolises glutamine from the muscle.
Ingestion of supplemental glutamine may therefore help ensure a ready supply for the muscles. It is also argued that a deficiency may lead to a weakened immune system and wasting of muscle tissue..
Some studies have shown there to be no significant effect of glutamine on bench press strength, knee-extension torque or lean muscle mass when compared to controls taking a placebo, though another study found that glutamine is beneficial in raising T-helper/suppressor cell ratio in long distance runners.
Essential fatty acids
The essential fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid) may be especially important to supplement while bodybuilding; these cannot readily be made in the body, but are required for various functions within the body to take place.
Fatty fish, such as fresh salmon and trout are rich in essential fatty acids and fish oils can also be taken in supplement form.
Flaxseed oil, often sold as a supplement on its own, is an ideal source of alpha-Linolenic acid, which can also be found in walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Meal replacement products
Meal replacement products (MRPs) are either pre-packaged powdered drink mixes or edible bars designed to replace prepared meals. MRPs are generally high in protein, low in fat, have a low to moderate amount of carbohydrates, and contain a wide array of vitamins and minerals.
The majority of MRPs use whey protein, casein (often listed as calcium caseinate or micellar casein), soy protein, and/or egg albumin as protein sources. Carbohydrates are typically derived from maltodextrin, oat fiber, brown rice, and/or wheat flour. Some MRPs also contain flax oil powder as a source of essential fatty acids.
MRPs can also contain other ingredients, such as creatine monohydrate, glutamine peptides, L-glutamine, calcium alpha-ketoglutarate, additional amino acids, lactoferrin, conjugated linoleic acid, and medium chain triglycerides.
A sub-class of MRPs are called ‘weight gainers’ these have a high ratio of carbohydrates:protein. Where a MRP would have a 0.25-2:1 ratio of Carbohydrates:Protein a weight gainer would have in the order of between 3-5:1 ratios.
Prohormones are precursors to hormones and were most typically sold to bodybuilders as a precursor to the natural hormone testosterone. This conversion requires naturally occurring enzymes in the body. Side effects are not uncommon, as prohormones can also convert further into DHT and estrogen.
To deal with this, many supplements also have aromatase inhibitors and DHT blockers such as chrysin and 4-androstene-3,6,17-trione. To date most prohormone products have not been thoroughly studied, and the health effects of prolonged use are unknown.
Although initially available over the counter, their purchase was made illegal without a prescription in the US in 2004, and they hold similar status in many other countries. Additionally, their use is proscribed by most sporting bodies.
Creatine is an organic acid naturally occurring in the body that supplies energy to muscle cells for short bursts of energy (as required in lifting weights) via creatine phosphate replenishment of ATP. A number of scientific studies have shown that creatine can improve strength, energy, muscle mass, and recovery times.
In addition, recent studies have also shown that creatine improves brain function. and reduces mental fatigue. Unlike steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, creatine can be found naturally in many common foods such as herring, tuna, salmon, and beef.
Creatine increases what is known as cell volumization by drawing water into muscle cells, making them larger. This intracellular retention should not be confused with the common myth that creatine causes bloating (or intercellular water retention).
Creatine is sold in a variety of forms, including creatine monohydrate and creatine ethyl ester, amongst others. Though all types of creatine are sold for the same purposes, there are subtle differences between them, such as price and necessary dosage.
In The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, 2nd ed., author Arnold Schwarzenegger states:
Creatine monohydrate is regarded as a necessity by most bodybuilders. Creatine monohydrate is the most cost-effective dietary supplement in terms of muscle size and strength gains. … There is no preferred creatine supplement, but it is believed that creatine works best when it is consumed with simple carbohydrates. This can be accomplished by mixing powdered creatine with grape juice, lemonade, or many high glycemic index drinks.
Some studies have suggested that consumption of creatine with protein and carbohydrates can have a greater effect than creatine combined with either protein or carbohydrates alone.
Moreover, this combination is favored by bodybuilders because it minimizes the number of insulin spikes necessary for proper absorption of supplements.
Additionally, there is some controversy as to whether caffeine can negatively influence the body’s treatment of creatine. Some studies have suggested that supplementation with the ergogenic caffeine may eliminate the beneficial effects of creatine.
This is significant because both creatine and caffeine are viewed as excellent supplements by body builders, and it was hypothesized that the combination would lead to rapid strength gains. The negative effect of caffeine on creatine metabolism is still questioned, however, and begs for further research.
A thermogenic is a broad term for any supplement that the manufacturer claims will cause thermogenesis, resulting in increased body temperature, increased metabolic rate, and consequently an increased rate in the burning of body fat and weight loss.
Until 2004 almost every product found in this supplement category comprised the “ECA stack”: ephedrine, caffeine and aspirin. However, on February 6, 2004 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of ephedra and its alkaloid, ephedrine, for use in weight loss formulas.
Several manufacturers replaced the ephedra component of the “ECA” stack with bitter orange or citrus aurantium (containing synephrine) instead of the ephedrine. To date research on the effectiveness of this new combination has not been conclusive.
There are several naturally occurring plants and vitamins as well as synthetic chemicals that supplement companies claim may produce an increase in testosterone levels. However, the effectiveness of many of these products is questionable due to a lack of valid scientific testing. Some commonly taken supplements of this type are ZMA and T Boosters.
In a placebo-controlled study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a statistically significant increase in strength and arm circumference was achieved. Using an extract of Eurycoma longifolia.
In another study on male rats, Eurycoma longifolia extract at the highest administered dosage; resulted in an increase in size of a muscle (the levator ani) of about 20 percent over controls.
A 2008 study concluded that Eurycoma longifolia is capable of suppressing estrogens which are potent inhibitors of testosterone production.