Go to any vitamin store or leaf through a fitness magazine and you’ll find plenty of pills to boost your workout, drinks to rev up your energy and powders to build muscle.
In 2011, the market for sports nutrition supplements was more than $3.5 billion and that market is growing at more than 10 percent a year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
“It’s a huge industry,” says Anthony Musto, Ph.D., who provides sports nutrition education for UHealth Sports Medicine and the athletic program at the University of Miami. “And staying on top of what’s the hot supplement is like trying to stay on top of computer games or video games. Every day there’s something new.”
Another problem when considering taking supplements is that much of what’s on offer isn’t backed by scientific peer-reviewed research. And, to make matters worse, the industry is not regulated as long as there are no health claims made for the products.
“It’s buyer beware,” Musto says. “If you can find a nutrient in food, why not kill two birds with one stone? Eat and get what you need versus going out and paying for a supplement.”
To understand how supplements might help your workout you need to understand the muscles they are designed to bulk up. Joseph Signorile, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Sports Sciences at the University of Miami, suggests you think about muscle fibers as individual hairs. Much as you’d pull the hairs into a pony tail, the muscle fibers are bundled together to form muscles.
If you exercise, there are mechanical and biochemical messages that tell the muscle fibers to make more protein and grow larger. The muscles get thicker — a process called hypertrophy.
Whether you are an aging baby boomer, a bodybuilder lifting for a title or a runner competing in the ING Miami Marathon, consider what your body needs to build muscle.
First, there must be a stimulus such as an exercise program that convinces your muscles they need to grow bigger and stronger.
“No matter what you eat, unless you have an appropriate exercise program your muscles won’t adapt and grow,” Musto says.
Second, your muscles need to recover between periods of exercise so that they can adapt and become bigger and stronger.
Finally, you need to eat a diet that provides your body with what it requires to make and fuel its muscles.
“Once you’ve got these under control, then you can consider supplements,” Musto says.
Here are some popular supplements:
Protein: One of the most widely used supplements is protein or amino acid powders or drinks. You’ll find a variety including beef, whey, egg and soy proteins.
“For people seriously into bodybuilding, I recommend a protein supplement,” says Joseph Gatz, an exercise physiologist at the Zachariah Family Wellness Pavilion at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale.
The daily recommendation for the average adult is 0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of weight (1 kilogram).
A marathon runner needs 1.5 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight. And a person in an intensive bodybuilding program needs from 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Some even go as high as 4 grams of protein, Gatz says.
Do the math and you’ll find that the average 150-pound person needs about 54 grams of protein per day. A bodybuilder of the same weight needs about 102 grams protein.
Now consider that a chicken breast about the size of a deck of cards contains about 30 grams of protein and an 8-ounce glass of milk is 8 grams protein.
“A bodybuilder would have to eat chicken until it came out of his ears,” Gatz says.
But not all protein supplements are created equal. Soy proteins contain phytoestrogens that may be cancer-causing agents. And eating too much protein can put stress on your kidneys as they filter it out of your system. It also can cause stomach upset.
“Too much of that stuff can really mess up your stomach if you are sensitive,” says Luke Buelch, a physical therapist at Doctors Hospital Center for Orthopedic and Sports Medicine.
And there’s research showing that it’s not how much protein you eat but how often you eat it. Musto recommends getting 5 to 10 grams of protein every two to three hours instead of eating the same amount in three meals a day.
Gatz suggests taking 20 to 40 grams of protein immediately after exercise so that it’s available to your body to build the muscle that was broken down during your weight routine.
“Getting a protein supplementation right after you work out can be very beneficial,” Buelch says.
Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs): These are the amino acids or building blocks of protein that are essential for muscle building. Musto likens them to a multivitamin. If you don’t get them from eating animal products in your diet then you can supplement them for insurance, he says.
Glutamine: This is an essential amino acid that’s abundant in muscle fiber. The body can make glutamine but extreme stress such as heavy weight lifting may increase your body’s requirements. Buelch recommends taking a supplement in the morning or at night before bed so that it’s available to your muscles while they are rejuvenating.
Creatine: Often found in powders or mixed with liquids, creatine is one of the few supplements that has scientific evidence behind its claims to increase your ability to do high-intensity exercise, Musto says.
Phosphocreatine is a compound in muscle that stores high-energy phosphate, the energy source your muscles use to contract. When you take a creatine supplement, you load your muscle cells so they can rebuild the phosphocreatine more rapidly. “And maybe you’ll get an extra rep or two out of your exercise,” Musto says.
Some athletes take creatine because it draws water into the muscle cells and this water weight can cause the muscle to look bigger, explains Buelch. But the change in size isn’t permanent. So when you stop taking creatine, the water is released.
“It’s kind of like popping a balloon,” Buelch says.
Nitrous oxide: The nitrous oxide dilates your blood vessels that in turn increase blood flow to your muscles and help increase your energy.
Buelch has used this himself to get better muscle pumps. And Musto has heard anecdotal evidence that it works.
But if you have a heart condition, nitrous oxide can be dangerous.
“Talk to your physician before using it,” Buelch says.
Energy drinks: Many of these contain some form of caffeine with high doses of vitamin B. “These are fairly popular and a lot of people think they need them to get through a workout,” Musto says.
If taken before exercise, they may allow you to do more than usual.
Testosterone and growth hormone: If you listen to television or the radio, you’ll hear advertisements reaching out to older men who have “low T” or low testosterone. And if they prove to be clinically low in testosterone, their doctors may put them on a therapeutic program.
“But if you are a 25-year-old male who is getting testosterone illegally, that’s the same as doing steroids,” Musto says.
Whether you choose to take supplements to help you build muscle or you get what you need from your diet, it’s up to you. But don’t think pills and powders are a shortcut to a well-developed body.
“People often think supplements will make them stronger and they won’t have to do hard work in the gym,” Buelch says. “But it’s ultimately the hard work in the gym that’s going to get you there.”