David Ferguson, Ph.D RCEP
I am always amazed at the flavor of the moment products in health and fitness. I am sure we are all familiar with the shake weight, six minute abs, and Tae Bo. Truth is some of these infomercial products do offer a health benefit while others do little for you. A discussion of all the products out there aimed to improve health, reduce fat, and increase muscle would take several books to document and describe all the products. In this article, we will focus on supplements to increase strength and mass but, more importantly, a method to adequately discern good from bad products.
Let’s start with the basics. If you want to increase strength and mass, you will need to perform resistance exercises on the muscle groups you wish to improve, progressively adding weight to your resistance workout over several months. That being said, there is no substitute for genetics and talent. Individuals who are genetically predisposed to large muscle mass and strength will see gains faster and more prominently.
With this understanding, we can discuss supplements that have been scientifically shown to work. Most of the products have been tested independently by labs, and a search in a scientific database (Pubmed or Web of Science) will give good information as to the effectiveness of a given product. To date, three dietary products have been shown to repeatedly increase strength and mass. They are water, post workout protein/carbohydrate snack and creatine.
Water does not offer any mechanisms to stimulate muscle growth but studies examining dehydration have shown that in a dehydrated state, strength output generated by a working muscle decreases. A fully hydrated state will not cause muscle protein synthesis but will aid in one’s ability to participate in an exercise session.
Following a workout, a protein/carbohydrate snack has been shown to be effective in refueling the body as well as providing a fuel source known to stimulate muscle growth, i.e. protein. However, carbohydrates are key. In the absence of carbohydrates, the protein will be metabolized and not used to generate muscle protein synthesis. Several sports drink companies have released products designed to do this. However, some researchers suggest that the most effective and inexpensive is chocolate milk. Chocolate milk has been shown to contain all the necessary amount of protein and carbohydrates to serve as a post exercise snack.
Creatine has also been shown to be effective in muscle mass and strength gains. Specifically oral creatine supplements decrease fatigue and optimize power output in short-term, high-intensity exercises. However, it is important to note that some groups of people do not show any response to creatine.
Of the many other supplements on the market, most have been shown to be ineffective upon scientific testing. In considering a supplement, wise consumers research a product in a scientific database to see its effectiveness with resistance training in improving strength and mass.
- Karp JR, Johnston JD, Tecklenburg S, Mickleborough TD, Fly AD, and Stager JM. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 16: 78-91, 2006.
- Rawson ES, Stec MJ, Frederickson SJ, and Miles MP. Low-dose creatine supplementation enhances fatigue resistance in the absence of weight gain. Nutrition 27: 451-455, 2011.