In recent decades, the word bodybuilding has become synonymous with steroids. The average individual will overhear a conversation of bodybuilding supplements and readily assume it has something to do with illicit muscle building compounds from Mexico; however, in the same family of general health and wellness supplements, are products that are safe, natural, and can aid body composition goals.
Now, not all supplements are closely regulated by the FDA; therefore, consumers of these products should do their share of independent research. Despite the thousands of products, and possibly misleading advertisements (as with all consumer products), there are significant benefits to be had from using educated supplementation to reach your goals.
What are these “bodybuilding supplements” exactly? Another term that can be applied to these substances are ergogenic aids, and in principle, they are aimed at helping the consumer reach goals such as: athletic performance enhancement, increased strength or muscle mass, body fat reduction, etc…
In fact, many products aimed at general health and wellness can assist bodybuilding endeavors as well; subsequently, this category is vast and encompasses many different substances, depending on one’s goals.
Supplements developed for building one’s body or improving appearance have recently skyrocketed in popularity. Bodybuilding was first popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crew of muscle building gym rats in the early 70’s. This fascination with gaining strength and muscle had already existed for many years; however, the 70’s were a turning point, and began to shift the focus from aesthetics and performance, to simply aesthetics. In any case, these new products are now being advertised to a growing demographic of young men, and athletes (casual and professional).
Whatever goal you may have, there is without a doubt an ergogenic aid crafted to that purpose. From popular substances such as creatine, and protein powders, to the obscure like Tribulus Terrestris (natural testosterone enhancer), and ephedra. This won’t be an exhaustive overview, but let’s break these down into popular categories.
The most revered among gym rats and bodybuilders alike, any substance that will aid in the elusive task of sculpting lean muscle. First and foremost in this group are the various protein supplements. Powders are ubiquitous in vitamin and supplement shops, even basic grocery stores; however, supplemental protein can also be found in pill and liquid form. The reasoning behind the use is simple: consuming adequate protein triggers a reaction in the body called “protein synthesis”, in other words, the process of building muscle.
Protein can easily shift one’s body from a catabolic (wasting) state, to an anabolic (building) state. Protein supplementation is most important for those who lack sufficient protein in their whole foods diet. These chained amino acids are essential to many of our body’s functions, and without adequate amounts, humans waste away. One’s requirements of this macronutrient vary person to person, based on body mass, height, gender, and age; however, it will remain important throughout one’s life.
Protein supplements can take a confusing turn for the inexperienced. One may glance over the differing products and be surprised by labels like: Whey Protein, Casein Protein, Egg Albumin, Soy, concentrate or isolate, and so on. The simplest way to view this is the bioavailability; rather, the amount that can be readily absorbed and used effectively by the body. By this standard, whey protein takes the prize as the most widely used, and most effective protein on the market; however, even whey can take different forms.
Without assaulting prospective consumers with superfluous information for a beginner, the advice will remain concise and effective. For aid in the goal of muscle building, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein isolate are the wisest choices. Isolate is more pure, and has a quicker digestion rate, making it slightly more expensive, but easier on the digestive system and more bioavailable. To activate protein synthesis, a grown man will need at least 25-30 grams at one time, on the other hand, women require slightly less - 20 grams at once.
Another vastly popular muscle builder is creatine. Simply put, creatine functions as a strength booster, which in turn makes it ideal for building muscle. The human body produces a very small amount of creatine naturally, also creatine can be absorbed from consuming red meat. Since this substance is stored in muscle tissue, it’s little wonder humans can obtain it from consuming muscle. ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the body’s energy currency. Creatine works by up-regulating ATP, and simultaneously pulling water into skeletal muscle. Seeing that muscle is mostly made up of water, there is no harm done when creatine shuttles more in; incidentally, these muscles will function better.
Related to the water retention, creatine has garnered some bad press from allegations that it causes gross levels of muscle cramping, and has sent individuals to the hospital; however, these claims are highly inflated and due to misuse. One should always be looking to remain as hydrated as possible; therefore when one supplements with creatine, they must continue with proper hydration, seeing that the body is using slightly more water than before. Creatine is also one of the only dietary sports supplements that has been exhaustively tested clinically, and shown to have actual benefit.
Energy Enhancers (aka Pre-Workouts) & Fat Burners (aka Cutting Supplements)
Maintaining a high intensity during exercise is key to improvement; therefore, came the rise of energy enhancing supplements. Shelves of stores such as GNC, and the Vitamin Shoppe sport dozens of focus boosting, energy shocking products with names like Diastolic Jackhammer; but how many of these are scientifically sound, or even safe? In recent years the supplement Jack3d was recalled for a nefarious substance that was linked to myocardial infarctions; however, as stated before, common sense is the name of the game.
As ubiquitous as it is useful, is caffeine. Caffeine has permeated modern society, and for the most part, is not thought of as an ergogenic aid. It is something that’s regarded by the public as simply “a part of coffee”, or “in most sodas”; however, caffeine is a potent stimulant, and can work wonders for athletic performance.
The introduction to energy enhancers was not meant to be a warning against them, rather a reminder that any substance can be misused, and consumers should not blindly follow the instructions on a label. Too much sun can be dangerous, in light of that, user discretion is a daily tool. Caffeine is no exception - a proven effective supplement - but many have no education on proper dosing. One should always be keen on inspecting how many milligrams a serving of the product in question contains.
For “pre workout” supplements, anything with 375-400 milligrams of caffeine should be considered excessive. An average size man can receive effective energy enhancement, without adverse effects from a serving of 150-300 milligrams; conversely, women could stand to stay in the 100-250 milligram range. The FDA has set a daily safe limit of caffeine at 400 milligrams.
Seeing that this substance is found in various other products, such as coffee, soda, and teas, consumers should be aware of how many sources they are receiving caffeine from. In any case, caffeine holds substantial benefits for enhanced performance, granted one finds the fitting dose for their demographic.
For those that are new to bodybuilding specific supplements, pre workout products are designed to be consumed before strenuous exercise, and most are often comprised of ingredient blends. In these blends are a class of ingredients worth mentioning - vasodilators. The term vasodilation means, a relaxing or opening of blood vessels. This is in fact the function of many medications for heart conditions, and is beneficial to the body in many ways. In this case, the users most often desire more blood flow to the skeletal muscles to achieve a “pump”, and improved muscular performance.
Popular compounds that cause this are: L-Arginine, Citrulline, and Nitric Oxide forms. Due to recent research, the two available forms of Citrulline (L-Citrulline, and Citrulline Malate) have proven themselves safe and effective for improved blood flow. The effects of high concentrations of blood in the target muscle while training go far beyond aesthetics. Blood shuttles a myriad of nutrients to the muscle tissue, which will later aid in the muscle building and repair processes.
Stepping into the endocrine system is not an endeavor for beginners. This realm of the body is extremely complex, and regulated strongly by positive and negative feedback loops; meaning, that any adjustment to one hormone can cause an equal or greater reaction elsewhere in the body in the same or opposite direction.
This is the playground of anabolic steroids and herbal supplements alike; however, hormones are extremely important for maintaining a satisfactory quality of life, and reaching fitness goals. Before attempting to adjust or modify faculties of the endocrine system, one must first consult a doctor, or conduct a fair amount of personal research.
There are two paths to take when supplementing the endocrine system: the healthy road, and the unhealthy road. Sounds simple enough; however, one would be surprised how many choose the latter. Beginning with the wiser choices, one can choose from a variety of options when selecting hormone support. Herbs and nutrients naturally found in our environment can cause minor changes in our bodies, encouraging the positive or negative feedback systems that keep us functioning properly.
For example, zinc has been proven to support healthy testosterone production, and when combined with vitamin B6 and magnesium, the blend becomes even more effective. Further, Tribulus Terrestris, and vitamin D can aid in boosting natural testosterone levels, and L-Arginine is used to treat erectile disfunction. As one would assume, testosterone plays a pivotal role in strength, a vital aspect of building muscle. Depending on your goals, supporting healthy hormone function through natural means may be wise option, especially with ageing athletes.
Now, enter the dangerous category of hormone manipulation. As more of a warning than a recommendation, let’s illuminate certain aspects of exogenous hormones, synthetic or otherwise. The popularized anabolic steroids rose in the bodybuilding community around the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding. Champions of the sport such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Metzger, Franco Columbo, Tom Platz, and many more pioneered this anabolic avenue that now is as widespread as being a vegetarian, or supplementing with vitamin D.
Many associate steroid use with professional athletes; however, the most widespread steroid use is among amateur lifters and everyday fitness enthusiasts. The science of steroids, anabolic and otherwise, requires its own separate discussion; however, the takeaway message is to simply be cautious.
Their benefits can be so overwhelmingly enticing to young men and women wishing to excel that they completely disregard the harsh realities that everything of this nature comes with a price. It would be wise to independently research the effects of anabolic steroids, or simply view a documentary; because information is key when progressing in the field of health and fitness.
Supplementing with exogenous hormones will of course, cause an increase in whichever aspects of physiology that hormone is responsible for; therefore, injecting testosterone will cause a significant increase in strength and aggression. In light of this, one must remember the positive and negative feedback loops.
When one hormone is greatly increased, its counterpart will subsequently upregulate. In the case of testosterone, this is estrogen. The following dance of upregulation and downregulation is nothing the body needs, and most certainly is too complex a subject for the ones consuming these supplements. Unless one is a biochemist, oral or injectable steroid use should be avoided.
Now, with a cursory knowledge of supplementation for body composition and sports performance, you can began to comprise a list of what may be beneficial to you and your specific goals. Whether it be muscle building, fat loss, athletic performance, or increased energy, there are natural options available. Keep in mind, independent research is key; therefore, seek out peer reviewed articles with single or double blind studies testing the ingredient or product in question.
As a rule, protein and creatine supplements are the most helpful with building muscle; further, caffeine, and citrulline can assist in benefitting the most from an intense workout. Whatever the goal, put in the work, supplement wisely, and don’t stop until you’ve achieved what you started for.