- Re-activating and strengthening the gluteal muscles
- Shoulder instability and rotator cuff issues
- Training for power and speed
- Exercise groups in-depth
- Core training part I: Inner and outer unit
- Effective and safe supplements
- Planes of motion
- Core training part II: a functional approach
- Prevention and rehabilitation of hamstring injuries
- Knee flexion exercises - friend or foe?
Effective and safe supplements
By Bram Swinnen
There are literally hundreds of different performance enhancing or weight loss supplements available. Most of these supplements however are based on bogus claims and ridiculous hype. Scientific research has shown that most supplements do not live up to their claims. They are nothing more than an expensive placebo.
In this article a few supplements are discussed that are backed by independent research on humans and even high-class athletes.
Benefits of beta-alanine as supported by scientific evidence
- Enhanced muscular strength and power output
- Increased muscle mass
- Delayed muscular fatigue – increase training volume and intensity
- Augmented aerobic and anaerobic endurance
Theory behind beta-alanine supplementation
During exercise, hydrogen ions (H+) are released at an accelerated rate, causing muscle pH to drop (becoming more acidic). Muscles can only work optimal at a specific pH range. When the pH drops below this specific range, muscular performance diminishes.
The body uses various buffer systems to try to maintain the optimal pH range, so the muscles can continue to contract forcefully for a longer time. A powerful intracellular buffer system is carnosine. Carnosine absorbs the H+ inside our muscles, forming the first line of defence.
Research reveals that 4-6 g/day of beta-alanine intake augments carnosine levels by 60% after 8 weeks and up to 80% after 12 weeks.
Beta-alanine can help you enhance performance and maximize training gains
Especially when working out anaerobic, like a resistance training workout or an intense conditioning workout, lactic acid is released. The released H+ from lactic acid (not the leftover lactate ions like many incorrectly believe) causes your muscle pH to drop, enhancing muscular fatigue and decreasing your strength and power output.
The burn you feel, as a result of the released H+ during resistance training, unables you to maintain forceful muscular contractions and compromises you to maximally overload your muscles.
By enhancing carnosine levels, with beta-alanine supplementation, the muscles can absorb more H+ ions and maintain their optimal pH range for a longer time. Maintaining the optimal pH range postpones muscular fatigue and prolongs maximal strength and performance throughout your workout. This explains the positive research results, like muscle mass gains, enhanced strength, power and endurance, as a result of beta-alanine supplementation.
Research also shows that beta-alanine is completely safe. Studies of up to 12 weeks of beta-alanine intake found no negative changes in blood biochemical, haematological or hormonal markers.
To boost intramuscular carnosine levels, a daily intake of 4-5 grams is sufficient. Based on research that reveals that carnosine levels continue to increase for a minimum of 12 weeks, supplementing daily for at least three months is recommended. Benefits can be expected after two to four weeks of supplementation.
Creatine is produced by the liver from the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine, or ingested from protein-rich dietary sources such as meat and fish. Creatine is stored in the muscle cells in the form of phosphocreatine (a phosphate ion added to creatine).
Creatine supplementation increases muscle energy stores
The primary role of creatine is recharging ATP, by donating a phosphate ion to the ADP molecule. Muscle fibres generate tension by cutting off a phosphate group from ATP (charged form), turning it into ADP (uncharged from).
Three energy systems provide energy to recharge ADP back into ATP: the ATP-phosphocreatine system, the lactic acid system and the aerobic system. The percentage each energy system contributes depends on the intensity and duration of the activity.
The ATP-phosphocreatine system is the major energy provider for high-intense, explosive actions. This system is limited however by the amount of phosphocreatine that is stored in the muscles. After approximately 10 seconds of high-intense activity all the phosphocreatine is depleted and the ATP-phosphocreatine system can no longer contribute to energy production (recharging ADP into ATP) until it is replenished (approximately 3 minutes of rest). The power output drops when phosphocreatine levels in the muscle cells gets depleted, because ADP can not be recharged fast enough into ATP to meet the demand of the exercise.
Research shows that creatine supplementation can increase the amount of phosphocreatine stored in the muscle. Creatine intake also helps restore phosphocreatine levels faster after they have been depleted by intense activity. This explains the various benefits of creatine supplementation.
Research has shown that ingesting daily three grams of creatine is sufficient to increase the phosphocreatine level in the muscles up to 20%. A higher dosage will not give additional results. Vegetarians and people on a protein-poor diet may benefit most from creatine ingestion. However, approximately 20% of the people show no effect from creatine intake.
Benefits of creatine supplementation as supported by scientific evidence:
- Enhance performance in sports and activities that involve repeated high-intense bouts of activity (most team sports)
- Increased force production and muscle strength, especially when the muscles are fatigued
- Improved weight lifting performance, repeated sprinting and jumping ability
- Increased muscle hypertrophy
- Delayed muscular fatigue
- Counter the loss of strength and muscle mass during immobilization following injury or surgery
Mechanisms behind the anabolic effect of creatine supplementation
Research shows that training in combination with creatine supplementation results in greater gains in muscle mass. These findings are even backed by a study carried out with College football players (experienced lifters) over a 16-week off-season period. Creatine supplementation enables a higher training load to be tolerated, resulting in greater muscle mass gains. Creatine stored in the muscle cells retains fluid. The extra fluid retained in the muscle cell by augmented creatine levels, also attributes to gains in lean muscle mass.
Recent studies show various other ways that account for the muscle hypertrophy seen with creatine supplementation.
Research shows that creatine supplementation increases the Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) activity, which has anabolic effects. IGF-1 is known to stimulate muscle hypertrophy, protein synthesis and satellite cell activity.
Satellite cells are cells located in the muscle cell that can proliferate and form new muscle fibres. In undamaged muscles, satellite cells are dormant; they do not proliferate nor differentiate. In response to training they become activated and turn in to new muscle cells. Recent studies show that creatine supplementation can also activate satellite cell activity. Greater enhancements in satellite cell activity are seen when training is combined with creatine supplementation.
Creatine supplementation also boost muscle growth by suppressing serum myostatin levels. Myostatin is a catabolic regulator of muscle mass that ensures that muscles do not get too big.
Creatine supplementation also seems to postpone muscular fatigue
When muscles become fatigued, the speed of muscle contraction and relaxation slows down. This means it takes longer to produce force and to release the muscle tension. The relaxation processes account for an important fraction of the total energy consumption during repeated muscle contractions. Research shows that creatine supplementation can reduce the time from maximal tension to muscle relaxation by 20%, enhancing the energy-efficiency of the muscle contraction.
Another process through which creatine supplementation can delay muscular fatigue is the buffering of H+ ions (see beta-alanine), allowing the muscle cells to maintain their optimal pH range for a longer time during high-intense activity.
It must be noted however, that studies have seen no significant effect of creatine supplementation on aerobic endurance.
Cycling and dosage
The performance enhancing benefits of creatine are well known by most people, especially those that work out regularly. However, the dosage and strategy to ingest creatine in order to obtain the best results remains less clear, even for those that supplement creatine. Most dose regime recommendations that circle the internet are not based on research. These regimes are even counterproductive to fully obtain the performance and muscle mass gains from creatine supplementation.
The muscle cells have an upper limit of creatine that can be stored. Once this upper limit is reached, the number of creatine transporters, which transport creatine from the bloodstream into the muscle cell, decrease. As long as the creatine levels in the muscle cell remain elevated above basal levels, the creatine transporters that were taken down are not replaced. The activity of the creatine transporters is the limiting factor and explains why creatine levels drop after long-term creatine intake.
These research findings advocate the use of creatine for a period of 6 to 8 weeks, followed by an absence period of at least 4 weeks. After 4 weeks off creatine, muscle cell creatine levels return to pre-supplement levels and creatine transporter activity is up-regulated again.
Which dosage should you ingest during this 6 to 8 week period? The customized approach is to determine your daily creatine intake on your body weight. Ingesting daily 0,03 g/kg body weight of creatine is sufficient. This means a person of 200 lbs uses 2,7 grams (200/2,25 x 0,03) daily for a period of 6 to 8 weeks.
Contra-indications to use a loading phase
A loading period of 5-7 days with a high intake of up to 30 grams daily still is recommended by most blogs and websites. With this loading phase you will reach the upper limit that the muscle cells can store in just a few days. Once the upper limit is reached however the number of creatine transporters will decline. Your muscles become unable to effectively take up creatine, resulting in a progressive decrease of the intra-muscular creatine levels.
The high dosage loading phase will not translate into higher creatine levels in your muscles and may also cause side effects like diarrhea and stomach pain.
Recommended creatine supplementation regime:
- 6-8 weeks: ingest daily 0,03 g/kg body weight
- 4 weeks: period off creatine
- Repeat the cycle
Creatine monohydrate is the best creatine supplement on the market
There are many variations of creatine on the market (Creatine Peptides, Creatine Malate, Creatine Aspartate, Creatine Ethyl Ester HCL, Creatine Gluconate, Creatine Decanoate, Creatine AKG, Creatine Magnesium Chelate, Creatine Orotate, Creatinol-O-Phosphate, Creatine Nitrate, Creatine Anhydrous, Creatine Ferulate). The science however behind these variations is flawed. Research shows that most of these variations do not have the same performance enhancement results as creatine monohydrate. There is no independent scientific research that reveals that creatine in any form of mixture is absorbed more efficient by the body. Do not waist your money on costly variations that are not backed by scientific research. Limit your creatine intake to creatine monohydrate. Do not fall for marketing hype of the supplement companies.
Creatine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authorithy (EFSA) published a record, stating that long-term oral intake of 3g pure creatine per day is risk-free.
Recent research on the effect of creatine supplementation on cognitive ability and wellness
Recent studies focus on the role of creatine in enhancing cognitive performance, providing increased energy and wellness benefits for the elderly.
Research shows that daily creatine intake has a beneficial effect on cognitive ability in elderly and vegetarians. Imaging studies show that creatine supplementation influences brain functioning. Creatine supplementation enhances brain energy capacity, increasing the available energy for computing, which is reflected directly in an improved working memory and intelligence.
Combination of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation
Research (also conducted on experience lifters) reveals that a combination of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation resulted in greater gains in muscle mass and loss of body fat after a training period, than creatine supplementation alone.
Creatine supplementation in combination with beta-alanine intake can boost performance.