Q: Is it possible to boost endurance, build muscle, and burn fat with supplements?
— Matt H., Chicago
A: Even a cursory glance at magazines devoted to health, fitness, and—especially—bodybuilding would leave you with the distinct impression that supplements build muscles. Just look at the pictures of muscular guys and impossibly fit women with glowing skin and radiant health, all of them endorsing the latest muscle building supplement, or the latest miracle “fat burner.” The promise is clear: Lift a few weights, take this pill, and you too can look just like the fitness models do!
OK, maybe not exactly. But it’s easy to dismiss the idea of “muscle-building” supplements because of the marketing hype that surrounds them. Sure, you’d be right to scoff at the outrageous promises some of the less reputable companies make. But let’s not rush to judgment quite so quickly. The fact is, there are supplements on the market that have an impressive and proven track record for increasing performance.
Creatine for Muscle Building
Creatine is an acid produced naturally in the human body. It’s found mainly in muscle tissue, but is also present in the brain and the heart. We get it mainly from red meat, fish, and chicken. When dietary intake is low, it can be produced in the body from three amino acids: glycine, arginine, and methionine.
To understand why creatine is helpful to exercisers, you first need to understand what ATP is. ATP—adenosine triphosphate—is the “energy molecule” that powers all activity. ATP has to be present for the muscles to contract.
So where do we get this ATP from in the first place? Well, some of it is stored in the muscles. This ATP will power about 10–15 seconds worth of activity. After that, the body turns to a compound called PC (phosphocreatine) that is also stored in the muscles. PC is broken down into creatine and phosphate. This whole system, known as the ATP-PC system, will keep you going for about 30 seconds.
So where does creatine fit in? Simple. By providing more creatine—the technical name of which is creatine phosphate—you are essentially providing extra phosphate molecules which, in turn, can be used to create additional ATP. Additional ATP allows you to do a few more reps before your muscle fatigues.
Sharp-eyed readers should have noticed immediately that it’s not the creatine that makes you bigger and stronger—it’s the fact that you can lift longer and heavier without fatiguing. If you take creatine and then spend the day on the couch, not much will happen. But combine it with a weight lifting program, and watch out. Creatine’s proven ability to extend the time you can keep lifting without fatigue, or to increase the amount you can lift before reaching “failure,” makes all the difference in the world. By building up the stores of creatine in your muscles, you extend the amount of time you can work out intensely, you lift more weight, and you gain more muscle.
One caveat—creatine does little to nothing for athletes who rely on the aerobic system for energy. Long distance runners—or even folks spending an hour on the treadmill—aren’t likely to get much benefit. Those looking to build some muscle, however, will find that creatine is just the ticket, provided you’re also doing some lifting.
Health Benefits of Branched Chain Amino Acids
Next on the list of supplements that really work for exercisers are BCAAs—branched chain amino acids. These three amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—have a unique role in exercise. “Branched chain amino acids are a kind of alternate fuel source,” explains Jade Teta, ND, CSCS, an integrative physician specializing in fitness and the author of The Metabolic Effect Diet. They can be used to make both glucose and ketones, which, as any low-carb dieter knows, can be used quite effectively as fuel by the brain, heart, and muscles. “By acting as a kind of surrogate carbohydrate, they allow you to exercise in a carb depleted state, and that will increase fat burning,” says Teta.
BCAAs also have an effect on cravings. According to Teta, when you take 5–10 gm of BCAAs between meals on an empty stomach, it essentially shuts off hunger. And research has shown that BCAAs increase the rate of protein synthesis (muscle building) and decrease the rate of protein degradation (muscle breakdown).
Beet Juice Extract for Exercise Endurance
A third great supplement for exercisers that’s the focus of a lot of research right now is beet juice. “Beet juice is absolutely fantastic as an exercise performance enhancer,” says Teta. Beet juice—and beet extract—seem to work their magic by increasing nitric oxide in the body. According to Jim Stoppani, PhD, aka “the Supplement Guru” on Bodybuilding.com, the purported benefits of beet juice or beet extract include “greater exercise endurance, greater power output, and less fatigue.” Stoppani suggests taking beet extract 30–60 minutes before a workout.
Weight Loss Supplements
Some supplements can help with weight loss. Here are a few of the most promising.
Chromium acts as “insulin’s little helper,” assisting insulin with the task of getting sugar into the cells. If chromium makes your insulin more effective at clearing sugar from the bloodstream, theoretically you’d need less insulin to get the job done. And since insulin is the “fat-storing” hormone, being able to get by with less of it is a definite advantage if you’re trying to lose fat.
Green Coffee Beans contain chlorogenic acid, a plant compound that research shows
has weight-loss benefits. The presence of chlorogenic acid in the body triggers the liver to stop releasing glucose into the bloodstream. Less sugar in the blood means less insulin in the bloodstream. With insulin at a lower level, the body can now get energy from deposits in adipose (fat) tissues, thus stimulating weight loss.
Green Tea Extract (EGCG). The active compound in green tea (EGCG, short for epigallocatechin gallate) is one of the best weight-loss supplements available. Compounds in green tea stimulate what’s called thermogenesis, or the creation (genesis) of heat (thermo). Creating more thermogenesis is a huge metabolic and fat-burning boost—it’s what’s meant by the term “raising your metabolism.” EGCG works by increasing the production of noradrenaline, which basically turns up your metabolism.
Remember, if you eat most of your meals at fast-food restaurants and don’t exercise, then no supplement will make a difference. That said, if you’re doing the right things, these may give you an extra push.