Supplementation for Muscle and Strength - Reflections on the Pyramid
CN Note: This post is part of an article series on supplementation authored by experts we trust and respect. Much of our knowledge base and approach to supplements has evolved from their work - and we hope you find this series useful.
Supplementation for Muscle and Strength - Reflections on the Pyramid.
By - Eric Helms
Two years ago I created a 6-part YouTube series on nutrition called “The Muscle and Strength Nutritional Pyramid”. It was designed to help people interested in gaining muscle and/or strength prioritize their nutrition to avoid “putting the cart before the horse”. It is very common that lifters at one time or another in their training career end up focusing on the minutia when they have yet to lock down the critical components to their success.
To help combat this, I categorized different aspects of nutrition, and then ordered those categories from most to least important when viewed from the perspective of improving body composition and resistance training performance. Without singing my own praises too much, I did a fairly good job of addressing the entire spectrum of nutrition and condensing it into six videos that averaged ~19 minutes per video. However, the simple nature of condensing the totality of this information into six relatively short videos means that a great deal of detail had to be skimmed over. This article delves into some of the details that I couldn’t fully flesh out in my pyramid level covering supplementation.
Supplementation is tricky. Isolating nutritional extracts to target a specific pathway to achieve a specific outcome, or trying to address a specific “weak link” in a chain to prevent a deficiency or improve some type performance is an interesting topic. It brings out my inner nerd, which I enjoy. On the other hand, the supplement industry itself is filled with crap. I can confidently say that 99% of the supplements available on the market don’t do anything except burn a hole in your wallet. The majority of products are propped up by sexy marketing and athletes paid to endorse them, with maybe a bit of pseudoscience mixed in as well (at best). Worse, a surprising number of products simply don’t contain the quality or the amount of the active ingredients that their label claims [1-3] and some actually have ingredients in them that should not be there at all or that are either unsafe, illegal or banned, or both [4-6] . So, while I enjoy the science of nutritional supplementation, I am always hesitant to write about supplements. I hesitate because I don’t want to contribute to the idea that supplements are essential (unsurprisingly they are supplemental), make a large difference in the grand scheme of things, or that the supplement industry has much interest in helping you achieve your goals.
Now with that said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good guys in the area of supplementation. As in any industry, there are those who enjoy helping people, want to make a positive difference and have found a way to make a career out of pursuing those goals. Citadel Nutrition is a good example, and they are the only supplement company I’ve ever written an article for. They only produce evidence-based supplements, use high quality ingredients and manufacturing practices, they send out third party lab tests to consumers, and they put a great deal of time and effort towards research and development. You’ll notice in their blog posts and product write ups that they reference Examine.com, a third-party, evidence-based supplement information website with a mission to inform consumers. They also reference nutrition experts known for their intellectual honesty and empirical approach such as Alan Aragon and Lyle McDonald.
It is rare to find a company willing to open themselves up to experts who don’t “have a dog in the race” like myself, Alan, Lyle and the folks at Examine.com. Okay, now that I’ve over explained myself as to why I’m writing this, given credit where credit is due, and also customarily bad-mouthed the supplement industry as I normally do, we can get on with it. With that all out of the way, let’s get into some of the background details and minutia related to the fifth instalment of my Muscle and Strength Nutritional Pyramid on Supplementation.
MULTIVITAMIN AND MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS
One topic that I had trouble addressing in the pyramid series was micronutrient and mineral supplementation. I set myself up for failure a bit here, in that I had a pyramid level dedicated to micronutrient intake, and I also had a level dedicated to supplementation which included vitamin and mineral supplements. So right off the bat the picture got a little murky as I struggled to spread the information over the two levels and present it in two distinct ways while still giving the topic enough coverage. Also, the very nature of multivitamin supplementation causes me headaches as so many common multivitamins (especially “sports” or “bodybuilding” multivitamins) have every possible micronutrient in them you can think of, with many of them over dosed, and some under dosed (often calcium). So, making a recommendation is difficult because most of the multivitamins out there are poorly formulated in the first place.
My solution was to predicate my recommendations on the assumption that viewers were following the advice of the previous levels of the pyramid, and to also make recommendations specific to periods of caloric restriction and periods where calories weren’t restricted. Thus, I recommended a low dosed, normal “one a day” type multivitamin and mineral supplement when in a caloric deficit, and left it open to the individual if they also wanted to supplement when not calorically restricted. I felt comfortable with this recommendation given that in general, multivitamin use appears to be not harmful, and may confer a small protective health benefit to long term users  .
The rationale behind primarily recommending a multivitamin during dieting was relatively straight forward. When you are eating less food, you will also be eating less micronutrients. A good diet with plenty of variety and a high fruit and vegetable intake helps, but it doesn’t necessarily always cover your bases. Many popular diets, even ones that subjectively seem to have adequate variety and inclusion of various micronutrient-dense foods, are actually micronutrient deficient  . Also, the traditional approach to dieting of focusing on “clean” foods and avoiding “dirty” foods popularized by bodybuilders, which supposedly increases the micronutrient density of a diet, may in fact be so restrictive as to leave out key nutrients and result in micronutrient deficiencies [9-13] . Sometimes, these deficiencies can have significant impacts related to the body composition goals of the individual. For example, zinc deficiencies which are among those deficiencies reported in the studies I just referenced, can in fact result in a down regulation of thyroid to the point where energy expenditure is substantially reduced. In one case study, one subject increased RMR by 194kcals after 4 months of supplementing with zinc, and the other subject increased RMR by a whopping 527kcals after supplementing with zinc for 2 months  .
Clearly, in some cases correcting a deficiency during dieting can be incredibly important for success. For this same reason, I also recommended calcium as a supplement while dieting. It is one of the common deficiencies reported and also is required in high enough amounts that typical multivitamins are often under dosed with it. Consuming dairy on a diet can fix this issue; and low fat, low carb, high protein Greek yogurts can be fit into diets that are low in calories, fat or carbs, and are a great way to avoid needing to supplement with calcium. However, for those who don’t have access to this type of Greek yogurt in their location, or have a specific reason that precludes dairy consumption, calcium supplementation may be something to consider.
The five deficiencies most consistently reported by dieting bodybuilders from surveys in the 1980’s and 1990’s were vitamin D, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron  . Each can have a significant impact on health, performance, and potentially diet-success if deficient. A diet with good variety can cover these bases, but as calories and macronutrients get lower, it will be harder and harder to prevent deficiencies. I would advise maintaining dairy and red meat consumption (lean with fat trimmed can fit into almost any diet) if possible to avoid calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron deficiencies and getting regular outside sun exposure (not through windows  ) to avoid vitamin d deficiency. If you can do this in addition to consuming fruits and veggies, you will likely avoid issues. However, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find a good multivitamin that covers these specific bases while dieting, especially if the diet is relatively low in calories or if for some reason your diet precludes the inclusion of these foods.
PERFORMANCE SUPPLEMENTS – BETA ALANINE, WHY BCAA’S AND WHY NOT CITRULLINE MALATE?
Besides the bit of confusion around multivitamins, the majority of questions that arose from my video on supplementation were related to the efficacy of beta alanine, why I included BCAA’s and also why I didn’t include citrulline malate. Well let’s start with the easiest, why I didn’t include citrulline malate.
Citrulline malate is a supplement that for whatever reason is often seen as “one of the good guys” and as having a lot of science behind it. But really it only has one study supporting its use that is relevant to muscle and strength development  . This study found that additional volume was performed by a group taking citrulline malate compared to a group not taking it when performing the bench press. However, the sets were taken to failure and rest periods were restricted to one minute. Performing sets in this way, in and of itself, is probably a sub optimal approach to training (as I discuss here in my recent pyramid series on training for muscle and strength). So at best one could make the argument that if you are resting for too short of a period and taking all sets to failure that perhaps citrulline malate could be useful in order to mitigate the decrement to training volume that can occur from doing so. But it begs the question, why wouldn’t you just train properly in the first place?
Next, let’s address beta alanine. I categorized beta alanine as a conditionally beneficial supplement because it only has a small performance enhancing effect when efforts reach a duration of at least 60 seconds  . So, for powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and anyone training primarily for strength, it doesn’t serve a purpose. With the typical tempo that most people lift with, you’d need to be doing sets of 15 reps+ to get a benefit from beta alanine. So perhaps bodybuilders could benefit from taking beta alanine, but only if they are doing a large volume of high rep work. However, there is not a requisite rep range for hypertrophy training per se. Equal hypertrophy can be achieved with both 10RM and 3RM loads given equated volume; the only advantage of moderate repetition ranges (8-12) is that it is easier to accumulate volume compared to using heavier loads which requires more sets, long rest periods and thus takes much longer  . Simply put, to optimize hypertrophy enough volume needs to be performed with loads that are “heavy enough”, because high rep, low load sets (20RM+) don’t produce as much muscle growth as moderate and heavy loads when volume is equated  . In fact, to get comparable muscle growth to that which can be achieved with heavier loads, one may have to perform three times the volume with high repetition low load training  . Therefore, I would argue that only during phases of training where high reps (15+) are emphasized, or potentially when one is performing HIIT cardio using intervals lasting 60 seconds or longer, would it be advisable to consider beta alanine supplementation.
Some also questioned my inclusion of BCAA’s, even though I only made a couched recommendation for very specific conditions. It is true that BCAA’s are one of the most frequently used supplements for bodybuilding  , which is odd considering there is only one study directly relevant to muscle and strength development that supports their use  . This popularity is even less founded considering this study was a poster presentation rather than peer reviewed journal article, and considering that dietary controls weren’t put in place to account for total daily protein intake (which is important since a high protein diet contains a high content of BCAA). Outside of this one poster presentation that should be interpreted with caution, there is scant evidence to support BCAA use.
A recent paper came out that found handball athletes had a reduction in fatigue while taking a combined arginine and BCAA supplement compared to placebo during a multi-day simulated competitive event  . However, it is unclear whether this effect can be isolated to BCAA’s (rather than arginine or the two combined) and the fatigue reducing effects may only manifest during multi-day efforts considering a similar study on wrestlers found no effect during a single protracted competitive effort  . In terms of body composition, an older study found a greater reduction in abdominal fat in dieting wrestlers who replaced the vast majority of their daily protein intake with BCAA’s compared to another group of wrestlers who replaced the vast majority of their daily protein intake with soy protein  . However, neither condition was representative of a normal diet. The extreme intakes of both soy and BCAA’s in this experiment make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from this study. Finally, there is evidence that aerobic exercise performance can be improved when consuming isocaloric amounts of BCAA compared to carbohydrate but only when glycogen depleted  . When not glycogen depleted, BCAA may reduce perceived exertion, but is not as effective at aiding performance as an isocaloric amount of carbohydrate  . So, the take home here is that if you are consuming a diet adequate in carbohydrates, protein and total calories, you are unlikely to get any benefit from supplemental BCAA’s, especially if you are hoping it will improve resistance training performance. On the other hand, if you are performing cardio and have to do so fasted or while consuming a low calorie or low carbohydrate diet (which could potentially result in glycogen depletion), you might potentially benefit from BCAA supplementation. However, this is a very narrow rationale for BCAA supplementation indeed.
In the end, it’s best to view all supplements not with a black and white “good or bad” view, but rather with a “conditional” mind-set. Meaning, use the readily available resources like Examine.com, and evaluate the specific purpose of the supplement, and how that may or may not align with your specific goals at any given time. Then, if you do decide to purchase and use a supplement, I would advise doing so from a company that is not only certified for using good manufacturing practices and having high quality ingredients, but that can also prove to you that what’s on the label is what’s in the product and nothing else.
About the Author:
Eric is a coach, athlete, author, and educator. A trainer since the early 2000’s, he’s worked in the US Air force, commercial gyms, private training studios, medical fitness and strength and conditioning facilities. As a part of 3DMJ he coaches drug free strength and physique competitors at all levels. Eric has competed since the mid 2000’s in natural bodybuilding, unequipped powerlifting and recently in Olympic lifting. He earned pro status as a natural bodybuilder with the PNBA in 2011 and competes with the IPF at international level events as an unequipped powerlifter.
Eric has published multiple peer reviewed articles in exercise science and nutrition journals and writes for commercial fitness publications. He’s taught undergraduate and graduate level nutrition and exercise science and speaks internationally at academic and commercial conferences for fitness, nutrition and strength and conditioning. He has a BS in fitness and wellness, an MS in exercise science, a second masters in sports nutrition, and is a strength and conditioning PhD candidate at AUT in New Zealand.
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