When it comes to building new muscle mass, the most important rep is the last rep. This is the rep that engages every last muscle fiber, breaking them down and necessitating that they be rebuilt larger and stronger than ever. Postponing that last rep as long as possible (while maintaining proper form) is your #1 priority.
As you toil your way through prior reps, physiological processes at the cellular level are working against you. That "burn" you're feeling is an increase in hydrogen ions, which makes your muscles fatigued. Your body can attempt to increase muscle capacity and time-to-failure by buffering the hydrogen ions in muscle tissue by employing a hydrogen scavenging di-peptide molecule called carnosine, which buffers the pH levels in muscle cells during periods of oxidative stress. But only for a short interval.
Long-term muscle use requires the delivery of oxygen and glucose to the muscle fiber to allow aerobic respiration to occur, producing the ATP (adenosine triphosphate) required for muscle contraction. If the respiratory or circulatory system cannot keep up with demand, your muscles will slowly stop contracting as hard and fast.
Training individuals who quit early are at a disadvantage because those last brutal reps to failure facilitate the release of lipase, a pancreatic enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of fats. Those last difficult reps also promote the release of testosterone and growth hormone which will aid in increasing lean body mass, fat burning and recovery.
So here’s the problem. Your body doesn’t want more muscle mass. Muscle mass is metabolically expensive to maintain, while fat just sits there on your body waiting for an emergency. So your body doesn’t want to work too hard. That’s what it’s telling your mind. Your muscles would like this rep to be the last rep. Frankly, it wanted the prior rep to be the last one. But this rep, the absolute last rep, the one you can’t do until you actually do it, is the important one.
How can you get to that rep and past it? Well, there are strategies you can utilize to push your fatigue threshold further and further away, so you're doing those reps that count. Here's a few.
Stay Properly Hydrated
The process by which we generate energy within the cell, called the Kreb's cycle, cannot occur without sufficient water. Our cells convert nutrients like carbohydrates and fat into ATP, which in turn facilitates the contractions that make exercise possible. When you’re working out, the amount of energy your muscles need increases, so synthesizing ATP efficiently becomes even more important. On a larger scale, blood volume is mostly water. When bodily fluid levels drop, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. Finally, your body uses water to regulate body temperature through sweat. Intense exercise, especially in a hot environment, drives body temperature up, which must be compensated through perspiration.
At the same time, you can be dehydrated and not even know it. Dehydration doesn't always manifest as thirst, it can be expressed through headache, brain fog, and yes, fatigue. Researchers suggest that that the average non-training person should consume about eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. If you're engaging in high-intensity exercise, it is suggested that you need about twelve ounces of water for every 30 minutes of exercise you do. Soda, tea or even fruit juices -- all of which the body recognizes more as food -- don't count and can even further dehydrate you. There's no substitute for a tall, cool glass of pure water.
Consume Carbs Before Exercise
Maintaining sufficient glycogen stores before exercise and restoring them post-exercise, can make a big difference in your endurance potential. If you’re burning through your stores of muscle glycogen too quickly, you're running out of the fuel required to sustain ATP generation. In addition, some researchers speculate that providing sufficient cellular glycogen may reduce the negative effects of ammonia accumulation in muscle tissue, thus postponing the advent of muscle fatigue.
Supplement With Beta Alanine
Remember the role carnosine plays in buffering pH levels within cells, referenced earlier? Well, beta alanine plays a rate-limiting role in carnosine production by interacting with histidine. High muscle carnosine improves muscle performance through its ability to modulate skeletal muscle pH (acidity) during high intensity, fatiguing exercise. Medical researchers theorize that beta alanine supplementation and subsequent increased muscle carnosine levels may help to support increased workout volume and intensity.
In fact, a recently published article in the journal Amino Acids summarized several studies published on beta alanine and when all of these measures were considered, the authors concluded that beta alanine significantly improved outcomes when compared to a placebo. In particular, beta alanine improved and maximized the capacity to perform exercise (1 Hobson).
Combine Betaine with Creatine Monohydrate
As we've said, cellular hydration is paramount for energy generation and overall proper cell function. Once hydration collapses within the cell, your muscles' capacity for work output falls off a cliff. Betaine anhydrous, also known as trimethylglycine, is an amino acid derivative of choline that helps support cell hydration and volume during the dehydration, stress, and metabolite accumulation associated with high-intensity exercise. Increased cellular hydration may be linked to increased muscle power output and muscle force production. A 2009 study found that two weeks of betaine supplementation in active college males appeared to improve muscle endurance during squat exercises and increased the quality of repetitions that could be performed (2 Hoffman).
Researchers have also begun to investigate betaine's role in supporting how the body processes and partitions nutrients, resulting in quicker fat burning capacity. Indeed, a 2018 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found evidence that betaine supplementation may enhance reductions in fat mass among female college athletes. The study found that 2.5 grams of supplementary betaine per day with nine weeks exercise training in 11 young women decreased body fat more than a placebo (3 Cholewa).
Perhaps not surprisingly, combining one osmolytic factor with another powerful (and well researched) cell-volumizing agent can have a beneficial effect on strength and power. In a recent study published in the journal Amino Acids, study participants supplemented with placebo, creatine, or a combination of betaine and creatine over a period of 10 days. The creatine/betaine supplemented subjects experienced significant increases in power output during squat exercises when compared to the placebo group. Creatine/betaine supplementation led to significantly greater increases in maximal upper-body and lower-body strength as well (4 Stout).
Consider ATP Supplementation
As we said earlier, ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is literally the currency of energy generation in the cell. The more of it you have, the longer muscle cells can draw on it for power, the longer your muscles can work. Unfortunately, ATP production is strictly limited and your muscle cells store very little of it and then must make more to facilitate explosive, high-intensity physical activity.
Recently, however, scientists have begun to consider the possible benefits of increasing ATP availability outside the cell via direct and precisely timed dosing of ATP before workouts. Out of this research, a patented form of supplemental ATP called Peak ATP® has emerged. Peak ATP® has been linked in clinical studies to a number of performance and physique benefits.
In one such trial, a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, sixteen participants received either supplemental ATP (400 mg/day) or a placebo for 15 days. The researchers found that subjects who supplemented with ATP for 15 days experienced reduced muscle fatigue and improved ability to maintain a higher force output at the end of an exhaustive exercise bout (5 Rathmacher). Supplemental ATP is just beginning to appear in a select few advanced pre-workout formulas, and ATP supplementation in general is a sports nutrition trend to keep an eye on.
1 Hobson, RM, et al. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino Acids, 2012. 43(1): p. 25-37.
2 Jay R Hoffman, Nicholas A Ratamess, Jie Kang, Stefanie L Rashti, Avery D Faigenbaum. Effect of betaine supplementation on power performance and fatigue. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Feb 27;6:7.
3 Jason Michael Cholewa, Andrea Hudson, Taylor Cicholski, Amanda Cervenka, Karley Barreno, Kayla Broom, McKenzie Barch, and Stuart A. S. Craig. The effects of chronic betaine supplementation on body composition and performance in collegiate females: a double-blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018; 15: 37.
4 Stout JR, et al., 2006. Effects of twenty-eight days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on the physical working capacity at the neuromuscular fatigue threshold. J Strngth & Cond. Rsrch, 20(4): 928-931.
5 Rathmacher, J. A., Fuller, J. C., Baier, S. M., Abumrad, N. N., Angus, H. F., & Sharp, R. L. (2012). Adenosine-5-triphosphate (ATP) supplementation improves low peak muscle torque and torque fatigue during repeated high intensity exercise sets. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 48.
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