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If you were a newcomer to the world of fitness and exercise, you might think, “Once I get big muscles, I’ll be really strong.” Spend enough time in the gym, however, and you’ll soon recognize that the process works the other way. You have to get stronger to increase muscle mass.
While this might seem counterintuitive, the facts are pretty straightforward. You won't get bigger unless your total volume of work output (i.e. amount of weight lifted in an established time interval) continues to progress. If you keep showing up at the gym, clocking the same workout, putting the same weights on the bar, you're going to stay the same size.
The secret is to continually upgrade the efficiency, capacity, endurance and force potential of the muscle tissue you already have to manage increasingly greater workloads, which in turn will maintain a virtuous cycle of muscle teardown and subsequent (larger) repair and re-growth.
Yes, yes, we know what you're thinking. If larger muscle fibers produce more force, and I don't have those larger muscle fibers yet, where does this extra force come from? To which we answer, it comes from grit and determination and a little help from sports nutritional science. What kind of science? Read on.
The granddaddy of sports supplement nutrition has been helping fitness-minded people reach and exceed their strength and performance limits since, well, your granddaddy was training. And as a result, there's a vast wealth of scientific validation supporting its value in helping you go longer, stronger and harder.
In fact, there has been so much science published in recent years in support of creatine monohydrate's support of strength increase among clinical test subjects that it now makes sense just to speak of the science in the aggregate. A comprehensive review article published in 2015 in the journal Sports Medicine offered a meta-analysis of over 60 clinical studies devoted to creatine’s impact on physique and performance. It concluded that creatine not only increased strength across the board for test subjects receiving creatine, but it did so irrespective of training background, training protocol, dose taken or duration (1 Lanhers).
So, if you're the newcomer we spoke of earlier in this article, what do you need to know about creatine monohydrate? Here's how it works. Firstly, creatine monohydrate supports muscle cell volumization; it literally pulls water into the muscle cell, making muscles bigger and fuller. Bigger and fuller muscles can generate more force potential. Creatine may also support levels of the hormone IGF-1, an insulin-like growth factor that plays a key role in muscle growth (2 Burke).
Creatine monohydrate also supports your body’s stores of phosphocreatine, which is used to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) during high-intensity exercise. ATP is the most basic form of energy in your body’s cells, and plays a key role in metabolism and muscle function. This attribute of creatine monohydrate is especially important because your body can only store enough ATP for 8 to 10 seconds of high-intensity exercise, after which your body must produce new ATP to accommodate the demands of the activity. Which brings us to a new area of scientific investigation that offers great promise for fitness-minded people looking to increase strength and endurance.
Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)
ATP does all sorts of things in the cell that are essential for facilitating strength increase. It provides the energy to transport protein and fats into and out of cells, supports intercellular communication, facilitates DNA and RNA synthesis, and it triggers muscular contraction. Unfortunately, as we said, your muscle cells store very little of it and then must make more to facilitate explosive, high-intensity, highly exhaustive physical activity. This is why you can jog comfortably for half an hour, but only sprint at top speed for maybe 60 seconds. Creatine monohydrate can help your body lengthen this high-intensity interval by providing more ATP as fuel.
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. If your muscle cells can access stored ATP outside the cell during periods of high-intensity exercise, your strength and endurance would presumably be positively impacted.
One such technology has emerged in the form of a patented form of supplemental ATP called Peak ATP®. Peak ATP® is a form of adenosine triphosphate, identical to actual human ATP, which has been linked in clinical studies to a number of performance and physique benefits. In 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 (3 Rathmacher).
In another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Tampa, twenty-one resistance trained males took either 400 mg of Peak ATP® or placebo. Muscle mass, strength and power were measured at baseline and at weeks 4, 8, and 12. Test subjects who supplemented with Peak ATP® experienced an average of 147% increase in strength compared to placebo, as well as a 30% increase in power, a 100% increase in lean body mass, and a 96% increase in muscle thickness (4 Lowery). Clearly, this is science that can be a difference maker for athletes looking to enhance strength and performance.
Caffeine, as we all know, is a powerful and well-researched stimulant compound that can positively effect alertness, focus, and intensity. It's the reason many of us congregate around the office coffee station first thing in the morning.
But caffeine has more to offer athletes than wide-eyed wakefulness. Studies suggest that caffeine supplementation may also reduce the perception of pain during high-intensity exercise. The earlier the onset of pain, the more swiftly our athletic performance deteriorates. In a study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, researchers examined the effect of a caffeinated energy drink on leg pain perception, perceived exertion, mood state and readiness to invest effort pre-workout, during and after a 60-minute bout of cycling exercise. Fourteen active individuals completed two cycling trials at an intensity of 60% VO2 max preceded by ingestion of solutions containing either a caffeinated energy drink or placebo using a double-blind, deceptive, crossover design. Results indicated that heart rate was significantly higher from 30 to 60 minutes, while measurements of perceived exertion and pain perception were significantly lower from 20 to 60 minutes in the energy drink condition compared to placebo. The researchers concluded that the data "revealed positive effects of energy drink ingestion on perception of exertion, leg muscle pain perception and readiness to invest effort during submaximal cycling in active adults" (5 Duncan).
It should be noted that even with regard to a well-established compound like caffeine, science continues to refine and improve its supplemental efficiency and efficacy. In recent years, a more sophisticated form of caffeine that delivers up to 90% pure organic, non-GMO-sourced caffeine derived from green coffee beans has emerged. This advanced form of caffeine, called PurCaf® organic caffeine, is specifically designed to deliver a clean, powerful boost of energy, mental alertness and performance without the energy crash.
Strong, healthy, flexible bones are obviously essential to maximal performance and subsequent strength increases. Researchers are also only beginning to uncover the ways in which a hormone within bone mass, called osteocalcin, can positively effect a whole range of vital bodily processes ranging from memory to appetite, muscle health, fertility, and metabolism. Bones are not the inert, calcified masses we often consider them to be. They are in fact live organs, communicating constantly with other organs, producing their own hormones and proteins that circulate in the blood. Recently, researchers have come to recognize that osteocalcin acts in muscle to increase the ability to produce ATP, the fuel that allows us to exercise. These and other physiological interactions in bone mass enhance not just strength and power potential but our overall wellness and longevity.
One of the best ways you can support bone health is to take a high-quality Vitamin D3 / Vitamin K2 complex. Vitamin D is an essential catalyst for facilitating calcium uptake into bones to maintain bone density and strength. Vitamin K2, when combined in a synergistically viable dosage with Vitamin D3, has been shown to further enhance calcium uptake and utilization, while also supporting cardiovascular health by helping to activate a key circulatory protein that inhibits blood vessel calcification.
The window for supporting strength increase during and immediately after exercise is shorter than people generally realize. The swift uptake of the amino acid leucine during this interval is a key factor for increasing performance potential and work output capacity. Leucine is one the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and the primary activator of the mTOR anabolic pathway that governs protein synthesis and consequent muscle repair and growth. Indeed, without sufficient leucine present, muscle tissue will remain in a negative nitrogen balance during and after exercise and protein synthesis will not initiate at all. It's not surprising then that leucine (usually combined in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine, the other BCAAs) has been a "go-to supplement" pre- and intra-workout for serious athletes looking to drive increases in muscle strength and mass for a long time now.
Here too, however, science continues to refine and improve existing supplemental technologies. Advanced leucine peptide technologies have emerged that are synthesized from a proprietary process that binds free form leucine to peptides isolated from whey protein using advanced fractionation and separation technologies. These leucine peptides are more swiftly absorbed by muscle tissue and provide this essential amino acid in greater quantities.
The best and most productive workouts are characterized by maximum velocity and endurance. You have to maintain an elevated pace, while retaining ideal form in your movements, while also advancing your total volume benchmarks. This isn't easy and beta alanine supplementation can help.
A naturally occurring beta amino acid, beta alanine plays a rate-limiting role in carnosine production by interacting with histidine. High muscle carnosine improves muscle performance through its ability to buffer skeletal muscle pH (acidity) during high intensity, fatiguing exercise. In essence, beta alanine can help you maintain consistent performance right to the end of your workout.
In a macro-summary of existing published clinical studies involving beta alanine supplementation, recently published in the journal Amino Acids, researchers considered several different patterns of supplementation that involved over 350 research subjects. When all of these measures were considered, the authors concluded that beta alanine significantly improved strength outcomes when compared to a placebo. In particular, beta alanine improved and maximized the capacity to perform exercise (6 Baguet). Thus, it should come as no surprise that beta alanine supplementation and subsequent increased muscle carnosine levels would help to support increased workout volume and intensity.
Another key factor in the maintenance and increase of strength and power potential is cell hydration. During high-intensity exercise, muscle cells need water to synthesize energy. Specifically, the synthesis of ATP in the cell for energy becomes seriously degraded as the cell becomes dehydrated. To some extent, you can mitigate this deterioration by consuming water and the electrolytes sodium and potassium.
Betaine, also known as trimethylglycine, is a nutrient that helps support cell hydration and volume during the dehydration, stress, and metabolite accumulation associated with high-intensity exercise. In a published College of New Jersey study, athletes supplementing with this osmolytic agent experienced an increase of 30% in squat repetitions after 7 days of supplementation and 60% after 14 days, as well as significant increases in the quality of repetitions performed (7 Stout). Betaine also works in combination with other strength and power-enhancing factors to support performance, particularly cell-volumizing creatine monohydrate.
In every gym, there's that guy who looks like he weighs 170 pounds and he's deadlifting what looks to be 450 pounds. How does he do it? Surely he can't have enough muscle to do that! But he does. Chances are, that guy has internalized the lesson of real muscle mass increase. Strength before size. And he's utilizing precision-targeted supplementation to achieve his goals. You can too.
1 Lanhers, C., B. Pereira, G. Naughton, M. Trousselard, F. X. Lesage, and F. Dutheil. 2015. "Creatine Supplementation and Lower Limb Strength Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses." Sports Med 45 (9):1285-94. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0337-4.
2 Darren G Burke, Darren G Candow, Philip D Chilibeck, Lauren G MacNeil, Brian D Roy, Mark A Tarnopolsky, Tim Ziegenfuss. Effect of creatine supplementation and resistance-exercise training on muscle insulin-like growth factor in young adults. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008 Aug;18(4):389-98.
3 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.
4 Lowery, RP, et. al. Oral ATP administration improves blood flow responses to both animal and human training models. Presnted at the 10th Annual ISSN Conference. Colorado Springs, CO. June, 2013.
5 Michael J Duncan 1 , Joanne Hankey. The effect of a caffeinated energy drink on various psychological measures during submaximal cycling. Physiol Behav. 2013 May 27;116-117:60-5.
6 Baguet A. et al., 2009. Carnosine loading and washout in human skeletal muscles. J Appl Physiol, 106: 837-842. And Harris RC, et al., 2006. The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids, 30(3): 279-289.
7 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.
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