The key pillars of natural muscle building – diet and training. However, you can only get by on doing the bare minimum for so long. As progress slows, more layers need to be added. Progressive training, sufficient calorie and protein intake, nutrient timing around workouts, sleep, stress… and of course, supplementation.
There are several supplements that you may already be taking on a daily basis to help you reach your goals. For most, protein, creatine, pre-workout and BCAA/EAA supplement will be a given. As you become more advanced in your lifting career, you can pinpoint more specific needs and introduce more complex supplements based on your own biofeedback.
Today, we will be discussing supplements you may or may not have heard of, with specific links to natural muscle building. Yes- none of these are hormonal supplements and all can be used by both healthy males and females!
Epicatechin is a molecule found in chocolate and an ingredient we expect to see in an increasing number of supplements in coming years due to its promise in studies to inhibit myostatin.
Lost already? Myostatin naturally inhibits muscle growth by controlling the proliferation of muscle precursor cells (Myoblasts). In theory, inhibiting the action of myostatin would increase the hypertrophic response to resistance training. Whether or not true myostatin inhibitors exist or have already been developed and are being used in elite bodybuilding is up to debate.
If Epicatechin does cause a myostatin deficiency, it could give results similar to those of anabolic steroids, without the negative effects on hormone levels and organ health.
Studies have considered Epicatechin as a possible treatment option for sarcopenia in the elderly. These have found that treatment for 7 days with epicatechin increases hand grip strength and the ratio of plasma follistatin/myostatin (Gutierrez-Salmean et al., 2014) and the greatest effects on muscle growth are seen when supplementation is combined with resistance training (Mafi et al., 2019).
Of course, a key limitation to the above studies is how applicable they are to individuals who are already doing everything they can to optimise muscle growth and retention. While invitro, mouse and studies on the elderly have shown promise, testing on athletes is needed going forward.
Dose: 100-200mg daily
Phosphatidic Acid is a phospholipid, ‘lipid’ meaning fat. Chemically speaking, it comprises of a glycerol backbone, two fatty acids and a phosphate group. You may be wondering what a lipid has to do with building muscle… well, phosphatidic acid actually seems to directly activate mTOR, which is responsible for regulating protein synthesis and cell growth. It has already attracted attention from the research community, and several published papers have demonstrated its value in human subjects. As of now, the exact mechanism by which PA works is not fully understood, but the results speak for themselves.
In a two-part study, which recruited resistance trained subjects, it was found that Phosphatidic Acid, dosed at 750mg daily, significantly increased lean body mass (+2.4 kg) and leg press strength (+51.9 kg) over placebo (Joy et al., 2014).
It’s not just leg press strength that has been shown to be positively affected! Another study, again utilising 750mg given to resistance trained men, found the following results following an 8-week exercise programme: a 12.7% increase in squat strength and a 2.6% increase in lean body mass, both higher than results in the placebo group (Hoffman et al., 2012).
A third study of similar design used a supplement containing L-Leucine, HMB, and Vitamin D3 alongside 750mg of PA. Similarly, an increase in lean body mass and strength was seen. The added ingredients did seem to yield a slightly higher increase in overall strength compared to previous studies, but results for specific lifts varied (Escalante et al., 2016).
It is worth noting the quality of study design for each of these studies. Rarely do we see a supplement used in a sports supplement context tested on trained individuals. These studies are the calibre of research on commonly known supplements such as creatine or beetroot (as a nitric oxide booster).
Dose: 750mg daily
Laxogenin is a plant steroid belonging to a group of compounds known as brassinosteroids. Don’t be confused by the word ‘steroid’ however, Laxogenin works very differently in humans to plants and the mechanism of action is very different to anabolic steroids like testosterone.
Studies on laxogenin are limited but point to weight gain (particularly in muscle) without androgenic side effects.
Anecdotally, we have heard many positive reviews of laxogenin containing supplements from customers:
‘This is one of the best muscle builders I've come across for sure! As many say about epicatechin, it takes around 2-3 weeks to really kick in. I bought two bottles and I'm in my 4th week now. I’m really starting to feel more endurance during my workouts, stronger and the pumps are SICK!’ Alan on Olympus Labs: Massacr3
Dose: 72-150mg daily
HMB (β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate) is a metabolite of leucine. Leucine, is one of the 3 branched chain amino acids. HMB seems to be the main metabolite of leucine that protects against muscle breakdown, appearing to be around 20x more potent than leucine.
HMB is not an anabolic (muscle building) supplement, but an anti-catabolic (muscle breakdown preventing) one. This means that, hypothetically, people who are at higher risk of losing muscle mass will see the most benefit from using it. This includes people dieting on low calories and people doing high intensity cardio.
One study by Wilson et al. (2013) on resistance trained men found decreases in muscle protein breakdown approaching significance and concluded that HMB given to trained athletes before exercise can blunt increases in muscle damage.
Dose: 1-3g daily
Creatine is one of the most researched sports supplements out there, and if you aren’t already using it, you probably should be! Creatine donates a phosphocreatine to ADP to product ATP which is used in times of high energy demand such as intense exercise. Through this action, creatine has been shown time and time again in studies to increase strength and power output. For best results, use daily to saturate stores (loading can be used if trying to get the benefits sooner, but is certainly not essential).
Dose: 5g daily
Arachidonic Acid (ARA) is a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid. It has been hypothesised that ARA plays a central role in the adaptive response to strength training due to its anti-inflammatory, healing benefits.
A study on 31 resistance trained men supported the idea that supplementation during resistance-training may enhance anaerobic capacity and lessen the inflammatory response to training (Roberts et al., 2007). Another, following 8 weeks of supplementation, found significantly greater increases in lean body mass, bench press 1RM, and power output than placebo.
Dose: up to 1500mg daily
Escalante, G., Alencar, M., Haddock, B. and Harvey, P. (2016). The effects of phosphatidic acid supplementation on strength, body composition, muscular endurance, power, agility, and vertical jump in resistance trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13(1).
Gutierrez-Salmean, G., Ciaraldi, T., Nogueira, L., Barboza, J., Taub, P., Hogan, M., Henry, R., Meaney, E., Villarreal, F., Ceballos, G. and Ramirez-Sanchez, I. (2014). Effects of (−)-epicatechin on molecular modulators of skeletal muscle growth and differentiation. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 25(1), pp.91-94.
Joy, J., Gundermann, D., Lowery, R., Jäger, R., McCleary, S., Purpura, M., Roberts, M., Wilson, S., Hornberger, T. and Wilson, J. (2014). Phosphatidic acid enhances mTOR signaling and resistance exercise induced hypertrophy. Nutrition & Metabolism, 11(1), p.29.
Hoffman, J., Stout, J., Williams, D., Wells, A., Fragala, M., Mangine, G., Gonzalez, A., Emerson, N., McCormack, W., Scanlon, T., Purpura, M. and Jäger, R. (2012). Efficacy of phosphatidic acid ingestion on lean body mass, muscle thickness and strength gains in resistance-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1).
Mafi, F., Biglari, S., Ghardashi Afousi, A. and Gaeini, A. (2019). Improvement in Skeletal Muscle Strength and Plasma Levels of Follistatin and Myostatin Induced by an 8-Week Resistance Training and Epicatechin Supplementation in Sarcopenic Older Adults. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 27(3), pp.384-391.
Roberts, M., Iosia, M., Kerksick, C., Taylor, L., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., Harvey, T., Cooke, M., Rasmussen, C., Greenwood, M., Wilson, R., Jitomir, J., Willoughby, D. and Kreider, R. (2007). Effects of arachidonic acid supplementation on training adaptations in resistance-trained males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1), p.21.
Wilson, J., Lowery, R., Joy, J., Walters, J., Baier, S., Fuller, J., Stout, J., Norton, L., Sikorski, E., Wilson, S., Duncan, N., Zanchi, N. and Rathmacher, J. (2013). β-Hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate free acid reduces markers of exercise-induced muscle damage and improves recovery in resistance-trained men. British Journal of Nutrition, 110(3), pp.538-544.