Diet is an important part of any athlete’s regime, proving the fuel required to perform. However diet alone may not always be able to provide everything you need, this may be due to a deficiency you have or the fact that some nutrition you may not be able to take in. That’s where supplements come in. In this article we explore the most beneficial supplements for powerlifters, adapted from Dan Austin and Bryan Mann’s second edition of Powerlifting.
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Before taking supplements
Before taking a supplement, it’s important to check a couple of things. First, if you are competing as a powerlifter see if your organization allows its competitors to use the supplement. For example, some organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) test for pseudoephedrine, but others do not. Someone competing in a meet sanctioned by this organization who takes a cold medicine that contains pseudoephedrine may test positive. Another thing to check is the reputability of the company that makes the supplement. In many instances athletes have tested positive for banned substances simply because they took supplements that were contaminated. Some supplement companies do independent testing on their products to ensure they will not cause positive drug tests.
It is advisable to buy only from reputable supplement companies whose products have undergone third-party verification testing by organizations like NSF International. Powerlifting organizations can have differences in their banned substance lists; it is important to be aware of these differences and of everything you are putting in your body. You do not want to receive a suspension or be banned from competition because you did not read the fine print.
Before using supplements, understand that the foundation of performance comes through proper nutrition; supplements just add a little edge.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found in the mitochondria of muscle cells. The human body makes it, and it is also found in food such as red meat. Creatine does several things for strength athletes. First, it provides extra creatine phosphate for the muscle cell to use in the ATP-PC energy system. What does that mean for a powerlifter? It means you can do more repetitions in a training session because you have more juice in the muscles. It’s essentially like switching a 20-watt light bulb for a 40-watt bulb; you get brighter light from the 40-watt bulb. Creatine does the same thing for the energy production of the muscle. It is also a cell volumizer. Basically it draws more water into the muscle cell, or fibre, and increases its size.
Creatine comes in various delivery modes. Creatine monohydrate is effective for increasing strength and size, but some people experience gastrointestinal distress. Other available forms, such as creatine phosphate and creatine citrate, still deliver potent strength gains but without the gastrointestinal issues.
A common dosing recommendation for creatine monohydrate is 25 grams per day for a week and then 5 grams per day thereafter. The initial loading phase saturates the system to get the creatine levels high, and the maintenance dose of 5 grams keeps the creatine in the system. Some other types of creatine do not have this loading period, however.
Creatine is best absorbed when taken with (or mixed in) something to drive it into the cell, such as a simple sugar like grape juice. The insulin released to drive the sugar into the cell takes the creatine in with it. Several studies show that simple carbohydrates such as grape juice greatly intensify the results of creatine. However, research shows that sodium may be just as effective at driving creatine into the muscle cell without the spike of insulin. This is good for those who are trying to cut back on carbohydrate and still want the strength gains of creatine. Besides just the blood sugar spike, the daily caloric intake is also lower. Cutting back everywhere helps you to weigh in as light as possible on meet day.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in skeletal muscle. It has anticatabolic properties, which means it doesn’t build anything up but it keeps muscle from being broken down further. It is also a conditionally essential amino acid. Your body makes it on its own but also uses it up rather quickly in times of physiological stress such as exercise or illness.
Although it doesn’t directly affect strength or muscle, glutamine helps you recover by boosting intestinal and immune system health. If you recover more quickly, your body is more ready for the next training session. The more ready you are, the harder you can train. The more sessions in a row that you can train harder, the better results you get at the end of a training cycle.
Fish oil contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are high in unsaturated fats. The benefits most relevant to a bodybuilder, beyond the often-reported heart health benefits and better brain function, are less pain and inflammation through regulation of the body’s inflammation cycle. Fish oil prevents and relieves conditions such as tendinitis and bursitis. Some research shows that fish oil improves body composition (by decreasing body fat) and also delays fatigue. The recommended dose is 1,000 milligrams per day. You can get fish oil by eating fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, but most people like to take it as a supplement.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine is an amino sugar that may help repair and form joint cartilage. Chondroitin is part of a protein that helps with the elasticity of cartilage. Together they are thought to prevent cartilage breakdown and improve joint function. Possible benefits include the following:
- Less pain, especially in the knees
- More flexibility
- Anti-inflammatory effects
- No destruction of cartilage
- Better joint lubrication
- More synovial fluid
- Rebuilt cartilage
- Relief from osteoarthritis symptoms
Glucosamine and chondroitin also may decrease healing time needed for acute joint injuries such as sprained ankles or fingers. If you don’t feel better after 8 to 12 weeks, it isn’t likely to help. Glucosamine and chondroitin come from shellfish, so don’t take supplements if you have a shellfish allergy. The recommended daily doses are 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams of glucosamine and 1,200 milligrams of chondroitin. The liquid form is best because the body absorbs it more easily, but if the only form you can take is capsule, that is acceptable as well.
Calcium is a mineral found naturally in all dairy products as well as some vegetables such as leafy greens and other non-dairy sources. Calcium is necessary for muscle contraction, and a calcium deficiency is a common reason for cramping. In the cell, calcium ions are released to allow a muscle to contract. If the cell has no calcium, no contraction can be achieved. If calcium is low, either not much force is produced at all or cramping occurs. You can ingest calcium through food, but if you have a lactose intolerance or cannot take in enough calcium through diet, two calcium supplement types—calcium carbonate and calcium citrate—are available. Calcium citrate is more easily absorbed through the stomach wall and causes less gastrointestinal distress, but it is much more expensive. Calcium carbonate is much cheaper but is not absorbed nearly as well. Some recent studies have shown that taking vitamin D with calcium helps the body absorb and use calcium, especially in the formation of bone.
Potassium is another mineral used in muscle contraction. Like calcium, a deficiency in potassium results in either weak muscular contraction or muscle cramping. Potassium is found in white and sweet potatoes as well as in bananas and fortified sports drinks.
Sodium is a mineral found in simple table salt and in most foods. It is required to maintain the osmotic balance in the body. Sometimes cramping occurs because the muscles or the blood do not have enough water. If cramping occurs on meet day, sodium is a good quick fix to eliminate cramping. Although most foods contain sodium, if you’re cramping try to get it through sports drinks. Sports drinks are formulated with the proper amount of sodium and other electrolytes to eliminate cramping.
Magnesium and Zinc
Both magnesium and zinc are required for proper hormonal function. If you are deficient in one of these minerals, you are deficient in the amount of testosterone in your body. If you are unable to get enough through food sources such as nuts or meat, the minerals are contained in most multivitamins.
Hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB) has mixed reviews in resistance training. When taken in times of extreme muscle damage, it has been found to effectively enhance recovery. Many supplement companies point to a study done by medical professionals to substantiate HMB’s effectiveness. They often neglect to mention that in the studies where it was found to significantly increase lean body mass, the subjects were AIDS patients and patients who had experienced third-degree burns over a large portion of their body. Often people claim that HMB will enhance muscle gains in elite athletes and may help prevent muscle loss when dieting down to a smaller weight class. The lack of evidence of its efficacy may make it not worth taking. Essentially, this is a buyer beware supplement. It may work; it may not. The results still aren’t clear unless you are dealing with a sick population.
A naturally occurring substance, caffeine is one of the most used drugs in the world. It is a stimulant that engages the adenosine receptors, which keeps the body from feeling tired. It also quickens the heart rate through sympathetic autonomic nervous system pathways. The benefits are clear for endurance events because caffeine facilitates lipolysis (the breakdown of fat). When fat is mobilized, the substrate that fuels aerobic metabolism is more readily available, thus increasing time to exhaustion. Caffeine’s effects on speed, power, and strength are unclear, although the increase in alertness and well-being may increase the desire to train. As such, this may enable the individual to train harder and longer, deriving benefit from the additional workload rather than from the ergogenic effect of caffeine itself.
Good nutrition is every powerlifter’s brick and mortar and supplements may be needed to fill in any gaps you may have. Supplements provide what you are not able to take in through nutrition, be it vitamins and minerals or performance enhancers such as creatine.
Remember, good nutrition should always be your primary goal. The magic bullet supplement that makes you gain muscle and strength and lose body fat all at the same time does not exist.
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Dan Austin and Bryan Mann
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