Being a strength athlete is hard work. Week after week, and month after month you need to up your game – lift heavier weights in the gym, or accomplish more work done in the same amount of time. But inevitably, you hit a wall (sooner or later).
For the smart athlete, this wall may not be met for years, but the untrained novice who has only recently embarked on their journey may find themselves hard-pressed when trying to make continuous strength gains.
What gives? Well, there is a high likelihood that athlete “A”, has a solid supplement protocol in play, whereas athlete “B” is probably just winging it. If you’re looking to improve your strength or continue to be able to get stronger and stronger, a smart supplement arsenal will help support your goals along the way.
Not sure what to look for? No worries, as always we’ve got your back covered!
Creatine… the OG strength supplement and the Godfather of the supplements we know and love today. Regardless of the particular salt/ester that it may come bound to, at the end of it all we still get basic Creatine.
So what makes Creatine so good? For one, with Creatine you’re not randomly trying to shoot fish in a barrel; it is actually one of the most heavily researched supplements on the planet. And that’s saying something, since in general multiple research studies are not conducted on any one product.
Did you know that Creatine can be found naturally occurring in foods like meat and eggs? Or that the body can produce its own? Even though this is good, the amount is far too little and unlikely to deliver any noticeable biological effects.
Now for the good part; how Creatine improves strength. When you work out, your body relies on energy in the form of ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. As your muscles run through this energy currency, a point is reached when phosphorylation, the process of adding a phosphate molecule to ADP (adenosine diphosphate) is slowed down, leading to fatigue.
Creatine phosphate (also referred to as phosphocreatine), quickly enables the resynthesis of ATP, delaying muscle fatigue and allowing you to generate greater amounts of energy.
This is what makes Creatine EXCEPTIONAL for short duration, high intensity exercise such as powerlifting/ low rep bodybuilding sets, as the rapid but finite production of ATP it supports can mean the difference between a PR and failure.
If it’s been a while since you’ve used Creatine (or your first time ever), you can start off with a 7 day loading period during which you saturate the muscles with Creatine. Aim for 20-25g daily, and subsequently reduce to 5g daily as a maintenance dose.
There are also several forms of Creatine you might encounter on the market such as monohydrate, ethyl ester, or Kre-Alkalyn (pH corrected Creatine monohydrate), but at the end of the day there isn’t a significant difference between them, so let your budget and preference decide.
Second only to Creatine, Beta-Alanine has been a revelation since it was popularized nearly two decades ago. Even though it isn’t particularly new- it was known of well over a hundred years ago, only recently has it been exploited for performance enhancement, particularly when it comes to strength and allowing you to get more work done.
But how does it do this? To understand, let us take a quick journey into a working muscle cell. As muscular contraction is repeated, lactic acid levels raise in consequence, being a byproduct of metabolism. It was believed that Beta-Alanine buffers lactic acid, but that is only partially correct. Rather, Beta-Alanine supplementation helps with buffering of intracellular pH, which is shifted to an acidic balance by lactic acid and the accumulation of positively charged hydrogen ions. So to be technically correct, Beta-alanine supplementation helps reduce acidic pH within muscles’ intracellular fluid, resisting the inability to contract.
But here comes a bit of a doozy for you- Beta-alanine doesn’t really do that much by itself. At this point you’re probably saying “wut?” but hear me out. When you consume Beta-Alanine, it is converted into another amino acid known as Carnosine. Carnosine acts as a sort of “sponge”, neutralizing positively charged hydrogen ions (acid forming ions) and allowing your muscles to maintain an optimal pH. So as you can see, Carnosine is what actually does the work, but Beta-Alanine is necessary to elevate its blood levels.
When it comes to muscle contractility, pH is king. Delaying the acidic change that occurs from accumulation of metabolic byproducts will allow muscle cells to work longer, enabling more reps or the ability to make strength gains.
It is not absolutely necessary to take a loading dose of Beta-Alanine either, though this can be done for a period of 6 days. Take 6g split in multiple doses (as many as 4), and subsequently a maintenance dose of about 3g (many supplements with Beta-Alanine contain 3.2g). Split dosing, as opposed to one lump sum serving minimizes the tingling sensation people often encounter from consuming large doses.
Even though betaine (also known as trimethylglycine or TMG) has become a common ingredient found in many pre-workout supplements today, most people still do not understand its true purpose. The most well-known attribute of Betaine is what is known as methyl-donation. Of particular importance is the body’s methylation of the amino acid homocysteine, which is dangerous in excess, to form the beneficial methionine.
Methionine levels in the body correspond to Creatine synthesis, so if you’re not supplementing with a supplemental form of it, additional synthesis will be welcomed. But it also does much more than just enhance endogenous Creatine production, as methionine can also enhance protein synthesis, translating to enhanced rates of lean muscle accrual.
In addition to these clear-cut findings are others whose mechanisms are not well understood as of this time, such as the fact that Betaine was found to increase strength performance in studies by up to 20%, increase muscle mass and simultaneously reduce fat mass.
Undoubtedly, more light will be shed on these findings as further studies are undertaken, but what is clear is that taking Betaine is only likely to synergize with your goal of increasing strength and performance.
Caffeine just has to show its face in everything, right? Well yes, of course. Caffeine is damn effective after all. Time and time again, when put to the test caffeine has shown the ability to increase strength, even if just acutely. What do we mean by this? Consumption of an infrequent dose of caffeine (meaning an occasional dose on workout days only) reduces your perceived exertion levels, can increase your 1RM and support energy levels.
So, you feel like the weights are lighter, your strength levels are supported and you are even able to perform more work since it reduces fatigue. But a word of warning here- using caffeine daily for a period of time exceeding just a few weeks yields a point of diminishing return. It will lose efficacy rapidly, so it is best to keep its use just for the gym (sorry latte lovers!)
Aim for 200-300mg of good old caff’ about 30 minutes prior to your workout session- and remember, not too close to bedtime!
While classically regarded as a nitric oxide booster (and this is not wrong), truth be told close to a half-century ago citrulline’s main indication was for fatigue. Why fatigue? Because supplementing with Citrulline helps to boost the rate of ATP synthesis. Starting to get the drift?
Independently, it may be just ok. But combine it with another supplement that helps to support phosphorylation of ADP (Creatine) and what you have is faster coupling to make more ATP. While this is great for keeping your strength levels up during your workout, it also helps to replenish the body’s levels of phosphocreatine after your session as well, in addition to supporting improved circulation.
It is important to note that these benefits are primarily observed with the maleate ester form of citrulline, since malic acid itself has significant biochemical roles to play in the body (and which possibly explain why maleate is superior to simple L-Citrulline).
There are a slew of other “designer” supplements which may or may not deliver results when it comes to improving your strength, but one mention which we did not include but which deserves an accolade is whey protein. Sure, any old protein will suffice, but if you truly want to exploit your workout to induce massive strength and size increases, you need to be taking advantage of whey protein. Other honorable mentions include Leucine and HMB, though which by themselves won’t make sizeable differences, form the supporting cast.
Sodium bicarbonate (basic baking soda) is also very promising and can help prevent muscle acidity inducing failure, especially when combined with Beta-Alanine.
So what’s next? Combine as many as you safely can. This way, small 5% improvements brought about singularly can quickly become 25% and more increases to strength synergistically. Use them wisely, eat clean, train dirty and there’s no limit to what you can achieve!