Have you ever wondered what’s up with Supps? Chances are, at some point, most of us have been told we need to take supplements to get stronger, work out longer, and become the next Rich Froning. But, for anyone who has ever stood in front of a towering wall of supplement containers at the local GNC or supermarket, this can be a daunting task. What exactly is in these magical powders…is the amount of exploding skulls on the container I just bought proportional to my gains…and do you really even need supplements for CrossFit? Today’s blog is part of our series on Rest and Recovery…things you can do at home to make the most out of your time in the gym. Today’s topic: The Science behind Supplements.
Everyone has probably heard that we need protein, especially if we exercise. But why? Here’s the simple version: Protein is a molecule made up of amino acids. Your muscles, at the cellular level, are made up of the proteins actin and myosin. When we exercise, we create micro-damage in the muscles that needs to be repaired in order to grow bigger and stronger. What are the building blocks to repair muscle damage? Amino acids! How do we get them? Through sources of dietary protein! The more amino acid building blocks that are laying around, the more we can repair damage from exercise and recover for the next workout.
How does protein promote recovery? Strength training isn’t the only thing that helps our muscles get bigger or stronger. Regardless of age or gender, protein synthesis can also be increased by adequate amounts of dietary protein, or essential amino acids 1. Consuming protein has been shown to increase muscle cross sectional area (size) and overall lean body mass 2. After high intensity exercise, we want to end up with a positive net protein balance in our bodies…this means that even after muscle and protein breakdown from exercise, we want enough circulating amino acids to be available to repair and rebuild our muscles 1.
Where do I get protein? How much do I need? Dietary protein can come from many different sources: meats, dairy, eggs, and even plant sources like legumes, nuts, and seeds. Typically, the protein requirement for an average person is about 0.8g/kg of body weight.
Athletes and people doing high intensity exercise have a higher protein requirement, up to 1.5-2.0g/kg of body weight 3. Unless you have been keeping track of your macros and logging your food, it can be hard to know how much protein you are actually consuming. I recommend trying an online nutrition tracker to log a few days of your food habits to see how much protein you get now, and how much more you might need. Now, you guys have seen me in the gym with my Tupperware and you know I’m a big promoter of eating real food. Ideally, someone eating enough calories from whole food sources should be able to meet this requirement with unprocessed food (Whole 30-ers, you hear me). Sometimes life gets in the way though, or certain people might have different nutritional needs. For example, I’m not a big meat-eater, and most of my protein comes from eggs, fish, or plant-based sources. Protein powder is another easy option to help supplement my diet to meet my daily protein requirements. If you don’t have time to prep your chicken and broccoli, at least grab a shaker bottle…we can help you from there.
Does protein powder work? Let me start by saying that you can’t out-supplement a bad diet. If most of your meals are coming from a fast food drive thru, protein powder isn’t going to save you. That being said, there are numerous studies that support supplementing with whey protein, in addition to resistance training, to enhance muscular hypertrophy in healthy adults. A study specifically on Crossfitters showed that taking protein and carbohydrate post-workout can lead to increased muscle protein synthesis and less protein breakdown 2. Other studies suggest whey protein decreases muscle damage and soreness after heavy training sessions, and helps enhance glycogen restoration and recovery 4. Oh, and one word of warning about those protein products marked as “just for women”: you’re probably paying extra just for the packaging, but your muscle fibers don’t wear skirts, don’t have a gender, and won’t know the difference.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
What are BCAAs? Amino acids are the building blocks of our body. They combine to form proteins, and they play a role in many of the body’s important physiological functions, like metabolism, growth, and tissue repair. There are 9 essential amino acids, which cannot be produced by the body and have to come from food. Sources of amino acids in the diet include whole food protein sources like lean meats, eggs, and fish. Most essential amino acids are taken up in the liver, but the branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine), are oxidized directly in the muscle tissue 5. For this reason, athletes engaging in prolonged or high intensity exercise have an increased need for BCAAs 6. A study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism (2010) found that BCAA supplementation reduced delayed onset muscle soreness after back squatting, and may help decrease muscle damage from exercise 5. Another study from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness (2008) suggests BCAA supplementation can promote muscle recovery, increase protein synthesis, and promote immune system regulation 6.
Should you take BCAAs? In my opinion, BCAAs may be helpful for competitive athletes trying to increase their performance and improve their recovery, or to decrease muscle soreness after an especially intense workout. However, for strictly weight loss or general health goals, BCAAs won’t make much of a difference. Be sure to ask your coaches if you have questions about adding BCAA supplementation to your diet.
Is that stuff safe? I can’t speak for the safety or validity of all pre workouts, but science can back one of the ingredients commonly found in pre workout supplements: beta alanine. This is the ingredient responsible for that tingly burning feeling in your skin after chugging down your Pre (my favorite!).
What does it do? Beta alanine can help prevent muscular acidosis during high intensity exercise. Inside your muscles, a compound called carnosine works to regulate the pH in your cells. Skeletal muscles can make carnosine from the amino acids L-histidine and beta alanine. When the muscles see that extra beta alanine is available, it signals the synthesis of carnosine, which helps increase overall muscle buffering capacity 7. Supplementing with beta alanine won’t improve your aerobic capacity or maximal strength, but it will help delay the onset of fatigue during short, high intensity intervals of exercise.
A final word on supplements
Remember, you can’t cover up bad nutrition with supplements! Not all supplements are bad, but not all of them are effective. Pay attention to the credibility of the sources you get your supplement information from, and know what you are putting in your body! If you have questions about where to find whole food sources of nutrients, how supplements work, or which ones are worthwhile, feel free to ask any of your SRC coaches!