Strength athletes often try to optimize their nutrition to make the best gains possible in training. It makes sense to try to learn as much as possible about nutritional strategies to bring out your best both in the gym and out of it.
If you were in the market for hot trends in nutrition in the late 1990s and early 2000s — or if you’ve been reading the labels of everything from smoothies to teas lately — you’ve probably heard about antioxidants. But hearing about a substance and knowing what it actually is are two very different beasts.
But what are antioxidants, really? And how should strength athletes integrate them into their diets for maximum performance? Read on to find out everything you’ve wanted to know — but maybe were afraid to ask — about antioxidants.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
What Are Antioxidants?
But what kinds of things damage your cells, and how do antioxidants fix them? The cell damage we’re talking about here is caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Sometimes, these form in response to negative environmental situations like cigarette smoke or air pollution.
Other times, free radicals form in response to the stress you put your body through. For example, strength training puts your body under the type of stress that creates free radicals. (2) The link between antioxidants and strength athletes, therefore, begins at understanding free radicals.
Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress
When bodies turn food into energy, free radicals are formed naturally. They’re also formed after exercising, alcohol intake, exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, and even sunlight. (5) While some of these causes can be avoided, some simply can’t — enter the antioxidants.
How Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals
Free radicals are formed by lonely atoms missing an electron — antioxidants give electrons back to create atomically-stable paired atoms and stop future damage. As electron donors, antioxidants can also help out in repairing DNA and keeping your cells generally healthy. (6)
Examples of Antioxidants
The phrase “antioxidant” describes more of a process and less of a specific material. There are actually hundreds of different vitamins, minerals, and other substances that can function as antioxidants.
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Beta-carotene, carotenoids, and other flavonoids (6)
- Minerals: Selenium, Manganese, Zinc
- Other Phytonutrients
You can obtain many antioxidants from your food, though you’ll also see different supplements that contain the above vitamins and minerals referring to their antioxidant properties. This ability to act as antioxidants is what those labels are referring to.
Where Do You Get Antioxidants?
The cellular antioxidant glutathione, superoxide dismutase, and catalase are naturally-occurring and produced inside the body. (9) Your body can also absorb vitamins and minerals that function as antioxidants through your diet.
When choosing supplements, keep in mind that “antioxidant” refers to a chemical process and not a specific substance you can purchase. These processes are promoted through various foods, including different fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, and cocoa.
Antioxidants from Food
You may have heard the phrase “eat the rainbow.” Contrary to popular misconceptions, this does not mean that brown and beige foods are less healthy than other colors. As seen with selenium, catechins, and zinc sources, brown or beige foods are excellent sources of various minerals.
Plant-based foods of all colors contain phytonutrients, and different colors indicate different benefits you can get from them. Phytonutrients are plant nutrients with specific biological activity that support human health. (9)
- Vitamin A: leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables
- Vitamin C: broccoli, brussels sprouts, lemon, orange, strawberries, tomatoes
- Vitamin E: almonds, avocado, beets, red peppers, sunflower seeds
- Beta-carotene & other carotenoids: cantaloupe, carrots, orange peppers, grapefruit, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, tangerines
- Selenium: brazil nuts, fish, poultry, beef, barley, brown rice
- Zinc: shrimp, sesame seeds, chickpeas, lentils, cashews
- Catechins: tea, cocoa, berries
Notice what colors come to mind as you read through the examples, and consider packing more colorful, plant-based foods into your diet to reap the antioxidant benefits and help your body fight those free radicals.
Worth It or Skip It? — Antioxidants from Supplements
When antioxidants started trending in mainstream wellness spaces, various supplements started promising the prevention of a wide array of diseases. However, trials of antioxidant supplements in large numbers of people have not found that high doses of antioxidant supplements prevent disease. (1)
If you have been told by a doctor that you are deficient in an antioxidant source such as Vitamin D, A, C, or E, you may want to try to add more foods to your diet that contain these vitamins. If that isn’t possible, adding a supplement to your diet will get you a boost of antioxidants, too.
Potential Benefits of Antioxidants for Strength Athletes
Antioxidants became popular for their health and possible disease prevention benefits, but they’ve become big in the fitness industry, as well. Antioxidants are advertised to help with exercise, recovery, boosting endurance, decreasing soreness, and increasing blood flow.
Fighting Free Radicals
Exercising causes oxidative stress on the body, which creates free radicals — antioxidants help to fight them. Strength athletes regularly put their bodies through stress through training, and antioxidants can be beneficial to preventing cell damage.
Having antioxidant-rich foods before or during a workout can help delay fatigue and increase your body’s ability to recover. (10)
Note that inflammation is not strictly detrimental to your health or performance on its own, though, and should be treated as information in the larger context of your well-being rather than a problem to be solved. For example, chronic inflammation associated with metabolic disease is different from the acute post-exercise inflammatory response. Both free radicals and inflammation are required for exercise adaptations. (11)
Increased Blood Flow
Exercise is a great way to get your blood flowing. Oxygen and blood get delivered to your skeletal muscles — think about that sweet pump — but excessive free radicals may impede optimal circulation in your bloodstream. (12) This would be more applicable to older athletes, or those who are starting to exercise but have present metabolic disease.
Athletes Experiencing Nutritional Deficiencies
Even though you might place a large emphasis on nutrition as a strength athlete, some physique athletes and other lifters may regularly restrict their energy intake — i.e., food — or eliminate certain food groups that put them at risk for vitamin deficiencies. (13)
If you’re deficient in one or more vitamins, you might want to also pay attention to whether you’re getting enough antioxidants to keep your cells healthy and your blood flow optimal.
Potential Drawbacks of Antioxidants for Strength Athletes
Muscles need to break down in order to grow, and though it’s always good to be getting enough vitamins and minerals, some studies show that antioxidant supplementation may hinder performance, training adaptations, and hypertrophy.
Antioxidant Supplements Might Impair Training Adaptations
Sure, you don’t want your muscles to be too damaged after a workout. You generally want to function the next day, especially if you want to train more than once a week. But you can strike a balance here.
If you’re supplementing with high levels of antioxidants, you might be neutralizing free radicals formed by exercise immediately.
Antioxidant Supplements Might Hinder Hypertrophy
It’s not always as simple as “free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good.” There are benefits of oxidative stress caused by exercise. While most research shows that dietary antioxidants have little to no effect on hypertrophy, supplementing with high levels of antioxidants might blunt the signals that cells send each other to encourage muscle growth. (15)
Oxidative stress created by resistance training is one of the primary factors that spurs your muscles to grow. Canceling out that oxidative stress by overwhelming free radicals with antioxidants might not have the effect you’re looking for.
The Bottom Line? It’s Complicated
Antioxidants serve an important function in your body. They fight excess free radicals and can potentially prevent unwanted cell damage. That said, not all cell damage is undesirable — especially when you’re a strength athlete.
You need to damage your cells to stimulate muscle growth, so finding a balance of antioxidants and free radicals might be most helpful for strength athletes.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Antioxidants: In Depth. October 2013.
- Powers SK, Jackson MJ. Exercise-induced oxidative stress: cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiol Rev. 2008 Oct;88(4):1243-76.
- Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul;4(8):118-26.
- Pham-Huy LA, He H, Pham-Huy C. Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health. Int J Biomed Sci. 2008 Jun;4(2):89-96.
- Wang G, Jia S, Niu X, Tian H, Liu Y, Chen X, Li L, Zhang Y, Shi G. Total free radical species and oxidation equivalent in polluted air. Sci Total Environ. 2017 Dec 31;609:1103-1113.
- Møller P, Loft S. Interventions with antioxidants and nutrients in relation to oxidative DNA damage and repair. Mutat Res. 2004 Jul 13;551(1-2):79-89.
- Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, Bøhn SK, Dragland S, Sampson L, Willey C, Senoo H, Umezono Y, Sanada C, Barikmo I, Berhe N, Willett WC, Phillips KM, Jacobs DR Jr, Blomhoff R. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010 Jan 22;9:3.
- Chan JY, Chan SH. Activation of endogenous antioxidants as a common therapeutic strategy against cancer, neurodegeneration and cardiovascular diseases: A lesson learnt from DJ-1. Pharmacol Ther. 2015 Dec;156:69-74.
- Biswas P, Dellanoce C, Vezzoli A, Mrakic-Sposta S, Malnati M, Beretta A, Accinni R. Antioxidant Activity with Increased Endogenous Levels of Vitamin C, E and A Following Dietary Supplementation with a Combination of Glutathione and Resveratrol Precursors. Nutrients. 2020 Oct 22;12(11):3224.
- Canals-Garzón C, Guisado-Barrilao R, Martínez-García D, Chirosa-Ríos IJ, Jerez-Mayorga D, Guisado-Requena IM. Effect of Antioxidant Supplementation on Markers of Oxidative Stress and Muscle Damage after Strength Exercise: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Feb 5;19(3):1803.
- Cerqueira, É., Marinho, D. A., Neiva, H. P., & Lourenço, O. (2020). Inflammatory Effects of High and Moderate Intensity Exercise—A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Physiology, 10.
- Trinity JD, Broxterman RM, Richardson RS. Regulation of exercise blood flow: Role of free radicals. Free Radic Biol Med. 2016 Sep;98:90-102.
- Kleiner SM, Bazzarre TL, Ainsworth BE. Nutritional status of nationally ranked elite bodybuilders. Int J Sport Nutr. 1994 Mar;4(1):54-69.
- Merry TL, Ristow M. Do antioxidant supplements interfere with skeletal muscle adaptation to exercise training? J Physiol. 2016 Sep 15;594(18):5135-47.
- Higgins, M. R., Izadi, A., & Kaviani, M. (2020). Antioxidants and exercise performance: with a focus on vitamin E and C supplementation. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(22), 8452.
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