Supplements for Strength Athletes: What’s Changing, What’s New, and What’s Obsolete

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

The desire to build stronger and faster athletes is never ending, and this has led to a never ending desire to unravel the science behind building better athletes. Appropriate exercise prescription and programming continues to undergo extensive research in the hopes of unlocking hidden clues to give athletes an edge. In addition, the science behind over the counter sports nutrition continues to move forward in the hopes of legally boosting athletic sports performance. But thanks to NDI guidelines (New Dietary Ingredients regulations) that have been drafted by the FDA, this side of the industry has hit a wall when it comes to ingredient innovation. It will now cost any raw material manufacturer a lot more money and time to validate a new material.

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In this industry a new ingredient typically means a synthetic duplicate of an existing ingredient found in minute amounts in nature, an extract of an active ingredient in an herb concentrated to larger amounts (ex: caffeine is naturally occurring in small amounts in green tea but a manufacturer can standardized green tea extract to be 50% caffeine), or amino acids/minerals bonded together in new ways for greater absorption or ergogenic benefit.

As a result of the new NDI guidelines, the sports nutrition side of the industry has, for the most part, resorted to herbal blends or new extracts touting high antioxidant activity for recovery or improved nitric oxide levels, as opposed to creating something entirely new. Comparing ingredients like this to placebos without seeing how it stacks up to tried and true ingredients like creatine monohydrate or citrulline, leaves an exercise physiologist and sports nutrition formulator like myself praying for the sales pitch to be over (I mean at least see if there are synergistic benefits to existing gold standard ingredients…sheesh).

Creating a new material requires companies to enter a notification process with the FDA and prove that the material is safe. This may sound very reasonable and like a valid effort to promote consumer safety, but the process has proven to be extremely expensive and overly long, thanks in part to an understaffed FDA. Even worse, many companies fear spending a fortune filing for an NDI for a new material, while their competitors duplicate that material and wait for them to finish pouring their money and time into getting the ingredient registered. Can you see how this is problematic for innovation?

So you’re probably wondering, does this mean there’s nothing new out there? Well fortunately for you, there are a few new kids on the block. Most of these ingredients are not necessarily new, but are finally becoming recognized in the industry, or growing in popularity, thanks to new science. And lucky for you, I’ve attended enough fitness expos, raw material shows,and dug through enough research, to at least point you in the right direction when determining which ingredients are obsolete, and where the next wave of gold standard ingredients is taking their place.

Nitric Oxide

Out: L-Arginine 

Sports nutrition science typically begins with seeking out the signaling processes in the body that result in a desired function, or determining which amino acids are involved in a specific activity, and then testing whether or not supplementing with said ingredient can enhance desired effects. One ingredient that became popular due to the fact that it was converted into nitric oxide was L-arginine. Nitric Oxide is a gas responsible for dilating blood vessels in response to muscular stressors, so oxygen can be delivered through the blood with increased efficiency. However, oral supplementation with L-arginine (and its multiple forms) has proven to have low absorption rates, be prematurely broken down by the enzyme arginase (responsible for breaking down excess arginine, ex: lactase breaks down dietary lactose), or has demonstrated to have only a minor impact on exercise (1,2,3).

In: Citrulline

One re-occurring theme you’ll see with highly effective ingredients is that the key to oral supplementation is not in duplicating the direct ingredient as a supplement, but finding it’s precursor to support/increase your body’s own production of the targeted material. In comes Citrulline, which many of you may already be familiar with (if you are, don’t worry, this gets better), but it’s a necessary starting point to help you get an idea of how ‘can’t miss’ supplements end up missing their mark. Citrulline is a pre-cursor to L-arginine and has proven to be successful at improving levels of L-arginine in the body and subsequently, blood flow(4).

In: Agmatine Sulfate

An even more recent introduction to the market is Agmatine Sulfate. This compound is a metabolite of L-arginine and it inhibits nitric oxide synthase (responsible for breaking down nitric oxide) to support blood flow as well (5). While Citrulline requires doses within the 4-6g range, anecdotal evidence for Agmatine Sulfate points to a dosage as low 1.5g to match similar effects of Citrulline.

Testosterone

Out: Tribulus, Fenugreek

To continue the theme of seeking the signaling process as a means to an end, Tribulus has historically been popular for boosting libido and supposedly testosterone. It has been shown to increase LH (Luteinizing hormone) concentration, but in most cases hasn’t translated into an increase in testosterone. Luteinizing hormone is part of the signaling process for supporting testosterone production in the testes (6).

A similar issue has been found with Fenugreek extract. There are a multitude of nutrients that Fenugreek contains (apigenin, luteolin, protodioscin, magnesium, calcium) and can be standardized for (fenusides, 4-hydroxyleucine, steroidal saponins), which lead researchers (typically sponsored by Fenugreek suppliers) to perform studies looking into Fenugreeks possible testosterone and body composition supporting benefits. Research has suggested some positive support for libido (7), but much of the independent research points to negligible, ornon-existent increases in testosterone (8).

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In: Ashwaghanda, Royal Jelly

Ashwaghanda and Royal Jelly are by no means OTC substitutes for hormone replacement therapy. But they are supplements with many health benefits that have been suggested to move the needle on testosterone, which is likely due to being a byproduct of their positive effects on the body. Ashwaghanda for example, has a wealth of clinical research supporting its positive effects on stress, anxiety, cortisol, and cognitive function (9). It’s also been shown to support exercise/sports performance, LH (Luteinizing hormone), DHEA, sexual function, feelings of well being, and of course testosterone; possibly as a byproduct of the aforementioned benefits (10).

Royal Jelly has a similar story; it has become increasingly popular as an ingredient for supporting overall health because of its nutrient content. It’s the main nutritional source for bees, and in humans it has been shown to act as an antioxidant that supports the immune system, brain, liver, fertility, calcium absorption, and helps withcholesterol and blood sugar control. As a result of the positive effects it has on the body, it has been shown to move the needle on testosterone levels as well (11). Although, it should be noted that the research showed a benefit for older populations, which is important to keep in mind, as it may not have the same effects for individuals who already eat and train to maximize hormone levels. Despite this, it’s still superior in its benefits to Tribulus and Fenugreek, which as previously mentioned have been shown to have no effect.

Stimulants

Out: Caffeine

To be clear, we wouldn’t take caffeine out of the equation entirely. Its effects on energy and exercise tolerance (12) have been proven time and time again. However, there’s definitely a new kid on the block offering caffeine like effects without the buildup in tolerance that typically comes with regular caffeine use (13).

In: Theacrine

Theacrine is from the Kucha tea plant and is chemically similar to caffeine, so it provides similar benefits, but with a less pronounced effect. Many sports nutrition scientists have created Theacrine based products in combination with caffeine to maximize its benefits. The most impressive thing about Theacrine is that you can use it without habituation making it an ideal choice for long term stimulant use.

Joints

Out: Glucosamine & Chondroitin

Glucosamine & Chondroitin sulfate have been and continue to be a solid staple in the joint support category of sports nutrition. They’e been shown to be effective for supporting joint comfort and mobility with long term use (14).

In: UC-II

The reason UC-II is set to potentially take over the reins in the joint support category is the dosage differences. UC-II has been shown to have similar benefits as the combination of both Glucosamine & Chondroitin at a dosage of only 40mg vs. 1,500mg of Glucosamine and 1,500mg of Chondroitin sulfate (15). Those who already take Glucosamine and Chondroitin supplements understand how difficult those giant horse pills can be to swallow. There are studies that also suggest that long term use of UC-II is superior to the Glucosamine & Chondroitin combo for reducing knee symptoms like osteoarthritis and joint pain (15).

Closing Remarks

This is only the beginning of the new wave of supplements that have begun hitting our industry to improve and replace some of the current sports nutrition staples. And there’s still more to come; in part two, we’ll discuss OTC ingredients for cognitive function, a possible replacement for Omega 3 supplements in athletes, the new source of fuel you should be using in combination with your carbohydrates, creatine, sweeteners, and the latest on whey protein.

Screenshot from @vitaminshoppe777 Instagram page. 

Works Cited

  1. Wax, B. et al. Acute L-arginine alpha ketoglutarate supplementation fails to improve muscular performance in resistance trained and untrained men. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Apr 17;9(1):17. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-17.
  2. Tang JE. Bolus arginine supplementation affects neither muscle blood flow nor muscle protein synthesis in young men at rest or after resistance exercise. J Nutr. 2011 Feb;141(2):195-200. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.130138. Epub 2010 Dec 29.
  3. Vanhatalo A, et al. No effect of acute L-arginine supplementation on O2 cost or exercise tolerance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Jul;113(7):1805-19. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2593-z. Epub 2013 Feb 20.
  4. Ochiai M, et al. Short-term effects of L-citrulline supplementation on arterial stiffness in middle-aged men. Int J Cardiol. 2012 Mar 8;155(2):257-61. doi: 10.1016/j.ijcard.2010.10.004. Epub 2010 Nov 9.
  5. E Galea, et al. Inhibition of mammalian nitric oxide synthases by agmatine, an endogenous polyamine formed by decarboxylation of arginine. Biochem J. 1996 May 15; 316(Pt 1): 247–249
  6. Louvet, Jean-Pierre, et al. Effects of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, Human Interstitial Cell Stimulating Hormone and Human Follicle-Stimulating Hormone on Ovarian Weights in Estrogen-Primed Hypophysectomized Immature Female Rats. Endocrinology. 96 (5): 1179–86. PMID 1122882. doi:10.1210/endo-96-5-1179.
  7. Steels E, et al. Physiological aspects of male libido enhanced by standardized Trigonella foenum-graecum extract and mineral formulation. Phytother Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):1294-300. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3360. Epub 2011 Feb 10.
  8. Steels E, et al. Physiological aspects of male libido enhanced by standardized Trigonella foenum-graecum extract and mineral formulation. Phytother Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):1294-300. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3360. Epub 2011 Feb 10.
  9. Anishetty, S, et al. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255.
  10. Wankhede, S, et al. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Nov 25;12:43. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9. eCollection 2015.
  11. Morita H, et al. Effect of royal jelly ingestion for six months on healthy volunteers. Nutr J. 2012 Sep 21;11:77. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-11-77
  12. Schneiker KT. Effects of caffeine on prolonged intermittent-sprint ability in team-sport athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Mar;38(3):578-85.
  13. Evans SM. Caffeine tolerance and choice in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 1992;108(1-2):51-9
  14. Puente R. Comparison of the efficacy and tolerability of chondroitin plus glucosamine and D-002 (beeswax alcohols) in subjects with osteoarthritis symptoms. Rev Fac Cien Med Univ Nac Cordoba. 2017;74(2):107-118
  15. David C. Crowley. Safety and efficacy of undenatured type II collagen in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee: a clinical trial. Int J Med Sci. 2009; 6(6): 312–321. Published online 2009 Oct 9.

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