Have you ever immersed yourself so totally in something that it seeped into every part of your life? I recently cleared off the TiVo and watched a marathon’s worth of Man-Made (you can find it on the National Geographic Channel), mixed with a bit of Discovery’s MythBusters and a smidge of The History Channel’s Modern Marvels, which, though I’m not an engineer and have never worked in a factory, made me feel, well, industrial. I was seeing cartwheeling I-beams and dancing polymers everywhere I went … including the gym. Because what is a Smith machine besides a couple of I-beams with some weld points and pulleys, and what is the free-weight room besides a warehouse full of iron, waiting to mold raw material?
And that’s when I realized that we are actually tinkering with the greatest machine of all: the human body. As lead contractors, we have a large toolbox to draw from when on the job — all the equipment in the gym and an encyclopedic knowledge of the nutrient values of a fridge full of food. We put these tools to work daily, but because there’s always a new tool or technique to investigate, we at Muscle & Performance went looking for the instruments that could take our masterpiece to the next level. Here’s what we found.
The Blueprint: Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas that has nothing to do with laughing gas. (That’s N2O.) NO relaxes the tiny muscles that line blood vessels, causing them to dilate, which increases their diameter. Because more blood can move through the widened vessels, more of the nutrients it carries get transported to your muscle cells, and that includes nutrients that can give you an energy bump during workouts and those that, like anabolic hormones, can increase the size of your muscles. Also increasing the size of your muscles is the pump that all that extra fluid causes in muscles during workouts. And it’s not just a temporary surge — the pressure that the pump places on muscle tissues can force it to get permanently bigger.
Most of the supplements that increase NO levels do so by one of three methods: They supply more of the compound that produces NO in the body, increase the amount of the enzyme that converts that compound to NO, or decrease levels of the enzyme that breaks down NO. Look for a product that contains some of the following.
- Arginine: Converted to NO in the body, this amino acid is the classic NO booster. It has also been shown to increase growth hormone levels and help with fat loss.
- Citrulline: This amino acid gets converted to arginine in the body and can slip past the digestive system, which can absorb arginine before it can be converted to NO. Take it with arginine for the maximum NO boost.
- Pycnogenol: This extract from a type of pine tree (the French maritime pine, to be exact) enhances activity of nitric oxide synthase (NOS), the enzyme that catalyzes arginine’s conversion to NO.
- Ginseng: This powerful and popular root, better known for its effects on mood, energy and sexual function, also enhances NOS activity.
- Horny goat weed: The name (kinda) says it all. This herb appears in just about every men’s sexual health formula because increased NO levels dilate blood vessels … everywhere. In any case, in relation to nitric oxide, it works by decreasing the breakdown of existing NO in the body.
- Vitamin C: This antioxidant is not just for fighting off colds. Vitamin C also decreases NO breakdown.
The Blueprint: One of the best-studied supplements on the market today, creatine not only is safe but also is known to increase lean mass and strength. Creatine is an amino-acid-like compound (made from three aminos, arginine, glycine and methionine) that exists in the body and is in animal proteins — including the ones you have on your dinner plate. Its job, put simply, is to create adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is what every cell in your body uses for energy.
Supplementing with creatine not only ensures that there’s enough available to provide constant energy to your cells but also improves strength endurance, which is the kind you want when hitting the weights. At any given point, you have approximately 30 seconds’ worth of ATP stored in your muscle cells. After you use that up, doing, say, a few reps on the bench, your body needs to replace it so that you can finish up that set. Having enough creatine available not only helps that reaction happen quickly but also can increase the amount of energy you can store in your cells, helping you squeeze out more repetitions, resulting in bigger muscles.
In addition to the old standby, creatine monohydrate, there are certain newer formulations that help creatine navigate the digestive system and improve absorption, which not only means you will suffer less gastrointestinal distress, but you also can take less creatine to get the same benefits.
- Creatine monohydrate: This classic form of creatine is the most heavily researched among all the creatine variations, and study after study verifies its incredible effectiveness. The other formulations we outline below are great and well worth exploring if you’re looking for any extra edge you can get, but you can’t really go wrong if you choose to rely on simple creatine monohydrate as a main weapon in your pursuit of mass and strength gains.
- Creatine ethyl ester: This is creatine bonded to an alcohol and an acid. It increases absorption and how long the creatine can stay in your body before being broken down.
- Creatine ketoisocaproate: Ketoisocaproic acid is a byproduct of the metabolism of the amino acid leucine. It is indirectly involved in increasing muscle mass, reducing muscle breakdown, bumping up your body’s energy production and acting as an antioxidant. Binding creatine to it allows creatine to benefit from ketoisocaproic acid’s protective antioxidant properties and reach muscle cells intact.
- Creatine hydrochloride: New research that compared creatine hydrochloride to creatine monohydrate (which is the standard form of creatine) found that the former was better absorbed than the latter.
- Magnesium creatine: Adding the mineral magnesium to the mix reduces the breakdown of creatine in the stomach and, because magnesium is also required to produce ATP, could result in even more impressive increases in muscular size and strength.
- Creatine gluconate: Gluconic acid is formed by the oxidation of glucose, or sugar, and when bonded to creatine, it helps absorption into the body by making creatine more likely to dissolve in water and into muscle cells by boosting insulin release.
- Kre-Alkalyn: This patented buffered creatine remains intact through the digestive system, leaving more for the body to absorb.
The Blueprint: We know that having full, well-defined muscles makes you look good, but we also feel strongly that those muscles shouldn’t just be window dressing. Translation? They should also be functional. You may not really want to, but you should be able to help your pal lift his sleeper sofa on moving day. In short, building strength should be just as important as building muscle mass.
There’s no real secret to building strength. It is developed primarily as a result of training the right way, but you can increase your strength gains by finding any of the following items, each of which operates in its own way.
- Caffeine: One of our favorite preworkout supplements, it has been clinically proven that caffeine increases endurance and reduces muscle pain, both of which can help you train longer and lift heavier. Longer, harder workouts mean bigger, better strength gains.
- Beta-alanine: The new wonder supplement, beta-alanine (a form of the amino acid alanine) is shown in research to increase endurance and power, which can give you more strength.
- Betaine: The “active ingredient” in beets, betaine boasts powerful anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to increase strength and power.
- Taurine: You’ll find it in Red Bull, but instead of giving you wings, it will give your muscles better contractile ability. The better they contract, the stronger they’ll be working out.
The Blueprint: You might have heard of testosterone. It’s the male sex hormone, the one that makes your voice deep, your body hairy, your wife happy and, yes, your muscles big. Possessing optimal levels of it is critical to having big muscles. The best way to get those optimal levels is to be born male, but there are supplements to give your body an extra boost.
Testosterone can be increased via four primary methods: Actual production of testosterone can be increased; cortisol (a hormone that competes with testosterone for binding spots on muscle cells) levels can be decreased; more testosterone can be freed from a compound called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which binds to testosterone to move it around the body but renders it useless to muscle cells; or you can decrease the amount of testosterone that is converted to feminizing estrogen. Look for products containing some of the following ingredients.
- Forskolin: The extract from the plant Coleus forskohlii employs two of the four test-boosting methods we’ve outlined: It increases test production and it frees it from SHBG.
- Eurycoma longifolia: This Malaysian herb (also called tongkat ali or Eurycoma longifolia Jack) reduces SHBG in the body, thereby increasing free testosterone, and it reduces cortisol levels.
- Tribulus terrestris: This herb increases levels of luteinizing hormone, which instructs cells in the testicles to increase testosterone production.
- Damiana: A Mexican herb with a long history as an aphrodisiac was shown in a recent study to reduce testosterone’s conversion to estrogen.