Scaling for Strength

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We’ll be the first to tell you that there are definite detriments to being strong. Every time a pal is moving to a new pad, you’ll get a phone call. Whenever your mom needs to rotate her mattress, you’ll be trekking over there. And whenever there’s, you know, a baby pinned under a truck or something, you’ll feel compelled to go over there and save the day.

But let’s think about the positive impact for a minute. Strength isn’t like mass or fat loss. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a person. It’s not an aesthetic trait; it’s a functional measurement. But besides being able to help out your family and friends and rate a mention in the “Heroes” column of your local newspaper, making strength a goal in your workouts can make your workouts work better. The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift, and the more weight you can lift, the more overload you can put on your muscles. Putting more overload on your muscles makes them grow. Huh … so it seems that strength does have an aesthetic component after all.

The following strength supplement “ladder” is made up of three rungs, from the first rung (outlining the supps everyone interested in strength should take) up to the final rung, which gives you the advanced options for elite-level athletes.

FIRST RUNG

These four supplements form the basic foundation of a strength-boosting program. They are also hardcore multi-taskers and will simultaneously improve everything from your health to your mass.

WHAT: 2 to 5 grams of creatine monohydrate, creatine malate, creatine pyruvate, creatine ethyl ester or creatine alpha-ketoglutarate

WHEN: immediately before and after workouts

Creatine won’t instantly make you stronger, but it will increase what’s called strength endurance. That’s a measure of how many reps you can get with the same amount of weight. It does this by increasing the amount of energy produced in muscle cells — more energy, more reps. And, of course, more reps, more strength.

One note about creatine. If you’re just starting with creatine monohydrate or creatine malate, doing a loading phase will result in much quicker strength gains. To load, take 5 grams of either of those types of creatine four to five times per day with meals or shakes for one week, returning to the maintenance dose listed above.

WHAT: 3 to 5 grams of branched-chain amino acids

WHEN: with breakfast, before, during and after workouts, and before bed

Kings among aminos, at least for those who are interested in building muscle, BCAAs are critical to mass gains and fat loss, but studies also show that taking them can increase strength. One study in particular, presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, gave BCAAs to trained subjects. After eight weeks, they had significantly increased their 10RM (how much weight they could press for 10 reps) on the bench press.

WHAT: 1 to 3 grams of fish oil

WHEN: twice a day with food

Fish oil, which is rich in omega-3s, is yet another standard supplement, one that even your mom is supposed to be taking. But while Granny takes it to improve her joint health, you might be interested to know that omega-3s increase fat burning, assist with muscle growth and, yes, can improve strength. One study, which canvassed nearly 3,000 people in England, showed that those who eat more fatty fish (which is rich in omega-3s) have increased grip strength. Another study tested rats and found that when their feed included higher levels of omega-3s, they demonstrated increased muscle tension and muscle endurance, both of which signal increased muscle strength.

WHAT: 1,000 IU of vitamin D3

WHEN: one to two times a day with food

It’s kind of the new wonder drug, which is weird since it’s a vitamin we’ve known about forever. However, vitamin D is now being linked to everything from reduction of risk of chronic disease to, yes, improvements in strength. Scientists have identified dedicated vitamin D receptors on muscle cells. When vitamin D docks with these receptors, it activates certain genes that are associated with increasing muscle size and strength.

SECOND RUNG

Once you’ve got your foundation set, it’s time to start building the walls. The two supplements on the second rung of the ladder complement everything you’re already taking, elevating strength gains to the next level.

WHAT: take 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine

WHEN: 1 hour before workouts

This is one supplement you might already be incidentally taking. For strength purposes, we recommend taking caffeine in its pill form (caffeine anhydrous) so that you get the dosing just right. Besides perking you up and helping you focus on your workout, caffeine was shown in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology to increase strength. Subjects were given a variety of doses of caffeine before working out, and muscle strength and endurance increased as the caffeine dose increased. Caffeine also blunts the sensation of pain that can come with workouts, which can allow you to lift longer — building even more strength through longer workouts.

WHAT: 3 to 6 grams of beta-alanine

WHEN: immediately before and after workouts

While it’s true that you take beta-alanine to increase beta-alanine levels, the endgame is to boost carnosine levels. Confused? Carnosine is the product of beta-alanine and another amino, histidine. But histidine is produced by the body, whereas beta-alanine isn’t, so taking beta-alanine increases the amount of carnosine the body can create. That’s a good thing because carnosine is involved in increases in lean body mass and has strength benefits. One study found that subjects who supplemented with beta-alanine demonstrated increased endurance — by doing more squats at the same weight — and increased power, another marker of strength boosts.

TOP RUNG

So you’ve got the foundation and you’ve got the walls. Now it’s time to put the roof on your supplement plan … before blowing right through it with your insane strength gains.

WHAT: 1 to 3 grams of taurine

WHEN:before and after workouts

Rather than give you wings (though it is among the primary ingredients in Red Bull and other energy drinks), the amino acid taurine will more likely make you as strong as a bull. Taurine is required in order for muscles to function, and increasing taurine levels in the body helps muscles contract harder and faster. That alone can increase strength, but combine that with taurine’s ability to increase endurance, and you’re looking at the potential for some serious strength gains.

WHAT: take 1,250 milligrams of betaine

WHEN: with postworkout meals and one other meal throughout the day

We’re all for eating beets, spinach and shellfish, but we’re also all for taking betaine, a compound in those foods that is known to increase strength. In a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, subjects who supplemented with betaine experienced increases in measures of power and strength endurance. Again, because subjects got more reps at the same weight in various exercises, their strength was increasing.

REFERENCE

Stoppani, J., et al. “Consuming a supplement containing branched-chain amino acids during a resistance-training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2009, 6(Suppl 1):P1

Robinson SM, et al. “Diet and its relationship with grip strength in community-dwelling older men and women: the Hertfordshire cohort study.” J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008 Jan;56(1):84-90.

Ayre, K. J., et al. “Effects of changes in dietary fatty acids on isolated skeletal muscle functions in rats.” J Appl Physiol 80: 464-471, 1996.

Archna S, Jaspal SS. The effect of different dosages of caffeine on isometric strength and isometric endurance. Journal of Exercise Physiology(online). 11:6, Dec 2008.

Hoffman, J., et al. Beta-Alanine and the Hormonal Response to Exercise. Int J Sports Med. 2008 Dec;29(12):952-8.

Maresh, C.M., et al. “The Effects of Betaine Supplementation on Strength and Power Performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: May 2007 – Volume 39 - Issue 5 - p S101

Your Strength-Gain Supplement Ladder

These are samples of products that you could use to create your own strength-building supplement ladder, as outlined in this article.

TOP RUNG

The Vitamin Shoppe L-Taurine

The Vitamin Shoppe Betaine HCl with Pepsin

SECOND RUNG

Prolab Caffeine

Molecular Nutrition Peak Beta

FIRST RUNG

EAS Phosphagen HP

Labrada Nutrition BCAA Power

Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega

The Vitamin Shoppe Liquid Vitamin D3