Post Workout Supplements—Are They Worth the Hype?

The “performance nutrition” field is certainly profitable.  Athletes and body builders will spend nearly any amount of money on products to increase gains.  But is this money well spent?

In general, I can tell you that the research that the fitness industry stands on is very frequently mutated to serve their needs.  A perfect example is one of the amino acids found in some supplements.  The claim on the bottle is that this amino acid has been shown in clinical studies to lower body fat and help with weight loss.

Yup.  That’s true.  But in the studies, the amino acid was used as a meal replacement in the 5-10 GRAM dosages.  But supplements have a mere 500 mg of per capsule.  To match the clinical studies they hang their hat on, you would have to take some 10-20 of these capsules instead of eating a meal.  Complete twisting of the medical research.

Another perfect example are the “NO-Explode” type of products.  They all contain some degree of L-arginine, with the idea that L-arginine will help open up blood vessels to your muscles and allow them to work harder for bigger gains.  While there may be research along these lines, it is not something that I’ve ever come across (I do readily admit that I miss thousands of medical journal articles per month….).  However, there is quite a bit of research on L-arginine being converted to nitric oxide which helps to relax the blood vessels and potentially lower blood pressure (which I don’t recommend, as I have covered in a prior blog article that can be read by clicking here).  But the only potential benefit would be in those headed towards diabetes—not the typical athlete or body builder situation.

Which brings us to this particular article, which, quite frankly, has me a little surprised.

I have long since promoted the use of antioxidant supplementation around very high energy demand sports such as marathon running to combat the oxidative stress generated when that much energy is produced to complete the run (a marathon can burn upwards of 3,000 calories).

But, according to this particular study, this MAY not be a good idea.

The body is built to have balance.  Antioxidant protection and oxidative stress are designed to be in balance in the body.  A good quality diet loaded with protective compounds from nature can act directly as antioxidants and can also help the body produce its own antioxidants.  On the flip side, sometimes oxidative stress is the trigger that tells the body it needs to do something (typically produce strong antioxidant enzymes to combat the oxidative stress).

There are many multi-level / direct marketing companies centered around nutritional products that push very heavily that oxidative stress is the enemy and needs to be combated with this product.  This list is quite long.  But never do these independent distributors truly understand the dynamic that occurs between antioxidant protection and oxidative stress.

In this small study, researchers had participants perform 300 eccentric exercises of the legs.  Now, I don’t know about you, but this would put me in bed for several days afterwards.  In other words—this is some serious muscle damage that was done during the exercises.

The exercises were performed at two different times.  One time the participants were given the strong antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and another time they were not.  Blood samples and muscle biopsies from the vastus lateralis (one of the quadriceps muscles on the outside part of your leg) before exercise and 2 hours, 2 days, and 8 days after exercise.

Here’s what they found:

  • During the first 2 days, NAC blunted the inflammation after muscle damage (as measured by creatine kinase activity, C-reactive protein, proinflammatory cytokines, nuclear factor κB activation).
  • NAC also lowered the decrease in strength during the first 2 days of recovery (you know—that slight whimper for several days after a hard workout every time you move…).

So far, this all sounds like a good thing.  It is likely that, during an “event” such as a marathon race or particularly grueling competition that these first two bullet points are a good thing.

But what happened after the 2 day mark could be of strong interest to those wanting to build serious muscle mass:

  • NAC also blunted the increase in the machinery needed to rebuild muscle after damage (phosphorylation of protein kinase B, mammalian target of rapamycin, p70 ribosomal S6 kinase, ribosomal protein S6, and mitogen activated protein kinase p38).
  • NAC also abolished the increase in myogenic determination factor and reduced tumor necrosis factor-α 8 d after exercise (again related to the rebuilding of muscle after injury).
  • Performance was completely recovered only in the group NOT taking the NAC.

I’m not sure what this means to you, but it should certainly raise some eyebrows the next time you walk into GNC and the minimally trained sales associate steers you towards that post workout drink loaded with antioxidants.

Overall, it would seem, from this study, that those looking to increase muscle mass such as body builders, powerlifters and football players might do well to stick with a good quality, plant based diet loaded with a balance of antioxidants rather than a supplement high in a single or handful of antioxidants.

James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.