A healthy dose of skepticism, like a heaping scoop of protein powder, can do a body good – especially when it keeps you from blindly following in the footsteps of others, mooing all the way to weight gain. But allowing your skepticism to overrule empirical data and the latest science can do a body no good and, in this case, keep your muscles flat and unimpressive.
Back before creatine, arginine and beta-alanine ruled the supplement world, BCAAs (the amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine) topped the list of must-have supplements for bodybuilders. But back then little was known about supplement timing and dosing, and while BCAAs offered decent results, they paled in comparison to the rapid effects experienced with creatine and arginine. Today, however, they’re regaining their popularity because they’ve been discovered to boost muscle growth, increase energy for workouts, lower cortisol levels postworkout and aid muscle recovery. But to reap these benefits, you must supplement properly.
TIMING: BCAAs should be taken four times a day, particularly immediately after you train. By adding BCAAs to your postworkout protein shake, you’ll enhance protein synthesis, the molecular process in muscles that leads to growth. You’ll also depress cortisol output, which rises after training and is known to enhance muscle breakdown and limit testosterone’s effect on muscle growth. BCAAs have also been found to decrease muscle soreness. The second vital dosing window is right before training. This provides your muscles with preworkout energy and prevents them from using their own stores of BCAAs as fuel. This dose will also depress cortisol levels, keeping you in a more anabolic state and primed for growth.
The third critical window occurs first thing in the morning, after your body has experienced an all-night fast. When you wake your body breaks down muscle protein for fuel, but taking BCAAs at this time can stop the catabolic onslaught by providing a different form of fuel for your body to use. The final window is later in the day, with supper or your last meal. Simply put, taking frequent doses of BCAAs throughout the day helps maximize your body’s ability to grow muscle.
DOSE: To get BCAAs to perform well for you, you need to take an adequate dose. Although research from the 2006 annual meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition shows that as little as 750 mg of BCAAs taken four times a day can reduce cortisol levels following exercise by more than 40%, it takes much more than that to encourage real muscle growth. Your goal should be at least 5 grams per dose, and you can go all the way up to 10 grams each time. We suggest you start with 1-2 grams to allow your stomach to adjust, then slowly work your way up to at least 5 grams as your tolerance builds.
RATIO: Select a product in which the leucine content is about 2:1 to that of isoleucine and valine. For example, if you take a 5-gram dose of BCAAs, 2.5 grams should come from leucine, with isoleucine and valine providing about 1.25 grams each. All three amino acids are vital to the overall effects on your body, but leucine is the MVP. Research shows it literally acts as a key that turns on protein synthesis in muscle cells.
FORM: BCAAs come in powder and pill form. Both are effective, and there’s not much difference between the two except for palatability. The benefit of a pill is that you swallow it without worrying about a questionable taste. The disadvantage is that taking 5-gram pills four times a day can be unpleasant. Going with a powder, on the other hand, makes it easier to get larger doses of the amino acids down. Most BCAA powders are flavorless, but some companies are starting to offer tastier options.
Carnitine is made from the amino acids lysine and methionine, as well as from vitamins C, B3 and B6, and iron. In addition to being a popular fat-burner – it transports fat into the mitochondria of cells, where it’s burned as fuel – carnitine is now known to have many anabolic properties. It can increase blood flow to your muscles, enhance muscle recovery following workouts and increase the amount of testosterone receptors inside muscle cells. The more of these receptors you have, the more likely your testosterone will bind to them and stimulate muscle growth.
FORM: The three most common forms you’ll see are L-carnitine, acetyl-L-carnitine and L-carnitine L-tartrate. L-carnitine is the basic form of the supplement and has been found to enhance fat-burning. Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) is present throughout our bodies, especially the central nervous system, and in the brain it provides precursors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important for proper brain function and energy-producing reactions. Research shows ALC supplementation can both enhance brain function and protect it against deterioration as you age. It has also been shown to better maintain testosterone levels during physical stress.
ALC is also absorbed into the bloodstream more efficiently than L-carnitine because it passes more freely across cell membranes. As a result, it likely gets into muscle cells more easily than the other forms. You’ll pay for the benefits, though: ALC tends to be much more expensive than the others, yet many bodybuilders believe it’s well worth the extra cash.
L-carnitine-L-tartrate (LCLT) is carnitine and tartaric acid, which is an antioxidant found in grapes and bananas. This form increases blood flow to muscles, enhances muscle recovery and boosts androgen receptor levels. We suggest buying both L-carnitine or LCLT and ALC, and take them according to the following timing suggestions.
TIMING: As with creatine, carnitine is best taken with fast-digesting carbs that boost insulin levels such as white bread, a sports drink or Vitargo (a patented high molecular-weight carb). In fact, research from the UK confirms that taking carnitine while insulin levels are high leads to more of the supplement making its way into your muscles. But you don’t want to eat these types of carbs too often throughout the day because high insulin levels at the wrong time can make you fat. For that reason, taking carnitine with your postworkout shake and carbs is ideal, as is taking a dose when you first wake up to help your body reverse the catabolic state induced by your all-night fast. Immediately preworkout is another effective time to supplement, but since you don’t want fast-digesting carbs at this point, stick with the slow-digesting variety such as oatmeal or whole-wheat bread. This is also a good time to take ALC, which is absorbed better by muscles than L-carnitine or LCLT, regardless of insulin levels. You can use the less-potent versions for your other two daily doses.
SIDEKICKS: Because carnitine depends on insulin to get into muscles, consider taking it with supplements such as cinnulin-PF, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) and gymnema sylvestre, which can boost insulin release, enhance its actions at the muscle cell and mimic its actions.
Cinnulin-PF is a trademarked water-soluble cinnamon extract with hydroxychalcone, an active ingredient that helps it mimic the effects of insulin in muscle cells. Taking 100-250 mg with carnitine preworkout can increase the carnitine content in muscles without boosting insulin levels at a time when you want them low.
ALA is an antioxidant that enhances insulin’s actions at the muscle cell. Take 300-500 mg with your morning dose of carnitine to aid the uptake of carnitine by the muscles. Gymnema sylvestre should be taken postworkout, when you want insulin levels high. Take 250-500 mg with your carnitine and postworkout meal to further increase the amount of insulin in your blood.
DOSE: The amount of carnitine you take depends on the form. If you’re taking ALC, as little as 1.5 grams per day may be effective because of its enhanced uptake. We suggest you go with 500-2,000 mg per dose for maximum benefit. The research into LCLT has found that just 2 grams per day helps improve blood flow to muscles, muscle recovery and muscle androgen receptor numbers. Stick with 1-2 grams per dose for the best results. To take advantage of L-carnitine’s benefits, we suggest 1.5-3 grams per dose.
A patent-pending combination of zinc, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6, ZMA has been found to increase levels of testosterone and insulinlike growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which are often suppressed in hardtraining athletes such as bodybuilders. ZMA also improves the quality of sleep. One study reported that NCAA football players who took ZMA nightly during an eight-week spring-training program exhibited more than a 30% increase in both free and total T levels, and about a 4% increase in IGF-1 levels, while those who took a placebo had a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 22% decrease in IGF-1. In addition to improvements in anabolic hormone levels and sleep quality, the ZMA athletes made significant gains in strength and power. These benefits can help to significantly boost muscle gains, but the key is proper use of the supplement.
TIMING: This is a critical component in the ZMA equation. Taking it about an hour before bed will maximize its uptake and utilization, as confirmed by clinical research. Taking ZMA at night will also enhance sleep quality since magnesium can normalize and extend stage 3 and 4 slow-wave sleep. As we’ve stressed before, deep sleep is critical in helping your body recover from training.
GOING IT ALONE: ZMA must be taken without food or other supplements; both zinc and magnesium are poorly absorbed otherwise. The one thing you want to take with zinc and magnesium is vitamin B6, which helps magnesium get into cells. It’s included in the patented ZMA supplement. To get the most out of ZMA, take it about 1-2 hours after your second-to-last meal and an hour before your final meal of the day, right before going to bed.
DOSE: The proper dose of ZMA is 30 mg of zinc, 450 mg of magnesium aspartate and 10.5 mg of B6, no more, no less. Unlike most other supplements, with which a little extra here and there is okay, you want to make sure you take zinc and magnesium in this specific dose. Not only were these ratios found in clinical research to produce positive effects on athletes’ hormone and strength levels, but taking too much zinc (upward of 50 mg of absorbed zinc) can affect the immune system, compromise your metabolism, reduce levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and interfere with optimal sleep – all of which can impact your health and your ability to grow muscle.
FORM: Don’t skip ZMA supplementation by opting for stand-alone zinc and magnesium products. The form of zinc and magnesium used in ZMA is a chelate known as zinc and magnesium aspartate, which helps to minimize interference in the absorption of these minerals. Furthermore, the patented form of ZMA provides the zinc, magnesium aspartate and B6 in the amounts known to be most effective for stimulating muscle growth. It’s one of the few ready-to-use supplement stacks we recommend over buying individual products.
Use these dosing tips for guaranteed results when taking BCAAs, carnitine and ZMA
- Take 5-10 g (containing 2.5-5 g of leucine) first thing in the morning
- Take 5-10 g (containing 2.5-5 g of leucine) before workouts
- Take 5-10 g (containing 2.5-5 g of leucine) after workouts
- Take 5-10 g (containing 2.5-5 g of leucine) with a meal late in the day
- Take 1-3 g with your morning meal, along with 300-500 mg of ALA
- Take 1-3 g with your preworkout meal, along with 100-250 mg of cinnulin-PF
- Take 1-3 g with your postworkout meal of fast-digesting carbs, along with 250-500 mg of gymnema sylvestre
- Take a patented ZMA supplement providing 30 mg of zinc, 450 mg of magnesium aspartate and 10.5 mg of vitamin B6 one hour before bed on an empty stomach
BY DWAYNE JACKSON, PH.D, & JIM STOPPANI, PH.D WITH MARK THORPE