Amino acid supplements

Originally Published: November 5, 1999
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Dear Alice,

Do amino acids work for muscle building? If so, which ones should I use? Are supplements just a rip-off?

Dear Reader,

Over the past few years, amino acids have gotten a lot of press because some athletes believe they will boost the body's natural production of testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, and insulin-like growth factor. The notion is that the increase in these hormones will enhance muscle development, strength, and size while decreasing body fat. Unfortunately, this is not the case. To date, there's no conclusive evidence that amino acid supplements in humans affect hormone secretion, training responsiveness, or exercise performance.

Real food is more nutritious than any supplement. In fact, food provides valuable nutrients, such as iron and zinc, which are absorbed more efficiently from food than from supplements. Our bodies need all the essential amino acids present in complete proteins, which are found in meat and soybeans, for example, to make new muscle tissue. As with other nutrients, amino acids are also absorbed more efficiently from food. Supplements actually may cause imbalances and interfere with the absorption of other amino acids. Food is also easier on our wallets, as supplements can be quite costly.

The most important factor for a weightlifter is to take in enough calories. Sufficient calories from carbohydrates are needed to fuel the body so that protein is used to build and repair muscle tissue. Otherwise, with low calorie diets, precious protein is burned for energy instead. Carbohydrates not only provide fuel for the muscles, but they also bring about a hormonal response that enhances muscle synthesis. When the ratio of protein to carbohydrate intake is 1:4 (15 percent of calories from protein and 60 percent of calories from carbohydrates), testosterone levels used in muscle building have been known to increase the most for all healthy people. Carbohydrate, eaten within one hour of resistance training (1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight), will also decrease the breakdown of muscle protein and help build muscle tissue. In addition to what you eat, resistance training is the best way to increase lean body mass. There are no short cuts or quick fixes.

For more information on this topic and/or to figure out your own nutritional needs, check out Do bodybuilders and other weightlifters need more protein? in Alice's Fitness and Nutrition archive.

Good luck with your training. Happy pumping!

Alice