"I've been working out for some time now yet I'm still having a hard time putting on mass. I'd like to gain another 10 pounds of muscle. I would like to know if it is advisable to take supplements to help me achieve this goal. Are they safe? Are they effective? I hope you can enlighten me on this subject."
Protein and amino acid supplements claim to increase muscle mass and help "hard gainers" gain weight. The manufacturers of these supplements are riding on the "protein hype" - the long held belief that eating large quantities of protein is a sure-fire way of growing larger muscles. After reviewing current unbiased research by scientists with no vested interest (like selling the products), here are the facts.
Protein and muscles.
Protein is an essential element for growth. It makes up about 15 percent of an individual's total body weight and is found primarily in muscle. All the different types of protein in our body are made up of smaller "building blocks" called amino acids. The body produces some of these amino acids. Those that cannot be produced by the body are called "essential" amino acids and are found in the food that we eat.
Body builders are right in assuming that an individual needs protein to build muscles. But that is only part of the whole picture. Protein will not automatically build big muscles. The other factors in the muscle building equation are a solid weight lifting program, enough total daily calories to fuel those heavy-duty workouts, and adequate rest and sleeping hours to recover from the strenuous work the muscles have to go through.
Protein is not a major source of energy for weight training. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel that body builders need for their grueling exercise sessions. Therefore, a sufficient number of total calories is the number one dietary requirement for building big muscles.
No matter how much protein you take in, if you do not consume enough calories, that protein will be used for energy instead of building muscle fiber. Enough carbohydrates in the daily diet of a body builder will spare the protein he eats and reserve it mainly for building up those muscles.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein has been .8 grams for every kilogram of body weight per day for individuals 19 years old and above. Research in the last five years suggests that this baseline requirement is not enough for individuals engaged in heavy resistance or endurance training.
Most scientists now recommend anywhere from 1.0 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Sports nutritionists further advise that protein should be 12 to 15 percent of total daily caloric needs. Apparently, novice weight lifters still in the process of building their muscle mass need more protein than experienced body builders who are just maintaining their mass.
While still controversial, there is some research that suggests that endurance athletes (long distance cyclists and runners) may need more protein than body builders since they use up most of their glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) sources and turn to amino acids as additional fuel.
Since protein is the only nutrient that has nitrogen, it is fairly easy for nutritionists to measure how much protein is actually used. They measure the amount of nitrogen that is ingested through food and compare it with the amount of nitrogen that is excreted (urine, feces, and sweat). If a person is found to be in nitrogen balance, they are eating enough protein to maintain their muscle mass. A negative balance would indicate insufficient protein. Body builders prefer to be in positive nitrogen balance if they are trying to build muscle. To confirm the theory that total calories are just as important as enough protein, experiment participants who were consuming excess protein but inadequate total daily calories were found to be in negative nitrogen balance.
Protein supplements are usually marketed as powders to be mixed with either milk or water. If you look closely at the ingredients, you will find that these expensive supplements derive their protein from milk, eggs, desiccated liver, or soy.
There is no actual advantage these supplements have over natural sources aside from the convenience that they offer of hardly any preparation and being easy to drink while "on the run". There is no magic in these supplements aside from the extra calories and protein they contain.
The individuals who may benefit from these supplements are those who are doing heavy weight lifting, are consuming inadequate calories and/or protein and do not have the time or the "stomach" to eat many small meals a day. If you are already eating enough calories and protein or are not engaged in high intensity weight lifting, these supplements will only make you fat. You will also have the most expensive urine. Excess protein cannot be stored; it will be converted into fat and urea that is excreted out when you urinate.
Natural sources of protein.
Eight ounces of milk or yogurt and one ounce of cheese provide eight grams of protein. One ounce of fish, meat or chicken (the size of a matchbox) will provide seven grams of protein. One-half cup of rice or pasta or one slice of bread will give you three grams of protein. One half cup of cooked vegetables provides two grams. If you are a body builder, you would be wise to calculate how much protein you are already getting from your food. You may find that you don't need a protein supplement at all. If you are a picky eater or a small eater who needs additional calories and decide to use a protein supplement, carefully calculate how many protein grams you are getting per serving in addition to your food so you don't go over the limit.
Dangers of too much protein.
Excess protein can cause kidney problems in individuals with a pre-existing condition. It causes dehydration since 50 ml of water is excreted in the urine for every gram of urea produced. It can cause chronic fatigue since protein is usually eaten at the expense of carbohydrates, which are needed to replenish glycogen stores daily.
Use your muscles the right way.
Ultimately, muscles grow the best when they are challenged by heavy weights lifted in the right way. It's not how much you lift, it's how you lift the weight that counts. Many men have the bad habit of lifting with too much momentum. This is what gym instructors call "fantasy" strength. The same amount would not be able to be lifted if it was done slowly - the "real life" strength!
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