Pyramid Power

This supplement pyramid is perfect for bodybuilders.

By Jose Antonio, Ph.D., CSCS

Nutrition pyramids are everywhere, even on your cereal box. But you need more than the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid; you need the bodybuilder's supplement pyramid to help fill in the gaps in your high-performance nutrition program.

What gaps, you ask? Take Vitamin E, for example: You probably don't eat enough nuts and similar foods to get the recommended amount. You probably don't eat enough fruit to get your required Vitamin C. Nor are you likely to consume enough meat to obtain adequate creatine -- or perhaps enough protein and glutamine, for that matter. In fact, no matter how carefully you select your foods, you'll probably need to supplement your diet to maximize the anabolic environment within your body.

With that in mind, I believe bodybuilders should regularly consume the following supplements. They shouldn't form the basis of your nutritional regimen, but could be just as crucial as the plethora of chicken breasts and rice you eat.

Protein Foundation
Protein forms the base of the supplement pyramid. It's what muscles are made of, and a bodybuilder needs lots of it. Food should certainly be your main source of protein, but getting enough is tricky and can be inconvenient. Many protein foods are also high in fat, which you want to avoid excessive amounts of, and who wants to spend all that time preparing and eating protein foods? Let protein supplements come to your rescue. Many types are available, including whey, casein and soy protein. A good choice is whey, particularly as part of a meal-replacement powder. It's an excellent source of amino acids for adding muscle protein.

'No matter how carefully you select your foods, you'll probably need to supplement your diet to maximize the anabolic environment within your body.'
In one intriguing study, researchers tested the effects of whey and casein protein as a single meal ingested by normal healthy adults. The dose was equivalent to 48 grams for a 200-pound person -- about one-fourth of the daily protein quota for a bodybuilder this size. When the scientists examined blood levels of amino acids for up to seven hours after subjects consumed the protein meal, they found that the whey-protein group experienced a quick rise in blood levels of amino acids followed by a steady decline, while the casein group showed a slow increase that lasted for the seven-hour period. Whole-body protein breakdown de-creased by 34% after casein ingestion, but not with whey protein. On the other hand, protein synthesis increased by 68% in the whey-protein group and by 31% in the casein group.

How important are these differences between whey and casein? Although casein stimulated less protein synthesis than whey, it was better at inhibiting protein breakdown. So which should you choose? Both! With this potent combination, you'll maximize protein synthesis (via whey) and inhibit protein breakdown (via casein).

Yet there's more to whey protein than its beneficial effect on protein metabolism. In a more recent study, 20 healthy young adults were studied before and after three months of supplementation with 20 grams of whey protein concentrate (WPC) or casein placebo per day. Casein served as the placebo to see if protein itself could have an ergogenic effect or if the type of protein was important. Researchers measured whole-leg isokinetic cycling performance and found that both peak power and 30-second work capacity increased 13% in the whey-protein group; the casein group didn't show significant changes for either measure (increases of only 2% and 1%, respectively).

This is the first study to demonstrate that prolonged whey-protein supplementation can actually improve exercise performance. This isn't to say that casein is an inferior source of protein, but whey appears to be superior when it comes to boosting exercise performance.

Last but not least, include soy protein on occasion because of its reported effects in helping to prevent heart disease and cancer. As for your main protein supplement sources, however, I'd stick with whey first and then casein.

Creatine Building Blocks
How much more needs to be said about this supplement? Creatine can improve muscle strength and mass gains via its ability to delay fatigue and increase cellular volume. Known to man since 1835, creatine is a constituent of meat. The rate of turnover for creatine is roughly 2 grams per day, and this can be met by diet (through eating particularly red meat) as well as the endogenous synthesis of creatine.

But if you take more than 2 grams per day, better things may happen! Supplementation with 20 grams per day for a week can produce increased concentrations of both free creatine and creatine phosphate and improved strength and power. If you take the conservative route and consume 3-5 grams per day for a month, that too can produce muscle saturation. Some research indicates that even less creatine may be effective. According to one study, 3 grams of creatine per day for 28 days -- or 20 grams of creatine per day for six days -- is sufficient to achieve optimal muscle phosphocreatine levels. A daily dose of 2 grams can be used as maintenance.

In a recent study, resistance-trained men consumed creatine for 12 weeks (one week of loading at 25 grams daily, followed by a 5-gram daily maintenance dose). Researchers noted a 35%-36% size increase in both slow and fast muscle fibers, compared to a 6%-11% increase in the placebo group. Furthermore, bench press and squat strength improved 24% and 32% respectively (compared to a 16% and 24% increase with the placebo). Can any other supplement produce these kinds of results? --Nuff said.

Glutamine: Essential for Skeletal Muscle
Classically defined as a nonessential amino acid, glutamine serves as an important fuel source for the immune system (if you aren't healthy, you can't hit the weights hard and heavy!) and is an effective anticatabolic agent. In any case, it's definitely essential for bodybuilders.

Glutamine can exert an anticatabolic role by causing increases in cell volume. Though these studies weren't done in strength athletes (are they ever?), the increase in cell volume vis-à-vis glutamine ingestion may have a muscle-building effect. Scientists have known for years that dehydrating a cell can promote its breakdown, while increasing cellular volume can by itself promote gains in cellular protein.

But perhaps this supplement's greatest benefit is in enhancing immune function. Endurance athletes who consumed glutamine (vs. a placebo) immediately after and two hours after a marathon or ultramarathon reported fewer post-race infections. In fact, just 19% of individuals in the glutamine group reported suffering from infections; 51% in the placebo group fell ill. Large doses of glutamine have been administered to humans for several weeks with no negative effects.

Granted, bodybuilding may not be the same kind of stress as running a marathon, but I'm sure you can put yourself through a grueling workout that'd make even Ironman competitors cry for their mommies. An extra 10 grams of glutamine a day could keep you from getting sick after intense training.

Vital for general cardiovascular health and well-being, antioxidants are also important in the postworkout recovery process. They play a key role in maintaining the health of your cells, and in my opinion, the two most important ones are vitamins C and E.

What are your best food sources of Vitamin E? Vegetable oils. Nuts are high in E, but you'd have to eat about 20 cups of almonds to get 400 IUs of Vitamin E, an amount shown conclusively to decrease your risk of heart disease. Vitamin E also alleviated the loss of muscle in rats that had their legs immobilized. So in a sense, it may be an anticatabolic vitamin.

Similarly, Vitamin C may have an anticatabolic effect in addition to its antioxidant function, helping to keep your muscle tissue from being torn down by cortisol. Weightlifters who took 1,000 mg per day had decreased cortisol levels that remained depressed at 24 hours postexercise. The placebo group had much higher cortisol levels. Vitamin C is also needed for regenerative processes such as wound healing.

Combine C with E, and you've got yourself a free-radical fightin' duo better than Batman and Robin. Dutch cyclists given Vitamin C (500 mg daily) and Vitamin E (300 IUs daily) for 15 weeks demonstrated better lung function than those who took placebos.8 This may have to do with the ability of these antioxidants to fight lung damage caused by oxidative damage (which can be a problem in your lungs, particularly if you breathe polluted city air).

Other antioxidants worth mentioning, which I consider a second line of defense after vitamins C and E, include beta-carotene, alpha-lipoic acid, co-enzyme Q10, lycopene and N-acetyl- cysteine. With this array of antioxidants, you should have the healthiest and happiest cells possible.

Vitamins & Minerals

Last but certainly not least, a good multivitamin/mineral containing 100% of the recommended daily intake of vitamins and good percentages of the recommended levels of minerals can act as your insurance policy against either a poor diet or lack of variety in your diet. Levels of vitamins C and E are usually relatively low (compared with effective antioxidant doses) in such a supplement.

Though taking vitamins and minerals won't make your muscles larger per se, these micronutrients play an integral role in your eating plan. Why? Vitamins are involved in a plethora of metabolic reactions for energy production, production of red blood cells, wound healing, healthy bones and just plain overall health and fitness.

Does the 25-year-old bodybuilder who trains aerobically and anaerobically 4-6 times per week to increase muscle mass and drop bodyfat have the same vitamin and mineral needs as the average person? Not likely -- an athletic lifestyle increases the need for some of these micronutrients. Besides, you probably aren't getting all of even the basic levels of vitamins and minerals from food alone.

Yet even taking a daily supplement that contains 100% of the RDA for vitamins and some minerals might not be enough, because your intestines don't fully absorb all the vitamins and minerals you consume in either food or supplements. Furthermore, because bodybuilders trying to pack on lean body mass are much more active than the average person, they'd logically need more than the recommended dietary intake. That's why I suggest consuming two multivitamin/minerals per day, at different times, to help ensure that you'll indeed get the needed complement of vitamins and minerals.

Topping Off the Pyramid
The bodybuilder's supplement pyramid by no means excludes the use of other ergogenic aids such as branched-chain amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, chondroitin sulfate and other potentially useful supplements. They may not benefit everyone, however, which is why we give them the smallest block in our pyramid. The supplements described earlier form the base and body of the pyramid and can benefit almost everyone. Let the pyramid be your guide.