A lot of lifters love doubling up on their preworkout scoops before their workouts, but which ingredients are proven to be the best to add muscle mass?
I am a scientist by training, not a shill.
So I am not going to try and convince you to buy some mysterious powder from the Himalayas that will make you jacked.
I am, however, going to cut to the chase and tell you about why a few supplements might be worth taking to maximize your training.
The main reason for each of these is that they increase your ability to do work, which we know is the main dictator of how jacked you get during your bulk cycle.
The three on the list today are caffeine, beta-alanine, and citrulline.
Caffeine is touted as one of the most efficacious pre-workout supplements for increasing energy, focus, and training capacity. It is also thought to elicit the following: increased anaerobic running capacity, power output, adrenaline, aerobic exercise, blood glucose and fat oxidation, as well as decreased insulin sensitivity.
Caffeine primarily works by antagonizing (essentially blocking) adenosine receptors. Adenosine normally binds to these receptors, causing drowsiness. By antagonizing these receptors, caffeine can increase alertness and combat drowsiness.
Caffeine is also distributed throughout the body and interacts with receptors on the surfaces of other cells to elicit different physiological processes including the release of adrenaline and cortisol.
Several studies have shown that caffeine pre-workout can increase power output1, 2, 3. However, it appears to not be related to improvements in 1 repetition maximums but in “sustain power,” e.g. 3-5 RM and Wingate.
It may be due to a reduction in pain perception, and mobilization of intramuscular calcium (the stuff that lets your muscles actually contract).
There have been documented increases in aerobic capacity from caffeine supplementation4, 5, 6. This is potentially mediated by increased free fatty acid (FFA) release. However, contradictory evidence shows that adrenaline increased FFA release, thus decreasing FFA oxidation.
Dosing of caffeine is highly variable. Your genetics and habitual use of caffeine play a large role in how much is needed to elicit an effect. The more you consume on a daily basis, the more you will need to consume in order to see any training benefit.
Additionally, there appears to be a “saturation” limit where you only receive an anti-fatigue benefit and no additional effects from higher levels of caffeine intake.
Beta-alanine is the beta form of the amino acid alanine (meaning the amino group is in the beta position). It is the rate limiting (read bottleneck) precursor to a chemical called carnosine which acts as a buffer to prevent reductions in pH.
Beta-Alanine is purported to increase your training capacity by improving the body’s ability to buffer exercise-induced decreases in pH. In essence, Beta-alanine isn’t doing the work; it is providing your body with the ability to make more carnosine.
Beta-Alanine is a well-researched supplement with some actual evidence to support its use. However, there appears to be no real timing component and it does not necessarily have to be taken as a pre-workout.
Briefly, Beta-Alanine helps you avoid “hitting the wall” a little bit longer, essentially increasing your workload by 1-2 additional reps in the 8-15 rep range7, 8, 9. The consistent finding throughout the research is that it can increase your muscle endurance by about 2.5%.
It has also been shown to improve interval-type training, where individuals have improved performance in repeated bouts of sprint intervals.
In addition to Beta-Alanine increasing muscle endurance, there have been some small improvements in fat reduction reported in the literature10.
One important facet of this finding is that the research is unable to determine if it was directly due to supplementation, or if the increased fat loss was a result of the increased work during training. My guess, it works something like this.
Although it is marketed as a pre-workout supplement, there is little evidence to support a specific time-domain. You can take it at any time and you will receive the benefit as the goal is to increase your intramuscular carnosine levels. That being said, it can easily just be included in your pre-workout supplement and it works just fine.
The typical dose for beta-alanine is 2-5g/day. There have been reports of users getting a tingling feeling when consuming large doses of beta-alanine. This is scientifically known as paresthesia, I prefer to call it “itchy face”.
Splitting your daily dose into two smaller doses can alleviate this, if you decide that the itchy face feeling doesn’t get you jacked up to train. This has been shown to be as effective as a larger, once-daily dose.
Like creatine monohydrate, beta alanine has well documented benefits for increasing training capacity in certain training modalities. If you are looking for an extra few percent in your training, beta-alanine might be a useful tool.
L-citrulline has been shown to have a myriad of benefits in humans, including increased training volume, decreased muscle soreness, decreased fatigue, and increased blood flow.
In a fairly large (large as far as supplement research goes) double-blind placebo-controlled study, 41 participants supplemented with 8mg of citrulline or placebo and performed 8 sets of bench press to fatigue. The citrulline group noticed a drastic improvement (52.92%) of reps they were able to achieve than the placebo11.
In this same study, the group receiving citrulline noted a 40% decrease in soreness at 24 and 48 hours compared to the placebo group. A separate study showed that supplementing with citrulline decreased fatigue during a rest-recovery style training protocol12.
Another well-known aspect of citrulline is the breakdown of citrulline into L-arginine. L-arginine then can be converted into nitric oxide and increase blood flow. In a small study of only 8 men, supplementing with 2 and 15g of citrulline increased arginine levels in the blood, and in a dose dependent manner13.
In a double-blind placebo-controlled trial of healthy men, citrulline supplementation did in fact increase serum nitric oxide and decrease a measure of arterial stiffness, indicating possible vasorelaxation14.
Given the large effect of citrulline on cardiovascular parameters and recent evidence from individuals with heart failure, L-citrulline may be an ideal supplement for individuals with cardiovascular problems15
Besides changes in fatigue, soreness, and cardiovascular parameters there may be some positive effect of citrulline supplementation on growth hormone.
In one double-blind placebo-controlled study conducted in 17 young men, 6 grams of citrulline prior to exercise increased exercise induced growth hormone response almost 70%16. Currently, this aspect of citrulline needs to be validated with follow-up studies.
Citrulline-malate displays a wide range of potential benefits from decreasing fatigue and increasing training volume to improving exercise capacity in individuals with heart failure.
While there are some reported gastrointenstinal side effects (similar to creatine), citrulline appears to be a well-tolerated supplement that has potential to be on par with creatine and beta-alanine in terms of efficacy. Doses of approximately 6 mg prior to exercise are the most common dosages observed in the literature.
THE WRAP UP
When it is time to bulk there is no reason to left stones unturned. Supplementing can be a key piece of your nutrition regime to help you get the last 2-5% of your gains.
Caffeine, Beta-Alanine, and Citrulline are 3 of the most proven, effective supplements you can use for increasing the volume and intensity of your training.