I keep hearing from fellow women weight-lifters about supplements like creatine, branch chain amino acids, ZMA [zinc monomethionine aspartate] and the role they play in muscle gains and repair.
I have my concerns about their long-term health effects, especially on women.
Do you think a casual weight-lifter like me (I lift 2 to 3 times a week to stay in shape) should stay away from them?
-- Mandy [last name withheld]
It depends on which particular supplement you are talking about.
Creatine phosphate is one of the most well-known lifting supplements.
Creatine monohydrate and creatine citrate are also available; for all intents and purposes, they are the same thing (think of one as white sugar, another as brown sugar, and the other as cane juice crystals.)
It seems that any college student moderately interested in gaining muscle mass has a container of it in their dorm kitchen.
Although it may sound foreign, creatine is an amino acid produced by our bodies. It is also naturally found in significant quantities in all animal proteins -- particularly red meat, poultry, and fish.
Creatine serves as a backup reserve for short bursts of energy (no more than 8 to 10 seconds).
When you're banging out that last rep, it's creatine that comes to the rescue to give you a final jolt of strength.
Some people erroneously think that simply taking creatine is enough for adding muscle mass. Not so.
All creatine does is allow your muscles to work a little harder for a little longer. In other words, you still have to put in consistent time at the gym.
Keep in mind that although creatine is the best researched of the three supplements you ask about, none of them are regulated.
This is quite a problem, as it means that manufacturer A's creatine can differ greatly (i.e.: contain fillers and other useless ingredients) from manufacturer B's.
Although creatine can be helpful for bulking up, some of the accomplished results have more to do with muscular water retention than actual extra mass.
Branch chain amino acids can help delay muscle fatigue, but its effect has only been considered significant in very long endurance situations, like marathons.
For someone who works out two to three times a week to stay in shape, I find BCAA's to be a complete waste of money.
As for ZMA, there is very little literature on it. The only study I know of that has found it to be helpful was, not surprisingly, funded by its manufacturers.
I also find it rather comical ZMA is advertised as some "amazing breakthrough" when it's simply a combination of three minerals -- magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B6.
As far as long-term health effects of these supplements, there isn't enough information to truly know.
What we do know is that creatine appears to exacerbate dehydration. A few studies have also mentioned an increased risk for kidney problems, but that appears to only affect individuals who already have compromised kidneys.
I'm of the belief that the best thing you can do for your health -- and your training -- is eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, heart-healthy fats, whole grains, and lean protein.
No supplement is going to override a poor diet.