Nitric oxide (NO) supplements have been all the rage for several years now, and there seems to be a neverending amount of anecdotal data claiming their efficacy. However, because I have wasted so much money over the years trying different products with claims of building muscle, I am skeptical to say the least.
NO is a very powerful chemical that, among many functions, regulates blood flow. NO dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and allows blood to flow more freely. It’s the same substance that allows Viagra to do its work. It’s this increase in blood flow that has lead many in the supplement industry to infer a better delivery of nutrients to muscle cells, which they equate to more muscle. That is one hell of a stretch and just doesn’t hold water.
It may be surprising to many that the NO supplements of today are the same as the arginine products of the ’80s; they’re just marketing them differently. Unfortunately for NO proponents, the level of arginine in the blood has little to do with NO production, and therefore has nothing to do with increasing blood flow. If we could increase NO production through diet or supplements, because of the decrease in blood pressure that occurs with higher NO levels, we would have had reports of lower blood pressure and syncope. These types of reports have not occurred, nor have they been found in research.
For the last 20 years, I’ve made it my mission to find real evidence of what works and what doesn’t. NO products are no exception. I’ve searched and searched, but have not been able to find one study that shows supplementing with an oral form of L-arginine like alpha-ketoglutarate, alpha-ketoisocaproate or L-arginine monohydrate boosts (NO) levels which causes vasodilatation. The studies that do show an increased production of NO while supplementing with L-arginine administered the amino acid through the parenteral route or Intravenously (IV). Unfortunately for NO marketers, the amounts used through IV cannot be duplicated orally, because even a fraction of these levels causes extreme gastrointestinal distress.
So, if the research isn’t there, how does one discern what works and what doesn’t? If you’re like me, you try it. For this to work, you have to be completely objective. You have to be aware of a placebo effect. I start taking a supplement with the understanding it probably won’t work. I am looking for real effects, not something I think I might feel. I also have several other lifters I can use who are very experienced and are willing to try products that I receive for review or purchase out of curiosity.
And that’s precisely what I did with Force Factor’s Pre-Workout. Along with two friends, I took this supplement for 20 days. On workout days, the recommended dosage on the label is 2 – 4 capsules 30 minutes before lunch and 2 – 4 capsules before a workout. On non-workout days, the recommended dosage is 2 – 4 capsules 30 minutes before breakfast and 2 – 4 capsules 30 minutes before lunch. On workout days, we took three caps 30 minutes before breakfast and four caps before our workouts. On non-workout days, we took three caps before breakfast and three 30 minutes before lunch.
The results were a little baffling. The two other experienced lifters I gave Force Factor’s pre-workout to reported a better than normal pump. This is at odds with what the science reports, and some may say it’s the placebo effect. I chose these two lifters because they are very experienced and are as skeptical as I when it comes to supplements and their claims; this assures me it’s not a placebo effect they experienced.
So what could it be if not the arginine like the science indicates that gives a better than normal pump? To the best of my knowledge, it must be a synergistic effect with the other substances contained in the product. Two other substances contained in Force Factor Pre-Workout that caught my attention were citrulline monohydrate and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD).
The amino acid citrulline is required to detoxify the liver from ammonia, a waste product of the body. This is a bonus when supplementing with this amino, but is not the function we’re looking for. Citrulline also promotes energy and assists with the immune system.
18 men participated in a study to investigate the effects of citrulline supplementation on muscle energetic. Ingestion resulted in a significant reduction in the sensation of fatigue, a 34% increase in the rate of oxidative ATP production during exercise, and a 20% increase in the rate of phosphocreatine recovery after exercise, indicating a larger contribution of oxidative ATP synthesis to energy production. (Br J Sports Med. 2002 Aug;36(4):282-9)
NAD complex is a unique form of Vitamin B-3, nicotinamide, or more commonly known as niacin. The terms niacin, nicotinamide and vitamin B3 are often used interchangeably to refer to any member of this family of compounds, since they have the same biochemical activity. This family of compounds is a known vasodilator and adenosine tryphosphate (ATP) catalyst. Enhancing the muscle cell’s ability to store ATP will yield a cell volumizing effect, greater strength and a fuller pump.
Moreover, NAD is being studied for its ability to increase dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter essential to brain health. This supplement may become increasingly important as we age when dopamine levels naturally start to decrease. Hence, NAD supplements can be used by people fraught with clinical depression, dementia and people with chronic fatigue syndrome.
So if NO isn’t going to build muscle through vasodilation, how about NAD, Vitamin B-3, nicotinamide or niacin? In a word, No.
If you’re expecting to gain more muscle, NO products aren’t going to get you there. They are a waste of money. The best thing you can do to ensure gains in muscle is to train properly and eat a superb diet void of processed garbage like vegetable oils and fructose. If you want to supplement your diet, spend your money on products that work like a quality protein (read: Protein Rx) and creatine.
Need some evidence? Read:
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35(8), 1309-1315.
New Trends Clin Neuropharmacology 1991;5:19-25
Ann Clin Lab Sci 1996;26:1-9
Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 1999;82:185-191.