How To Choose Exercise/Bodybuilding Supplements, Part 3: Supplements For Muscle Recovery

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 10:21am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

In Part 1 of this series, I covered some of the basics about being a smart consumer of exercise and bodybuilding supplements, and explained that most supplements aren’t worth the money. In Part 2, I identified some of the few supplements that can augment a good nutrition and training program. In this installment, we meet the underrated, less well-known supplements that help bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts recover and regenerate.

Developing a healthy body: The big picture

Evidence is accumulating that larger, system-wide processes provide the environment for diet and training results. In other words, gaining muscle, losing fat, getting stronger, healing from injuries and/or recovering from workouts are all components of a bigger picture. These components are like rooms in a house. If the house is falling down and the roof is leaking, it doesn’t really matter whether you put up nice wallpaper; eventually that lovely floral wall is going to be covered in rain spots and cockroaches.

How the body works

Let’s step back for a second. Here’s a very simple picture of how the body works. The body isn’t really a thing: it’s more like a series of processes all going on at the same time, and all inter-related. It’s constantly building things up and breaking them down, then building new things.

Mostly the body likes everything to stay the same. If you give the body a stimulus, then it has to adapt. Exercise is a stimulus; it’s like a little bit of stress. Now, stress is a continuum: A little bit is good for us, because it gets the body off its ass and earning its rent. A lot of stress is bad for usand this can be either a lot of stress all at once, or lots of little bits of stress over a long period. The body is really good at handling immediate stress: adrenaline kicks in, we get into fight or flight mode, and all systems are firing to enable us to handle that marauding bear or speeding car coming at us. However, ongoing stress—which can include intense exercise—breaks us down. We can’t recover as well. And if we can’t recover, we don’t see good results.

The best recovery supplements

Thus, supplements that help our bodies manage ongoing stressors are very useful for optimizing our recovery. The better we recover, the better our results in and out of the gym. “Recovery supplements” that are well documented in clinical literature include the following:

1.   Ginseng gives you a boost after exercise

Ginseng is an adaptogen, something that helps the body adapt to stressors. It appears to boost the immune system, improve mood and cognitive performance, and reduce fasting blood glucose.

2.   The benefits of curcumin after exercise

Curcumin the active compound in turmeric and the yellow substance often found in Jamaican and Indian curries, is a potent antioxidant that enables the body to fight oxidative stress. Oxidation, like the rusting of a car, is emerging as Public Enemy #1 in the breakdown of the body’s processes, and has been implicated in everything from age-related degeneration to heart disease to Parkinson’s disease. Turmeric has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, and appears to be the all-purpose cure-all: it’s used for coughs and colds, cuts, skin conditions, digestive upset and a host of other things.

For more information on curcumin as a potential prevention for cancer see the following article from TheDietChannel: Curry: What Dosage Prevents Cancer?

3.   MSM is a good supplement for treating joint overuse injuries

MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), which appears to help decrease inflammation and may have an analgesic (pain killing) effect, appears to be particularly useful when used in conjunction with glucosamine sulfate for joint overuse injuries.

4.   Magnesium alleviates muscle cramping

Magnesium can help alleviate muscle cramping and help athletes sleep (which is important in recovery). Deficiencies in magnesium along with other trace minerals such as zinc, chromium, and selenium are associated with decreased exercise and immune performance. Unless there is a significant deficiency, however, ideally these minerals should be obtained from food, which leads me to my next point…

5.   A good diet, a good training plan, and plenty of rest

This is the best recovery program after exercisedid I mention that already?

Recommended link: NutritionData. It lets you do a search on your nutrient of choice.


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Konig D, C. Weinstock, J. Keul, H. Northoff, and A. Berg “Zinc, iron, and magnesium status in athletes--influence on the regulation of exercise-induced stress and immune function.” Exercise Immunological Review 4 (1998):2-21.

Reay, Jonathon L., David O. Kennedy, and Andrew B. Scholey. “Single doses of Panax ginseng (G115) reduce blood glucose levels and improve cognitive performance during sustained mental activity.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 19 no. 4 (2005): 357-365.

Sotaniemi, E.A., E. Haapakoski and A. Rautio “Ginseng Therapy in Non-insulin-dependent Diabetic Patients”. Diabetes Care 18 no.10 (1995): 1373-1375.

Tilak, Jai, Meenal Banerjee, Hari Mohan, and T.P.A. Devasagayam. "Antioxidant Availability of Turmeric in Relation to its Medicinal and Culinary Uses." Phytotherapy Research 13 (2004): 798-804.