Your main bodybuilding mission is a simple one: train smart and build muscle. You do all that you believe to be necessary to ensure lean muscle gains continue on an upward trajectory. You up the poundage and pound down the protein. You also incorporate a range of cutting-edge muscle-building supplements. Then you rest when needed, and visualize positive training outcomes. You pride yourself on your dedication to the craft of becoming the best bodybuilder you can be. But are you covering all the steps needed to transform your physique?
Though the mission may appear straightforward, optimizing the muscle-building process involves myriad factors. Each is important to breaking muscle down and building it back larger and stronger than ever before. One factor that continues to be overlooked by otherwise dedicated lifters is micronutrient intake.
GOING MICRO FOR MACRO MUSCLE GAINS
Bodybuilders are all about living large. “Train big, eat big, and sleep big!” This is a mantra and way of life adopted and preached by scores of lifters. It has been since the first rep was cranked out in some dark and dingy basement gym. Common bodybuilding catchphrases continue to do the rounds in gyms across the globe. “Heavy weight” (or “light weight” to imply dominance over “heavy weight”), “mass building”, “big bench”, “extreme size!” Small-scale results are antithetical to bodybuilding progress. It could be argued that the word “micro” does not belong in a hardcore bodybuilder’s vocabulary. But it should.
The proper growth and development of muscle tissue cannot take place unless we bodybuilders begin emphasizing the micro. As in micronutrient intake. Because they are needed in such miniscule amounts (compared to the macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals being the big two) are often overlooked when planning nutrition. But neglecting the micros is a big mistake. Especially those for whom micronutrient depletion and increased micronutrient requirements are an ever-present reality. Namely athletes, especially bodybuilders.
Micronutrients could be referred to as “magic wands” when considering the various nutrients required for tissue repair. Though comparatively tiny in the quantity needed to maximize health and performance, the micros are responsible for numerous biological processes and functions and thus benefit the body in a big way. In fact, the production of hormones, enzymes and other substances essential for energy production, muscle tissue repair, and nutrient absorption cannot take place without a proper balance of micronutrients. You get the picture. Without going micro, large-scale gains in muscle will continue to remain the exclusive preserve of those who have.
A detailed description of the exact number of individual micronutrients and associated co-factors required to maximize muscle gains is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, a high potency multi-vitamin/mineral supplement will supply a full-spectrum array of micros in the correct ratio to ensure optimal mass-building results (we’ll discuss this in more detail soon). What will be detailed in this article are the 13 known vitamins in the human body – 4 fat-soluble (A, D, E and K: stored in the body for long periods) and 9 water-soluble (8 B-vitamins and C: each of which is rapidly flushed from the body and eliminated in the urine) – and their specific relevance to iron trainees. Minerals of equal importance to bodybuilders will be discussed in a future article.
VITAMINS TO REVITALIZE
Your muscle-building diet has adequate protein, carbs and fats to energize your challenging workouts and promote recovery and growth. Great start! However, even an ideal combination of macros is far from optimal when seeking physical excellence. Vitamins – carbon-containing organic compounds – must also be emphasized when planning a size-building plan, as the body cannot synthesize them fast enough to keep pace with our daily need for them.
Because vitamins are present in very small amounts as natural components of certain foods, the specific ratio needed for normal physiological functioning (growth, digestion etc) can be difficult to achieve (more on how to achieve the right vitamin/mineral balance later in this article). Should any of the following vitamins be absent from your diet, specific deficiencies can occur.
WATER SOLUBLE VITAMINS
The water soluble vitamins are continuously flushed through the system and therefore require ongoing replenishment. Compared to the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, additional B and C can be taken throughout the day. Assess the tolerable upper intake levels for each vitamin based on your specific needs, but ensure these limits are not breeched. All vitamins can cause adverse effects if taken in excess.
• VITAMIN C
Of particular importance for bodybuilders, Vitamin C is essential for the formation of collagen (an essential component of connective tissue and thus important for tissue healing) and L Carnitine (important for metabolizing fat into energy). In addition, C assists the absorption of nonheme iron for red blood cell production and, as an antioxidant, counters free-radical damage due to oxidative stress brought about by intense training.3 C also assists with muscle growth by helping to metabolize protein.
• B VITAMINS
The B vitamins are intimately involved in cellular energy production in addition to the maintenance of a host of many biological functions. As a complex, the Bs work synergistically to enhance their beneficial advantages. Each B vitamin shares similar functions but also has unique properties. Certain key properties of each B vitamin are discussed below.
• VITAMIN B 1 (thiamine)
Like all B vitamins, B1 is needed to produce cellular energy from the foods we eat. B1 also supports nervous system function to ensure messages from mind to muscle are conveyed as efficiently as possible. Without enough B1, contractibility of muscle tissue and recovery from intensive training are made all the more difficult.
• VITAMIN B 2 (riboflavin)
B 2 positively affects the metabolism of iron to ensure that oxygen-rich blood is properly dispersed throughout the body and muscle fatigue is in turn minimized. Red blood cell production is also maximized when B 2 is at optimal levels. B 2 also has immune-boosting properties: in recycling the key antioxidant glutathione, B 2 protects against free radical production to enhance health, wellbeing and the healing of muscle tissue.
• VITAMIN B 3 (niacin)
B 3 helps to make various steroid hormones in the adrenal glands and other parts of the body to enhance muscle tissue recovery and growth. B 3 also supports cardiovascular health by enhancing blood circulation and by lowering triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood.1 B 3 also plays in important role in the synthesis of amino acids in the brain, most notably tryptophan, which ultimately stimulates the production of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, feel-good chemicals that improve mood and boost training energy. Finally, B 3 forms a part of Glucose Tolerance Factor (GTF), a substance that helps to maintain insulin activity, to enhance the uptake of nutrients into muscle cells.
• VITAMIN B 5 (pantothenic acid)
Vitamin B 5 is needed to synthesize cholesterol. Cholesterol is very important for bodybuilders as it is the primary precursor for the synthesis of steroid hormones such as testosterone. Cholesterol also boosts vitamin D, which enhances bone health by assisting the absorption of calcium, and increases the production of bile acids for optimal digestion. B 5 is essential for supporting the health of the digestive tract to ensure those proteins, carbs, and fats are used to maximum effect.
• VITAMIN B 6 (pyridoxine)
Like all other vitamins, B 6 is involved in many enzymatic reactions in the body. In the case of B 6, most of these reactions involve protein metabolism; specifically the assembling of amino acids into various proteins, including muscle. B 6 is also involved in gluconeogenesis (the conversion of proteins into carbohydrates), when extra energy is needed and protein levels are sufficiently high (a reminder here to eat more protein – at least 1.5g per pound of bodyweight per day) and glycogenolysis (the conversion of glycogen to glucose to optimize energy levels). B 6 also helps to increase the production of lymphocyte and interleukin-2 to enhance immune system function.
• VITAMIN B 7 (biotin)
Vitamin B 7 is used in the body to metabolize both carbohydrates and fats. Upon digestion, sugars, aided by B 7, are converted into usable energy. Despite scaremongering, fats are crucial for muscle-building. Cellular membranes, including those of muscle tissue, can only function correctly via the presence of an enzyme called acetyl Co-A, of which B 7 forms a crucial part, and which forms the building blocks of fat production in the body. Nervous system irregularities (including poor coordination and muscle tone) and muscle cramping due to impaired ability to regulate sugar may also result from a B 7 deficiency
• VITAMIN B 12 (cobalamin)
Aside from myriad other fucntions, vitamin B 12 is as a cofactor for the enzymes methionine synthase and L-methylmalonyl-CoA mutase. While methionine synthase converts homocysteine to methionine, which in turn helps form S-adenosylmethionine (a universal methyl donor for almost 100 different substrates, including DNA, RNA, proteins, lipids, and hormones), L-methylmalonyl-CoA mutase helps to regulate protein, fat and hemoglobin synthesis.
• FOLIC ACID
Folic acid is crucial for red blood cell formation. The red blood cells carry oxygen to muscle tissue to enhance training output and to carry waste products from muscle tissue to enhance recovery. Folic acid is also instrumental in the formation of DNA (genetic material) within every cell of the body, including muscle, thus allowing the healthy cellular replication (i.e. growth).
FAT SOLUBLE VITAMINS
These vitamins are needed in lesser amounts compared with water soluble vitamins. Fat soluble vitamins are stored in fat globules called chylomicrons that travel through the lymphatic system of the small intestines and into the general blood circulation. They are stored in body tissues, including the liver, and used when needed
• VITAMIN A
Vitamin A is critical for cell growth, in particular those of the heart, lungs and kidneys. A also is involved in immune function and is especially important for vision and cellular communication.
• VITAMIN D
Not a regular vitamin, vitamin D is a steroid hormone obtained primarily through sun exposure, and is difficult to obtain through diet alone. But D is critical for fighting infection, boosting immune function and tissue repair, and is required for the regulation of the minerals calcium and phosphorus to assist bone growth and maintenance. Omega 3 fish oils are a great source of vitamin D (another article!).
• VITAMIN E
In addition to other vitamins, in particular C and the Bs, vitamin E, a potent anti-oxidant, helps to counter training-induced oxidative stress (oxidative damage to lipids, nucleic acids, and protein).3 Whenever free radicals (molecules with an unshared electron) are produced in the body due to exercise or other environmental stressors, they combine with oxygen to form Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). E can help prevent the formation of ROS. E also supports cardiovascular health and immune function.
• VITAMIN K
Often referred to as the “forgotten vitamin”, K – and there are three types: K 1, K 2, and, you guessed it, K 3 – is nevertheless important for bone health, cardiovascular function, and as an immune booster. The Ks can also improve insulin sensitivity, to enhance nutrient storage and decrease bodyfat storage.
GETTING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Achieving a correct balance of valuable micronutrients is not a simple case of eating more fruits and vegetables. Indeed, even with an adequate intake of micronutrient-rich foods there is still no guarantee that these foods will deliver their promised return on investment.
Putting the convenience factor to one side (with much preparation and time spent eating them, health-giving foods are just as easily neglected by people with busy schedules – certainly not recommended here!), an optimal dietary intake of micros can still be difficult to achieve. Commonly consumed processed foods (which strip the body of valuable nutrients, deplete energy and provide empty calories) and the methods used to preserve and present for the consumer many so-called healthy foods both impede micronutrient status.
Fruits and vegetables also have become less nutritious due to the disturbing trend of soil depletion. Cooking and food storage methods also rob potentially healthy foods of their beneficial qualities. All of this adds up to a suboptimal nutrient intake even among the most dedicated of dieters.
People today must maximize their micros more than ever. With more than 40 percent of American adults having dietary intakes of vitamin A, C, D and E, calcium and magnesium below the average requirement for their age and gender (as but one example), subclinical micronutrient deficiencies are becoming more and more common.2 This is scraping the surface. Athletes, a population who, due to the intensive nature of competitive sport and their unique training requirements require extra micro-nutritional sustenance, are especially at risk of developing performance-depleting micro deficiencies.
With much oxidative stress, cellular damage and sweat spilled in the gym, bodybuilders, for example, must be as on point with their intake of micronutrients as they are with getting their 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Problem is, with the ongoing avalanche of food bodybuilders routinely ingest, many are convinced that they are getting all the nutrients needed to recover and grow. Such lifters may even throw in a couple of pieces of fruit per day to ensure “all nutritional bases are covered.” Meanwhile, nutritional deficiencies continue to accumulate. As opposed to other populations, the lifestyle of the average bodybuilder – centered on hard training and the periodic restriction of certain foods such as micronutrient-rich fruit – can reinforce and exacerbate existing nutritional deficiencies.
In addition, and also unlike other populations, bodybuilders are affected by even the smallest nutritional imbalance. While most people are unlikely to notice any nutritional deficiencies, the cellular damage and energy depletion resulting from suboptimal micronutrient intake can compromise workouts and halt muscle growth right from the get-go. So what can the diligent bodybuilder do? Simple: aim to eat a well-balanced diet, but most importantly, take a reputable multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.
THE BODYBUILDER’S RDA
Each of the vitamins outlined above come with specific recommended intakes for normal healthy populations (or the so-called RDA, or Recommended Daily Allowance). Bodybuilders, however, have their own unique RDA.
While a standard multi-vitamin is formed in line recommended daily allowances for each vitamin, bodybuilders, due to the intensive nature of weight training, sweat losses, oxidative damage and countless other processes that deplete the body of valuable nutrients, require high-level doses of each vitamin while keeping vitamin intake within a safe range. Thus, rather than guessing the amount they are getting from the foods they eat, a high-performing multi becomes a mandatory part of a serious bodybuilder’s training arsenal.
So the next time you hit the gym, you might want to ask yourself: “Am I doing all I can to maximize recovery and growth?” If your micros are low, then you can be assured that the answer will be a resounding “no!”
About the author
David Robson is a prolific health and fitness author with a particular interest in how training, nutrition and mindset can assist bodybuilding progress, David Robson, a personal trainer and health educator, also walks the walk as a seasoned bodybuilding competitor. David, a Tae Kwon Do black belt, and second place-finisher at the 1997 World Natural Bodybuilding Championships, has competed internationally in both Tae Kwon Do and bodybuilding.
In addition, David, who holds separate degrees in psychology, journalism, teaching, and sports performance, is Founder and Director of Advanced Personal Training New Zealand (ATPNZ), a company set up to educate people on how to become fitter, healthier, and better-performing in their day-to-day life, and as athletes.
Charity work forms a large part of David’s life. As Founder and President of the New Zealand Wheelchair Bodybuilding Federation (NZWBBF) and Founder and Director of Fit Futures Charitable Trust, David provides sporting and fitness training opportunities for people with physical disabilities.
David also provides online coaching for fitness and bodybuilding results.
Contacted David at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Education (partial history)
-University of Waikato: Bachelor of Sport and Leisure Studies (BSpLS). 2002
-University of Waikato: Graduate Diploma in Social Science – Psychology (GradDipSocSc). 2003
-Golden Key International Honour Society (inducted member). 2001
-Wintec: National Diploma in Journalism. 2004
-Wintec: Graduate Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (with Merit). 2011
-Network: Fitness Leader certification. 1996
- Duggal, JK; Singh, M; Attri, N; Singh, PP; Ahmed, N; Pahwa, S; Molnar, J; Singh, S et al. (2010). 6. Effect of niacin therapy on cardiovascular outcomes in patients with coronary artery disease. Journal of cardiovascular pharmacology and therapeutics 15 (2): 158–66.
- How Much is Too Much? : Appendix B: Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies in the U.S. [Online] http://www.ewg.org/research/how-much-is-too-much/appendix-b-vitamin-and-mineral-deficiencies-us – retrieved on 7.6.16
- Rodrigo, R., et al. Decrease in oxidative stress through supplementation of vitamins C and E is associated with a reduction in blood pressure in patients with essential hypertension. Clin Sci (Lond). 2008 May;114 (10):625-34.