By Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD
The word synergy refers to the interaction between two or more substances that produce a combined effect greater than the sum of each separate effect. In the fast-paced supplement world, where new products seem to be introduced weekly, most reported “synergistic effects” of supplement combinations are anecdotal because of the lack of laboratory research studying the use of stacked supplements in individuals undergoing training. Interestingly, in bodybuilding, recommendations based on years of anecdotal reports from thousands of athletes are generally accepted as good advice. After all, the best critics are those who use supplements, as no one wants to waste money on a product that produces limited results at best. Fortunately, the science community is now beginning to see the merit in understanding how classic and well-backed supplements may work even better when taken together. Whether your goal is to lose fat, build muscle, increase strength and power, or enhance focus and energy, MuscleMag’s got the best supplement combinations for you, based on the reported interactive effects.
Fat-Loss Stack: Caffeine, Green Tea Extract, Yohimbine, Synephrine
If you browse the ingredients of most fat-burning formulas you’ll likely come across this combination of well-known lipolytic (fat-burning) agents. Over the years, studies have demonstrated that these supplements, taken alone or in combination, promote fat mobilization and uptake. This blend bolsters fat burning by synergistically augmenting the release and oxidation of fat. Of note, several studies indicate you can further their effects by taking them before doing your cardio.
Specifically in this stack, yohimbine blocks prejunctional alpha-2 adrenoreceptors on sympathetic neurons, which leads to greater norepinephrine release. An abundance of norepinephrine is then available to bind to beta-receptors on adipocytes (fat cells) and signal for the mobilization of fats. This effect is augmented by the addition of synephrine, as it’s structurally similar to norepinephrine and binds to the same receptors.
Caffeine is a classic central-nervous-system (CNS) stimulant, but research suggests its positive impact on fat metabolism is due to increased fat mobilization from adipocytes into blood circulation. As a result, more fat gets used for energy. And with higher fat mobilization, enter green tea extract to work its magic. Green tea extract contains high concentrations of polyphenolic compounds known as catechins, with epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) being the most abundant. EGCG on its own has been reported to increase metabolic rate by approximately 4%. Studies illustrate that green tea extract and caffeine act synergistically by inhibiting the enzymes catechol-O-methyltransferase and phosphodiesterase, which normally break down catecholamines (like norepinephrine). As a result, catecholamines can stick around longer, at higher levels, thus augmenting fat oxidation.
There are stimulant properties inherent in these supplements, so you should always start with the lowest recommended dose and increase slowly based on tolerance and results.
- Caffeine: For the greatest fat-burning benefits take 100–200 milligrams, three times per day, between meals. On training days, 30 minutes preworkout, increase the dose to 200–400 milligrams.
- Green Tea Extract: Take 200–400 milligrams of standardized EGCG, three times per day between meals. On training days, make sure you take one dose 30 minutes before working out.
- Yohimbine: Take 2–20 milligrams of yohimbine, three times daily, between meals. On training days, take one dose 30 minutes before working out. Editor’s note: Yohimbine is currently not an approved substance in Canada.
- Synephrine: Use standardized citrus aurantium extract for a dose of 5–20 milligrams of synephrine. Take this amount three times per day, between meals. On training days, take one dose 30 minutes before working out.
Muscle-Building Stack: Whey Protein Isolate, Creatine Monohydrate, Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
This muscle-building stack may seem pretty simple, and that’s exactly why we chose it. There’s an abundance of research supporting each ingredient’s independent mass-building potential, and recent science backs the three together as a highly potential synergistic combination.
Whey protein isolate is one supplement every bodybuilder needs to maximize muscular growth. Whey protein provides a full spectrum of essential amino acids, especially branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which significantly boost anabolism when combined with resistance training.
Creatine is another muscle builder that’s stood up to years of rigorous research. In fact, it’s likely the most studied and supported muscle supplement available today. Ingestion of creatine promotes skeletal muscle hypertrophy and increases protein synthesis, because of its ability to create an osmotic gradient whereby water is shunted into muscle cells (a signal for anabolism). In addition, creatine elevates phosphocreatine in muscle that’s used to make more ATP. The end result for bodybuilders is the ability to complete longer and more intense training sessions. Recent studies clearly show creatine ingestion combined with resistance training elevates insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and inhibits myostatin, providing other potent mass-building stimuli. Furthermore, research demonstrates a significant muscle-building interaction when creatine and whey protein isolate are used in combination when the body is subjected to resistance training.
CLA is a polyunsaturated fat derived from linoleic acid. It’s been publicized for years as a fat-reducing supplement, but recent research shows taking CLA when undergoing strength training significantly increases muscle mass and strength levels over strength training without CLA supplementation.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, researchers studied the effects of stacking whey protein isolate, creatine monohydrate and CLA during a five-week period when subjects underwent resistance training. Those who received the stack during the training period had two times the lean mass gain compared to those who received creatine plus placebo CLA or whey protein plus placebo CLA during the same training period. Those who received the stack also experienced greater increases in bench-press and leg-press strength.
Based on the study data and other research, we recommend the following dosing for bodybuilders: Take 30–40 grams whey protein, 3–5 grams CLA and 3–5 grams creatine 30 minutes before working out (on rest days, take this dose upon waking). Take 30–40 grams whey protein, 3–5 grams CLA and 3–5 grams creatine immediately post-workout (on rest days, take this dose in mid-afternoon). Take 50 grams whey protein, 3–5 grams CLA and 3–5 grams creatine before bed.
Strength & Endurance Stack: Creatine Monohydrate, Beta-Alanine, Arginine Alpha-Ketoglutarate (AAKG)
The majority of supplement companies sell preworkout formulas aimed at increasing strength/power/endurance on a workout-by-workout basis. Achieving this goal is beneficial, as the more weight you can push in an exercise bout determines the degree of muscle overload and the subsequent anabolic response. Several supplements have been scientifically proven to support increased strength and power; in fact, the data is quite convincing in its suggestion that taking them together provides an additional boost to your workouts.
Beta-alanine works by increasing carnosine levels in skeletal muscle. Having high muscle carnosine levels aids in muscle function and performance because carnosine works as a potent buffer of skeletal muscle pH (acidity) during high-intensity/fatiguing exercise. Since high acidity in muscle can hamper strength and power, increased muscle carnosine levels are extremely beneficial to bodybuilders. Research shows beta-alanine ingestion increases strength and training volume during high-intensity anaerobic workouts.
As we’ve stated, creatine is one of the most scientifically supported supplements. Studies investigating the interaction between creatine and beta-alanine during exercise indicate this combination enhances muscular endurance and improves strength during anaerobic performances. Unfortunately, because of the specific designs of these research studies, it’s difficult to assess the degree of synergy. The data does show, however, that this combination has measurable benefits when taken before training.
AAKG is a supplement that contains a blend of L-arginine (A) and alpha-ketoglutarate (AKG). L-arginine is a conditionally essential amino acid used by every cell in the body. As well as its involvement in a plethora of other processes, L-arginine is essential to the production of nitric oxide (NO), which leads to vasodilation (expanding of blood vessels) and increases in muscle blood flow. Interestingly though, there are recent conflicting reports on the efficacy of L-arginine to increase NO levels and/or blood flow during exercise. Regardless, functional data substantively support L-arginine as an enhancer of workout strength and power. A study published in Nutrition reported that AAKG taken during eight weeks of resistance training significantly boosted blood arginine levels and resulted in substantial improvements in bench-press strength and anaerobic power. Another study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism noted taking creatine stacked with AAKG resulted in increased bench-press exercise endurance and greater power output during repeated anaerobic exercise (Wingate) tests.
Make a cocktail of 3–5 grams creatine, 5 grams beta-alanine and 5 grams AAKG in a sugar-based drink (e.g., Gatorade). On training days, drink one dose 30 minutes preworkout and one immediately post-workout. On rest days, drink one dose in the morning and one dose before bed.
Energy / Mental Focus Stack: Caffeine, Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), Taurine
This simple stack is the backbone of most energy drinks on the market. The blend of these supplements increases energy levels, mental focus and alertness through three distinct mechanisms. Caffeine is a CNS stimulant and produces its energizing effects by essentially “waking up” the brain.
During exercise BCAAs are metabolized and plasma levels decrease in the body. As exercise progresses, plasma free-fatty acids become elevated, which in turn promotes an increase in free tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid scientifically proven to induce sleepiness, because of its impact on serotonin production. Scientists hypothesize that ingestion of BCAAs balances the increased levels of tryptophan and decreases its transport across the blood-brain barrier, subsequently decreasing serotonin synthesis, which leads to delayed fatigue. This theory is supported by a study in which BCAA supplementation was given during 60 minutes of exhaustive exercise. Subjects exhibited a 7% lower rating of perceived exertion and a 15% lower rating of mental fatigue at a given work rate, compared to a placebo.
Taurine is the second-most abundant amino acid in the brain and, as such, exists in very high concentration. Taurine supplementation may modify the actions of inhibitory neurotransmitters in the CNS (e.g., GABA, gamma-Aminobutyric acid, the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate neuronal excitability and is directly responsible for the regulation of muscle tone), and thus has been studied and used as a non-stimulant supplement to increase focus. Of importance to bodybuilders, taurine-containing beverages help increase brain performance, focus and time on task.
Based on the available study data, it’s difficult to assess the synergistic effect of this stack. However, the pathways by which it operates and the evidence for its energy-inducing efficacy definitely make this combination worth trying.
Take 200–400 milligrams caffeine, 5–10 grams BCAAs and 1–3 grams taurine 30 minutes before training.
Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD, is a professor and scientist in medical biophysics at one of Canada’s top medical schools, the University of Western Ontario. He has over 12 years of university education in physiology and has attended the University of Ottawa, the University of Western Ontario and the Yale School of Medicine. He also has over 20 years of competitive and recreational bodybuilding experience and is an expert in the areas of performance nutrition and supplementation.
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